Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Follow Me Down

A Novel

Sherri Smith

Forge Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


DAY 1WEDNESDAY, EARLY MORNING

My first thought was my mother had started another fire. Or maybe she did something nasty to a fellow patient again. Last year she stabbed a woman sitting next to her in the dining room with a fork because, she said, the woman tried to steal her dessert. Both times I had to cover the costs (the woman needed four stitches, one for each tine), which I couldn’t help but suspect the care home had inflated. I always pictured the nurses clanging their after-work mai tais together, telling each other they deserved this little something extra for having to deal with that woman.

I almost didn’t answer. I’d just spent the last slow hour helping a prostitute pick out hair dye (Midnight Vixen by L’Oréal seemed a professionally sound choice) after refilling her Valtrex prescription and was taking my second break of the overnight shift. But it was the strangeness of the hour. My phone never rang at 6 A.M.

“Mia Haas?” A gruff voice.

“Yes.” I was sitting with two front cashiers, sipping weak coffee and eating powdery donuts for a cheap rush to carry me through the next two hours.

“This is Wayoata Police Chief John Pruden.”

“What did Mimi do now?” I offered up a theatrical sigh for the benefit of my co-workers who had never heard me mention Mimi before now and locked myself in the bathroom for privacy.

“I’m calling about Lucas.”

“Sorry, what?”

“Your brother, Lucas. Have you heard from him?” He sounded irritated he had to repeat himself.

“Why?” My teeth sunk into my lower lip. Visions of accidents sucked me into a panic, of bloody highway collisions and motorboats crashed into rocky lakeshores with beer bottles still rolling back and forth on deck. A school shooting. Wayoata was the kind of crappy town where angry, awkward outcasts went on shooting rampages. “What happened?”

Pruden evaded my question. “So you’re telling me you haven’t heard from him in the last seventy-two hours?”

I tried to think when I last talked to my twin brother. He called me a couple of weeks ago but didn’t leave a message, which meant it wasn’t important. Just one of those catch-up calls and a full report on Mimi. The twenty-four-hour chain pharmacy where I worked in Chicago had opened yet another location two blocks away, and I was doubling up on shifts until another pharmacist was hired.

“No, I haven’t. What is this about?”

Pruden muttered something I didn’t catch, then followed up with “We can’t find your brother.”

“What do you mean, you can’t find him?” The better question would have been to ask why they were looking for him, but of course I didn’t think to ask that yet. I was too blindsided. “He’s probably at work.” It was June. Exam time. Lucas wouldn’t be anywhere but in his classroom. If he’d suddenly decided to quit, he wouldn’t have done it during exam time. Plus, he would have told me.

“At work?” Pruden parroted. I’d insulted him; obviously it’s too early for Lucas to be at the school. “He’s not at work. You need to come in. When can you get here? Sooner the better.” Someone jiggled the handle on the bathroom door.

I pushed for more details—really, really pushed—but Pruden insisted we talk in person.

* * *

Immediately after hanging up, I tried calling Lucas twenty times in a row. Each time I expected him to pick up so we could laugh at this whole absurd situation. He’d have a funny story about some woman he’d met and half moved in with for the last week and would be stunned that the police got involved over a few unwarranted sick days.

But Lucas wasn’t picking up his phone. The ringing, the pause as the call rolled over to voice mail was all dashed hope and building dread. The heat from my phone burrowed deep into my ear, turned into an electric buzz that stayed long after I stopped trying. No answer.

Still sitting on the toilet lid, I went to my brother’s Facebook, thinking there’d be a selfie of him doing whatever and I’d know he was fine, but his account had been deleted.

I Googled the Wayoata Sun. My ears started to hum; my windpipe twisted. It looked like a novelty newspaper. Pure bogus. The kind you get from some mall parking lot carnival with the words “WANTED AKA [INSERT YOUR COOL NICKNAME HERE]” above your laser-printed face. Yearbook photos, side by side. One staff, one student. My brother and a teenage girl. The breaking news headline, LOCAL TEACHER PERSON OF INTEREST IN STUDENT’S MURDER. It was dated yesterday.

