Her Birkenstocks, with straps nearly identical in color to her turquoise bracelet, scooted along the cobblestones. Every third paver or so, she would eye a raised edge or a bit of moss, both of which she knew would surely result in a terrible slip and a broken neck.
“Would it kill you to just put in a concrete slab?” Roxy grumbled.
She knew the answer. Lynn would sooner place one of those cowboy silhouettes tilting his hat before she would dig up her carefully plotted cobblestone path.
The entire garden lacked practicality, and it expanded every spring. It was way too much for a widow in her late seventies, Roxy liked to remind her. Still, Lynn had recently planted a row of delphiniums, despite their dislike for hot summers.
“Those are going to die, you know,” Roxy had warned her last month, carrying over a metal watering can.
“We will see,” Lynn had responded, tossing a scoopful of Miracle-Gro into the water. “And if you insist on scuffling when you walk because you’re afraid you’re going to fall and a break a hip, let me remind you that you walked the Tomato Art Fest 5K last year and came in first in the sixty-and-older division.”
Roxy had made it a point to skid her shoes loudly each time she walked past Lynn since she’d made that comment. This morning was no different, just in case Lynn was in the kitchen and could hear her approaching. She passed the delphiniums with their stately white blooms reaching for the sun. They shouldn’t flourish like this here. They should be wilting. Their garden club had included them on their “DO NOT PLANT” list because of their preference for cool climates.
As always, Lynn Roseworth had proved them all wrong.
Roxy reached the porch, wincing on the stairs. The pain was bad this morning. It was bad every morning. Women don’t get beaten in their mid-sixties and then decide to start taking up tennis. But the pain lessened as the day went on, and she wasn’t going to start taking those opioids that doctors seemed to give out like Reese’s cups at Halloween.
So I have some pain, big deal. And a big, ugly scar to go with it. It’s not like I’m entering Miss Tennessee this year.
“Lynn!” she called out as she entered the kitchen. “’I’ve got it! The Happy Hookers! Get it? I know Gladyce will object, but she can pull that walker of hers out of her ass. We can get bowling jackets with the name on the back and wear them in Gatlinburg. We’ll be the stars of the fall rug-hooking conference.”
Roxy went straight for the coffeepot, delighted that it was still warm. “Did you make the reservation for it yet? I prefer a cabin with a pool table. Hey, where are you hiding the sugar these days? I’m not using artificial sweeteners anymore. They say it causes dementia, and I can’t afford to lose any brain cells.”
She found the sugar stashed on the lazy Susan in the corner cabinet, mumbling that it was the least accessible place in the kitchen. Lynn had kept it in a sizeable wooden canister for decades, ready for her to dip in to at a moment’s notice should her husband come home cranky from DC. The smell of a freshly baked apple pie was always the best way to detox from the Beltway, Tom always said with a wink.
Roxy gently placed the small glass container on the counter, her hands trembling a bit. Grief was sneaky like that. Comes up like a thief, waiting for you to feel comfortable, even happy, then jabs in the knife.
Tom, she thought, closing her eyes. You stubborn, set-in-your-ways politician. I miss you.
You wouldn’t know it, given how we bickered. But I was part of the package when you married my best friend. You didn’t like that I knew more about cigars than you did, and I didn’t like your unwavering stance on the death penalty. We were supposed to argue for many, many years to come. You weren’t supposed to die at seventy-eight.
She’d been prepared for Ed’s passing. Her sweet, quiet husband, living so long with colon cancer. Of course she sobbed that morning when she woke to find him blissfully silent, after so many weeks of the hospice workers giving him painkillers that dried out his mouth and scratched his throat, forcing him to make the unmistakable sound of approaching death.
But Tom, even with his smoking habit, always seemed so solid and healthy that death wasn’t a possibility. Lung cancer, however, disagreed.
“Lynn?” Roxy’s voice was quieter when she called out again. She really was trying to be a bit less blunt these days, more compassionate. Age was supposed to soften people naturally. Roxy was waiting for that to kick in.
She walked through the kitchen and down the hall to Tom’s study, swallowing her desire to kick aside the oriental rugs that lined Lynn’s wood floors throughout the house.
You don’t get it, she thought as she carefully avoided the curled edges of the runners. If I fell or tripped, and truly hurt myself, I couldn’t bear the thought of you always alone in this big old house, wrapped up in your secretive work and worrying about your family. You are the strongest person I’ve ever known, Lynn Roseworth. But you need me up and mobile.
The door to Tom’s study was closed, signaling that Lynn was deep into whatever she was working on.
Roxy wanted to pound on the door in irritation, but instead took a deep breath and quietly knocked. “Hey Sis, I’ve been calling for you. Can I come in?”