I scrolled down to the comments section, and here was a litany of abuse against my brother. Cap-locked words, among them “MURDERER” and “RAPIST” mottled the screen like bullet holes. Even our miserable old neighbor who liked to plant plastic roses in his front flower bed, their startling, colorful heads peeking through the North Dakotan snowdrifts like the earth below was oozing blood, had managed to get in on the verbal stoning: Rot in hEll sick mutherfucker!!#! It struck me as especially serious that Paul Bergman felt no need to hide behind a username.

Earlier articles depicted the disappearance and search for a sixteen-year-old girl named Joanna Wilkes. She’d been missing for three weeks before her body was discovered in Dickson Park two days ago.

* * *

It didn’t take me long to pack. I flung an armful of clothes into my suitcase, fistfuls of underwear and socks; I noticed the red makeup bag at the back of my underwear drawer. Put it in my suitcase, took it out, put it back again. I couldn’t imagine going to Wayoata without it. Zipped up the suitcase. It didn’t take me long to do anything because I couldn’t stop moving. I lived alone in a loft-style apartment in Wicker Park. I’d filled it with all the right things to coordinate with its industrial look of brick walls and exposed ductwork, but somehow it still looked uninspired.

With what I paid in rent each month, I could have afforded a mini-mansion in Wayoata. This was something Lucas had kept reminding me of in the first few months after he went back home. As if all that stood between me and Wayoata was a prime piece of real estate; as if prime real estate existed anywhere at all in Wayoata.

On the plane I ordered a whiskey and water to keep my teeth from sinking into my bottom lip. There was no one to call. Not really. No one to tell me, Oh, that thing about Lucas and a student was just a big misunderstanding, another snafu our Wayoata finest are known for. It’ll be straightened out by the time you get here—in fact don’t even waste your time coming in. We did not have an extended family. Our mother had fled Omaha after a falling-out with her parents when she was nineteen and never talked to them again. Supposedly, they died sometime when Lucas and I were children. She’d told us this very matter-of-factly: “Your grandparents are dead, so stop asking about them.” We had an aunt, but I had no idea how to get in touch with her. She had called us every second Christmas for a while, but for whatever reason, that had ended. Mimi would go around, ice clinking in her glass, saying she was estranged from her family, drawing out the word “estranged” like it was a sophisticated, glittery term.

* * *

Wayoata does not have its own airport. The earliest flight landed in Bismarck. I had to drive another three hours northeast to get there. I’d reserved a silver sedan online, but the car rental clerk handed me keys for a candy-red PT Cruiser and tried to up-sell the insurance coverage. I asked for something else, anything else. The color didn’t matter—it could be a beige or black sedan, the kind of car that didn’t draw any attention (negative or positive)—but the clerk just shrugged helplessly.

The drive was claustrophobic, with open fields so lacking in depth and dimension the view could have been a canvas backdrop. The sun lit up the greasy bug spatters on the windshield; they looked like a demented child’s finger painting. After leaving for college, I’d returned once a year for Thanksgiving and would sit in my mother’s room, plate in lap, silently picking away at the pinkish turkey the care home provided. Once Lucas moved back, nearly five years ago, I no longer felt obligated to make an annual visit, telling myself that Mimi now had Lucas to visit her anytime she wanted and that was important to me, that Mimi had someone. Equally important was that the someone wasn’t me.

I knew I was getting close when I saw the same old anti-abortion billboard: a photo of some four-year-old forever stuck in the late nineties with her neon sweater and ribboned hair with ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN scrawled across her. Thirty seconds later, I was passing Wayoata’s welcome sign. WAYOATA: HOME OF THE CORN AND APPLE FESTIVAL produced the usual knot in my throat. Just seeing it made me feel sticky and heavy. Someone had spray-painted an “S” in front of “Corn,” and the smiling cartoon corn below had been given a penis tip shooting three ejaculating dashes onto the heavily lashed apple. It said something about the town that the welcome sign was always in some state of defacement while the antiabortion sign remained unscathed.

Then came the two competing gas stations lit up like casinos. The houses got closer together. Labyrinthine residential streets followed; the backyards offered views of rusted grain elevators, and the roads looped around and back out to Main Street to avoid dead end signs; no one wanted to look out their window and see a dead end. A number of storefront businesses had shut down. Wayoata was too far northeast to have benefited from the state’s Bakken oil boom, and so, like at prom, where one side of the gym was full of ugly girls who wouldn’t put out, all the able-bodied men migrated to the other side, where the getting was good. Faded purple ribbons hung from trees and streetlamps like half-opened gifts.

* * *

I went directly to Lucas’s apartment and leaned on the buzzer for what seemed like hours. Buzzed the caretaker—no answer there either. The building was built in the early seventies before the farm crisis, when Wayoata was at its peak. Even the name, “The Terrace,” in curlicue font over the front entrance, was hopeful for eight stories of plain beige brick. A high-rise by Wayoata standards. A permanent SUITES AVAILABLE sign was bolted to the brick beside the glass doors. I walked over to the parking lot and looked for Lucas’s truck, but the parking spot was empty.

* * *

I got back into the car and made the heavyhearted drive to the police station. There was only one. I pictured my brother there, clad in an orange jumpsuit, pleading his innocence through prison bars while a self-satisfied Pruden, his legs up on his desk, wiped squirts of jelly donut off his chin. We’d figure it out. Hire a lawyer. Make bail. Sue the Wayoata police for unlawful imprisonment. On the way out, Lucas would say, Well, that was a bit of a Sticky Ricky.

Sticky Ricky. Hadn’t thought about that for years. Mimi had a boyfriend for a while she called Ricky instead of Rick, like he was some sort of ostentatious pool boy because he was three years younger than her. I was fourteen, doing the dishes when Ricky started to grind up against me. Lucas saw, and without saying a word, he grabbed his hockey stick and whacked Ricky in the small of his back, hard. That’s the kind of brother Lucas was. Ricky ditched Mimi, told her he didn’t need the bullshit kids she came with. Along the way, this incident got abbreviated to Sticky Ricky and became a long-running inside joke that we applied to assholes and awkward life situations for the remainder of our teen years. What a giant fucking Sticky Ricky.

I didn’t know why I was thinking about this, other than somehow trying to deflate what I read in the newspaper, deflate the fact that I was even here in Wayoata and that my brother wasn’t answering the door.

* * *

The station had undergone a serious renovation since I’d last been there. Gone was the mix of wood paneling and forest-green walls that had given it the feel of some backwoods hunting lodge. Now it was open concept and off-white. The front desk had the arc of a hotel check-in desk, two flat screens shared warnings on speeding, texting while driving, and the perils of the zebra mussel.

The receptionist jumped up when I asked for information on Lucas Haas. She gave me a stunned look, her lips curled up, buckteeth on full display before leading me to a door with a plastic plaque that read INTERVIEW ROOM #1 (though there was no second interview room down this, the only hallway). “Chief Pruden will be right with you,” she said with a librarian’s whisper.

I sat down in a molded plastic chair. A second passed, and Pruden opened the door. He was followed by a younger officer with a brown crew cut, clean-shaven. Blue eyes and cleft chin. Milk-fed. Wholesome. He looked like a trainee. If he was about to introduce himself, he didn’t get to, because Pruden sat down and just started talking.

“Miss Haas. Or is it Mrs. something now?” Pruden asked. It was considered bad etiquette in Wayoata to get a woman’s marital status wrong. I’d known Pruden most of my life. He’d “escort” Mimi home from time to time, for whatever reason, usually because some Good Samaritan had called to report that a drunk woman was about to drive or was already driving. Sometimes he’d attempt some kind of cringeworthy humor at the door to ease the situation—“Your mom’s a bit of a troublemaker, kids”—but we knew better. Mimi had to have something on offer for Pruden to let her DUIs slide by.

Mostly he’d stand there a minute, red-cheeked, as Mimi blathered away, before giving us an embarrassed nod good-bye. I wondered how many times this man’s cock has been in my mother’s mouth.

* * *

“It’s Miss,” I answered. My voice sounded funny. Tinny and fake. Pruden awkwardly extended a damp hand. He smelled faintly of the outdoors and mosquito repellent. He was well past sixty with fluffy silver hair and a meaty nose. His light blue button-down was wrinkled, and a paternal paunch gathered over his leather belt. You could easily picture him spending his Sundays parked in a recliner, muttering angrily at the television while his mousy wife flitted about, handing him beers and pleading with him to take his heart medication. He probably should have retired a year or two ago.

“Thanks for coming in.” Pruden said this, all casual, like he hadn’t been hanging the specifics of my missing brother over my head, like the Internet had yet to be invented. “I really wish we were meeting under different circumstances. Can I get you some water? Coffee?”