When there was no response, Roxy tried the handle. If it was locked, she would have no choice but to make a minor scene. Lynn might have her headphones on, with Yo-Yo Ma blaring, oblivious to anything from the outside world.
When the handle turned, Roxy peeked in. “Lynn?”
The room smelled so much like Tom, a mix of tobacco and books, that another wave of sadness brushed over her. She understood why Lynn chose to spend so much of her time in here. Roxy often found herself going into the basement of her own home, carrying whatever she was reading at the time, to walk past her husband’s workbench. Beyond Ed’s woodworking tools and amongst the last of the scattered shavings of pine, she would sit in the maroon recliner she’d banished to the underworld of their house. She’d inhale deeply, open the book, and find the words blurred by tears.
Entering Tom’s study, Roxy could see the aging desktop computer was humming with no fewer than twenty open internet searches and a Word document. She fought the urge to peek at it, but remembered the time Lynn had caught her flipping through files when she was supposed to be looking for the remote to the TV in the den.
“Never, ever, are you to know what I’m doing,” Lynn had said. “You’re already at risk and have been unfairly scrutinized because of me. I can’t drag you down further. Promise me, Roxy. Promise me.”
Roxy had begun to protest and accidentally hit the side of the desk. It was like pouring gasoline on the fire of the nagging pain in her hip from where that Colorado thug had struck her and tossed her into the snow. She’d grimaced and said something about being tougher than old rawhide—with the skin to match—but she’d grudgingly vowed.
She’d felt better knowing that Lynn wasn’t alone in her work, that after some significant time and discussions shared only between them, Tom turned over his study to his wife. Even after a lifetime seeing the wrinkles on his forehead deepen from handling crisis after crisis, domestic and international, she’d never seen him look as grim as he did after Lynn allowed him to join in her research. It was no wonder he made the decision he did, as much as it shocked the country and, ultimately, fractured his family.
Roxy’s attention was caught by a small video in the corner of the screen, playing on a continuous loop that reset every few moments. Roxy looked closer, putting on her glasses, which hung from a multicolored lanyard around her neck. The video was from an entertainment news show. It had a broad, dramatic headline beneath the image of a handsome, redheaded young man: “WHERE IS WILLIAM NOW?”
Roxy sighed and turned away. She knew exactly where Lynn was.
Through the house she marched, out the porch door, and into the garden once again. She swept past the Rose Peddler, hoping Lynn’s oldest daughter, Anne, would be late in arriving this morning to open the garden shop at ten. Especially fragile these days, it always made Anne nervous to see her mother emerge from the woods.
Roxy cleared her throat, to prepare to yell. It was her only option, given that her friend was deep within the trees, separated from the outside world by the sky-high iron fence. Not long after they’d returned from Colorado all those years ago, Lynn had the fence erected to surround the entire woods. No one, not even Tom, knew the pass code to enter through the hidden gate.
As she rounded two large boxwoods that Lynn had planted strategically to block any view of the gate, Roxy sighed in relief to see a blond-haired woman standing at the fence line, her hand on one of the iron posts. More white than blond these days, Roxy thought. But aren’t we all.
“There you are,” she said. She watched as Lynn turned slowly, her hand remaining on the fence. “It’s a bit early to be tromping about in the woods.”
As she approached, she could see that Lynn was trembling. The binoculars that hung on a strap around her neck rose and fell with heavy breathing. When Lynn teetered, it became immediately clear that she wasn’t casually leaning on the fence, but rather clinging to it to keep from falling.
“Lynn!” Roxy rushed forward, grabbing her friend. “Lynn, what’s wrong?”
Even when supported by Roxy’s arm, Lynn still clung to the fence. “Roxy … you have to go away.”
“What are you talking about? Come on, let’s go to the shop and sit down.”
“Are my ears bleeding?” Lynn turned her head.
“No, not at all.”
“My head isn’t hurting. I don’t feel pain…”
“Honey, let’s go inside. I’ll call the doctor—”
“No,” Lynn shook her head. “You have to go. Right now. And don’t let Anne come to the shop. Close it. No one comes anywhere near the property.”
“I’m not going anywhere. What the hell is going on? Do you feel like you had a stroke? Does your chest hurt?”
Lynn closed her eyes. “I’m afraid it’s happening. After all this time … it’s happening.”
Roxy lifted her chin. “Well, let it come, then. I’ve had a good, yet increasingly strange, life. And if it ends standing outside the damn woods with you, so be it. But I can tell you, I feel just fine. Maybe irritated that I haven’t had enough coffee, but I’m not dying.”
“Roxy, please. It could be happening—”
“Look at me. I’m fine. No one is dying, OK. Start with explaining to me why you think … after all this time … you’ve been triggered.”