Pruden’s hospitability was making me edgy. “No thanks. I just want to know what’s going on. Why is my brother being associated with this…” I couldn’t bring myself to say murder. “Of being involved with this girl?”

“Joanna Wilkes. Her name is Joanna Wilkes.” Pruden’s voice tipped toward moral outrage, as if I was trying to dehumanize the murder victim by not saying her name (which I was, but only because my brother had been declared a person of interest).

“Joanna Wilkes,” I repeated, looking him in the eye. “Have you found my brother?”

“So you know about Joanna Wilkes, then? What did your brother tell you about her?” Pruden answered, sounding nice and encouraging, like he was trying to coax out a victim impact statement.

“Lucas didn’t tell me anything. I read about it online. Why is this happening? Why would the Wayoata Sun call my brother a person of interest?”

Pruden let out a heavy sigh, like he’d been holding his breath. “OK, let’s just take a step back for a second. First things first. Can you tell us about the call you received from your brother at 10:17 A.M. this past Friday?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. “What call?”

“The call lasted thirty-two seconds. On Friday,” the trainee added.

“Oh, that.” I remembered now. Lucas had called me Friday morning, but it was just a pocket dial. A bunch of rustling, some breathing. Not good that they already had my brother’s phone records. “We didn’t actually talk. He just called me by accident.”

“Huh.” Pruden looked at the trainee, then back at me, skeptical. “Why didn’t you just hang up, then?”

“I did.”

“After thirty-two seconds. A lot can be said in that time.” The room was getting small. Hostile. So this explained Pruden’s reticence on the phone. He’d wanted to ambush me when I got here. Catch me off guard so I’d panic and spill whatever supposed escape plan Lucas had revealed to me in thirty-two seconds.

“Look, I’m here because I want to know where my brother is. I want to know what’s going on. You’re telling me my brother’s missing, but you’re interrogating me over a pocket dial?”

For the first time, it occurred to me that if there was some crazed killer on the loose, something bad could have happened to Lucas too. Maybe he’d come across his student in the middle of being murdered, tried to intervene … left something behind that made him the person of interest, and really he was … I couldn’t even think it. That didn’t make sense anyway, because this girl had been murdered three weeks ago and Lucas had just called me on Friday. Still, I was scared. I’d been scared since I left Chicago.

“You don’t know where my brother is, do you? Where is my brother? How do I know if he’s OK? I need to see him.” I felt an urge to grab on to Pruden like I was suddenly drowning. Pruden’s lips went thin.

“Like I said, we don’t know where your brother is. We don’t believe Lucas is in Wayoata. On Friday, we asked him to come in for an interview on Monday. He didn’t show. It looks like he left in a hurry. His phone, clothes, and wallet were at his apartment, but his ATM card is missing.” I strained to catch up to what he was telling me, to find a good reason why Lucas would skip out on a police interview and leave with only a bank card. Pruden leaned in even closer to ensure eye contact. “On Friday he called you.”

My chin dropped toward my chest, my shoulders went so tight it hurt to cross my arms. I was bundling myself in, taking on some form of a seated fetal position, my frantic anger shifting to defense mode. I shook my head. It was almost involuntary, how much I was shaking my head no, like a Parkinson’s tremor. I looked like I was a step away from plugging my ears and going Lalala, I can’t hear you. “Well, maybe with all of these insane accusations swarming around him, he needed a break.” I tried countering, feeling flush with desperation. My tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. “Maybe he just went for a drive to clear his head before facing all of this bullshit head-on.”

Yes. Perfectly reasonable. Just drive away until everyone in this town returned to their senses. But was it reasonable to take a road trip when everyone thought you were guilty? Even Lucas, who didn’t always think things through, had to have considered it would look like he was fleeing.

“He needed a break? That’s it? Huh. Guess I’d need a break too in his circumstance.” Pruden gave a false chuckle, his lips sputtering on air.

“I didn’t mean it to sound like that—”

Pruden cut me off. “Anyway, no, he didn’t go for a drive. His truck was vandalized in the school parking lot a few days ago, someone even set the engine on fire. It’s now sitting in a junkyard. So no, he didn’t take his truck on any vacation.”

“Who would’ve done that?” I asked this with an almost comical measure of outrage, all things considered. Like a vandalized truck was the most barbaric thing I’d heard so far, but the thought that everyone had turned against my brother was taking hold, and my sisterly protectiveness had kicked in. Everyone in Wayoata loved Lucas. It was just the way it was. Even his students called him Haas, no Mr. required.

Pruden gave me a weak smile, leaned his chin on his cocked fist. “To narrow the search, I’d likely have to start with who wouldn’t have done it. But right now, we’re focused on actual urgent matters. Now, Miss Haas, I’m going to be asking the questions for a little while, OK? Then you can ask yours.” He paused to make sure I was following. “Aside from this pocket dial”—the way he said it, he might as well have used finger quotations around “pocket dial”—“has Lucas been in touch with you? E-mail, text from another number, a call, in the last seventy-two hours?”

“No.”

“So, when was the last time you were in contact with him?” He dropped his hand from his chin, a let’s-get-down-to-business gesture.

“He called a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t leave a message. I tried calling him back, but it was during the day and he was probably teaching, so I didn’t get ahold of him.” Maybe he hadn’t been teaching. Maybe he’d looked at my name flash on his screen and pressed Ignore. “I’ve been on the night shift at my pharmacy. We’ve been working opposite hours, so it’s been difficult to get in touch. To actually talk.”

“Yep, I get it,” the trainee piped up. “People are so busy nowadays, it’s hard to stay connected.” He was nodding with so much false enthusiasm that I got the feeling he was playing good cop to Pruden’s bluster. “So you really haven’t talked much lately?”

“No. We’ve just missed each other over the last little while.”

“All right. Moving on,” Pruden grumbled. “Could you write out a list of people that Lucas might’ve contacted if he were trying to lay low?” He pushed a pen and pad of paper toward me.

I ignored it.

“I mean, is there anyone you’re aware of that your brother might go to if he was in trouble? A family member?” Pruden pushed the pad of paper closer. “A good friend? Someone who would help him out.”

“No, there isn’t.” Did he really think I was going to start listing names while he cruelly played coy? Was this some kind of test—if I didn’t list names, I was helping Lucas get away?

“Can you just tell me why exactly my brother is a person of interest in this? Please? I’m worried sick right now, and I want to know where he is. What have you been doing to find him?”

Pruden bristled. This was not a man who liked to be questioned. “This police department has been doing everything it can, Miss Haas. We have alerts out at every bus station, airport, and border crossing. We’re knocking on doors and talking to everyone in this town. We want to know where your brother is too. He’s in a lot of trouble, and I think you know that. By helping us, you’re helping him.”

“Listen, whatever you think he’s done, it isn’t true. This is a mistake.”

“Did Lucas ever mention Joanna Wilkes to you?”

“You’ve asked me that already. No. I’d never heard of her before today.” Pruden rested back into his chair.

“Huh, I find that interesting. Since you’ve been reading the papers, then I guess you know that Joanna was a student of Mr. Haas’s. She was only sixteen.” He kept looking at me, expecting a reaction. I had none. “She’d been missing since the end of May. Her body was found Monday morning in Dickson Park. She was murdered. Bludgeoned with a rock and strangled with her own fashion scarf.” Pruden said “fashion scarf” delicately, like it was something normally bought in the feminine hygiene aisle. “You should know, as a prior Wayoatan, that we don’t get a lot of murders around here. You’d think Lucas would have brought it up with you. That one of his students had gone missing.”

“And you think my brother was involved with her murder. But why? What evidence do you even have? He would never hurt one of his students.” Lucas always spoke about his students with animated interest. He really did care that they did well.

“Was Lucas seeing anyone lately? Did he have a girlfriend that he talked about?”

I had to fight the rage jetting up inside of me. I didn’t want to answer any more questions. I wanted to leave, I wanted them searching for my brother so he could straighten this all out. “I get why you’re asking me that, but seriously?” I let out an angry laugh that bounced hard off the wall and died fast. My teeth re-clenched. “If my brother is missing, it isn’t because he ran away. It isn’t because he was involved with this student. The only reason why my brother would be gone, is because someone wants him gone. He could be hurt. You need to be out looking for him, not wasting your time with me, asking me about his dating life like there’s a clue there.”

Pruden sniffed, played up his restored calmness. “Please just answer the question. It’s in your brother’s best interest.”

“You’re not listening to me. Maybe Lucas knows something, maybe he knows who did this” My voice was tipping too far toward hopefulness for my own good. I sounded like I was trying to convince them of the existence of unicorns.

“And you’re not listening to me. Answer the question,” Pruden snapped back.

I raised my hands, a you-gotta-be-kidding-me gesture. “Fine. Fine. No. Not lately. He wasn’t seeing anyone serious, as far as I know.” He was never seeing anyone serious. Lucas and I were inherently disabled when it came to forming long-term relationships.

“Did he confide in you at all about his work? Does he like being a teacher?”

“He does.” He coached hockey and played things like Pictionary in the English classes he taught. What was not to like?

“What else can you tell me about your brother’s lifestyle?”

“Lifestyle” was a bad word in Wayoata. It stood for all kinds of deviancy. Lifestyle was short skirts and promiscuity that made the rape victim partly culpable. What did they think I was going to tell them? That Lucas liked to choke his sexual partners with fashion scarves? This wasn’t happening. I was in the middle of a sweaty, hypervivid nightmare. My stomach lurched. Another nervous guffaw rolled up my throat.

“You can’t be serious?” I swallowed audibly.

“You have a real strange sense of humor. I doubt many people would find a dead teenage girl funny.” His eyes narrowed. The air went out of the room. “You keep asking me if this serious? Your brother is a person of interest. You know what that means? We’ll probably have an arrest warrant ready for him within the week, and when we find him—and we will find him—he’ll pay for what he’s done. This, missy, is very serious business.”

“What proof do you have?” My face was getting hot, my mouth tasted like acid. I promised myself that whatever Pruden said next, I wouldn’t believe him. I would refuse to think for one second that this wasn’t just some big misunderstanding; my twin would show up an hour from now and explain it all away.

“Unfortunately I can’t discuss an open investigation with you in any detail.” I let out an exasperated burst of air that Pruden continued to talk over. “What I can tell you is that there is evidence that Lucas was romantically involved with Joanna. We needed to talk to him, he knew that we needed to talk to him, and now, when we find Joanna’s body, he’s suddenly gone.”

“Lucas wasn’t involved with his student. He wouldn’t. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Lucas would never kill anyone.” Lucas hated the sight of blood. He’d come out of the bathroom, chalk-faced and in full swoon, if he saw a bloated tampon that didn’t flush. Even on the ice, if a fight produced the slightest spritz of blood, my brother skated in the other direction. People called him a finesse player, but really I knew, it was his aversion to blood that made him avoid the mindless, glove-dropping fights. He’d be too squeamish to bludgeon.

“You would know if your brother murdered someone? That’s what you’re saying? You think Lucas would just call you up and tell you? Is that what he did in that thirty-two second call? Cause if that’s what you’re saying—”

“No, I’m not saying anything like that.”

“Well, then. Me, I think it’s far more revealing that he didn’t say anything to you at all. Joanna Wilkes was missing for over three weeks. One of his students. He was put on an administrative leave last week, and he didn’t tell you about that either, did he? He didn’t call you up and say, ‘I’ve been put on a leave because I’m suspected of having sexual relations with one of my students’? No, he didn’t.”

I couldn’t take a breath. Pruden had a point. My tongue was stuck to the edge of my teeth; my heart flapped in my chest. The clock on the wall was ticking fast and loud, urgent as a time bomb. I made my face go rigid. Poker-faced. I couldn’t let Pruden see me rattled. “This is fucking ridiculous. Maybe I should get a lawyer.” I said this with much more gumption than I felt.

Pruden grunted. “You can do whatever you want, Miss Haas, but right there, you wanting a lawyer makes me think you might have some reservations about your brother’s innocence.”

“You’re wrong. You have the wrong person.” I knew how these things worked. The police got an idea of how something happened; they set their sights on something and stopped looking anywhere else. At anyone else. I knew this firsthand, and while this had worked out for me once, it was like some karmic debt had come due, only Lucas was the one paying it out instead of me.

Pruden folded his arms and looked at me like he was a human lie detector test. He let out a sniffle of a laugh and cocked his head in a taunting way. “It’s pretty telling that he’s not here.”

“He didn’t do this.” There was no way. The earth was round, and the sky was blue, and my twin wasn’t a murderer. These were fundamental truths.

“It’s also telling, in my opinion, that your brother did not partake in any of Joanna’s search parties when all the other able-bodied teachers at Westfield did. What do you make of that? I think maybe it was because he already knew she was dead.”

I didn’t answer. Just kept shaking my head no. Blood rushed to my ears.

Pruden sighed, handed me a folded piece of paper and his card. “It is imperative you call us immediately if Lucas contacts you. This is a criminal investigation.” He stood and left. The pneumatic door made a gentle whoosh behind him.

I unfolded the paper. It was the missing poster for Joanna Wilkes. Same yearbook photo that was in the newspaper. Homecoming-queen pretty, she stared out from her mane of ginger-red spiral curls that cascaded over each shoulder, two dimples, her mouth fixed into a wide, bright smile.

“Would you like some water?” the younger officer asked. I’d practically forgotten he was there. I really couldn’t stop shaking my head. I needed something to calm down. He took this as a no to his offer and made a quiet exit. Whoosh.

I turned the missing poster over on the table. I felt like I was in a trance.

Several minutes passed before I could stand up.

* * *

Outside the station it was hot and windy. Parking lot dust gathered in angry little funnels. I’d forgotten how windy it was there. Focused on my jelly legs, I put one foot in front of the other. I just needed to make it to the car. Getting inside the car, feeling hermetically sealed off from the station, would let me think.

“Mia?” The younger officer had followed me into the parking lot. I ignored him. Unless he was about to tell me that he’d just tracked Lucas down and everything had been cleared up, then I had nothing more to say. Leave me alone, leave me alone. I just wanted to get inside the shitty car and think. Process. I wanted to go back to Lucas’s apartment and find him strolling down the front steps on his way to the police station.

I tried to unlock the car using the keyless remote but accidentally set off the alarm. Of course. The trainee was suddenly next to me. The car bleated. “A rental,” I explained. I pushed Lock, Unlock, the red button, repeated the sequence. Hands shaking, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t even turn off the alarm. I cursed, hot tears leaked from my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I fumbled the keys, picked them up. Tried again to turn off the earsplitting alarm.

“Here, let me.” The officer took the keys from my hands, a careful extraction, pressed something, and the car went silent.

I gained some composure and muttered, “Thanks.”

He opened the driver’s door, leaned in, and handed me a tissue from the complimentary box of Kleenex that came with the car. “You don’t remember me, do you? It’s Garrett. Garrett Burke.” The moment he said his name, I immediately recognized him.

“Skinny G?” I knew Skinny G very well; he’d been in the grade below me. We were both the only lasting members of computer club in middle school, where we spent lunch hours mastering The Oregon Trail and splitting bags of Doritos, hard-core breaking the no-food-or-drink policy. We shared one Cool Ranch–infused kiss in the stairwell before I moved up to high school. I hadn’t thought about him in years.

“No one calls me that anymore.” He squinted into the sun. He still had the same mouth, lips that looked like they were always leaning toward a smile.

“What are you doing here?” It was a stupid question. I didn’t know why I was so surprised that the other officer had to be a middle school crush. The past was crammed down your throat everywhere you turned here; you could never escape it.

“I work here.” With a gentle lift of an eyebrow, he nodded in the direction of the station. “Look, I’m sorry about Pruden in there. He was coming at you pretty hard. It was insensitive.”

I made a pfffsh sound. “Like you were doing anything to stop him.”

“Well, he is the police chief.” He gave me a palms-up shrug. “He’s a little old school, I know, but, Mia, I’m working this case too, so if you need anything, have any questions, or just want someone to talk to other than Pruden, you can give me a shout. Anytime. I mean that.” He wrote down his number on the box of Kleenex.

“I do have a question.”

Garrett nodded, his posture hunched, and I flashed to when we were equal heights.

“Can I go there? Is Lucas’s apartment free to go into?” I had to go back there, get inside and see it. See that he was there. See that he wasn’t there. I kept picturing yellow police tape and some part-time cop sky-high on self-importance gleefully pushing me out.

“We finished up there last night. So yes, you can go there.”

I nodded, took back my Kleenex box, and drove off.


Copyright © 2017 by Sherri Smith