The words still felt heavy, difficult to say. Even after everything she’d learned, everything she’d seen that Colorado night that haunted her, Roxy still struggled with discussing it: a nightmare that should disappear in the morning light but proved to be just as real as the grass they stood upon, the branches above, the very air around them.
They all carried the burden. All of them who survived that frantic escape from Argentum. How do you pay the gas bill, clean your windows, go to Bunko, go on living a normal life, knowing what’s beyond the night sky?
“Just talk to me,” Roxy said softly. “Why did you go into the woods this time?”
She watched Lynn take a deep breath. “You really feel OK?” Lynn said. “No pain, nothing strange at all?”
“I think you know there’s a whole lot strange about me. But nothing unusual. I know you were watching some video about William. Don’t be mad, I just glanced at it on your computer screen when I was looking for you. I promise I wasn’t snooping.”
Lynn’s fist covered her mouth, her other hand bracing her elbow. “I don’t want the shop opening today. I have to call Anne. In fact, we need to leave right now.”
“Anne won’t be here for another three hours to open the shop. You need to take a deep breath and just explain what’s going on. I know this has something to do with that video.”
“I have to know when anything is reported about William. Turned out to be just the same rehashed theories of where he might be. But that wasn’t why I came out here. I was right to be worried.”
As Lynn turned once again to the trees, Roxy followed her gaze. The morning’s humidity swam like a river around them, seeping through the iron fence and throughout the burr oaks beyond. Not a half mile into the trees was the site that prompted Lynn to wall off the woods from the world.
“I woke up with this horrible feeling. You know how it is when you’re supposed to do something important, then you forget it, and when it comes back to you, it hits you like a Mack truck?”
“We turn eighty next year, Lynn. I am well aware of the sensation of forgetfulness.”
“This was worse than that. It was like a neighbor calling to say that smoke is coming out of your house and remembering that you left the gas burner on. Take that horrible feeling and times it by a thousand. I was in a panic. When the video proved to be nothing new, I searched for anything about him or Kate. There was nothing. That feeling, though … of something horrible remembered … wouldn’t go away.”
Lynn continued to look through the fence. Roxy had only been to the abduction site a few times, and that was when William first disappeared. She’d found nothing remarkable about it all those years ago. Just a small grove amidst the trees where, unlike most of the woods, grass actually thrived in places, thanks to gaps of sky amongst the canopy of leaves. That summer, everything the sun encouraged to grow was flattened by the feet of searchers and police. Surrounded by crime-scene tape even in the winter months, it became desolate.
The fence prevented anyone, except for Lynn and the few she allowed to enter, to reach the site. Upon learning its history, tied to the disappearances of so many, Roxy understood her friend’s fierce commitment to conceal it. Privately, she worried how often Lynn returned.
“Why did you say you were right to be worried?” Roxy prodded.
Lynn did not respond at first, careful, as always, to mask her reasons. “I didn’t even like Tom going there. I fought for so long to keep him from even stepping foot there. But Tom gave up so much … and was such an asset to my work … that it was unfair to stop him. And when I’m lost, or frustrated with my own deep failings, I can’t help but go there, to see if I’ve missed something. And I was right to go there today. We have to leave. Right now.”
Roxy allowed Lynn to drag her away. “I know you enjoy keeping me in the dark, but if there’s truly something dangerous—”
“I have to find William. I have to.”
“Lynn, we all want to know where he is. I’ve told you time and time again that he’s a grown man now, and he’s just working his way through this—”
“He’s not. He’s hiding. And I understand why. But he can’t hide anymore. I have to tell him.”
“Tell him what?” Roxy planted her feet. “Even though I am in desperate need of air-conditioning right now, I need an explanation.”
Lynn once again touched her arm. “Then come and see.”
Moving around the boxwoods and across the lawn, Lynn led her out into the sun that hit them with the ferocity of a Tennessee summer morning. Roxy winced, pulling her “I ? PBS” T-shirt loose from her chest. “Can we stand in the shade at least?”
“No. Right here.” Lynn took off her binoculars and thrust them into Roxy’s hands. “Hold them up. Follow where I point.”
“Can I go get my sunglasses?”
Roxy sighed and lifted the binoculars to her eyes. “Great. I see leaves.”
“Look up higher,” Lynn said, gently lifting the binoculars. “Follow my finger.”
“All I can see is white. I can’t see your finger through these things. Wonderful, more white. Wait. Is that a rain cloud? If I’m lucky, it will burst open and drench us and complete this marvelous morning.”
“That’s not a cloud.”
“Of course it is,” Roxy lowered the binoculars, squinting. The sky was piercingly white, awash in thin cirrus clouds. The strip of razor-thin dark could have been easily missed. “What is that? Birds?”
“No,” Lynn said, the pitch of her voice dropping. “Ladybugs.”
The dread that hit Roxy was like suddenly realizing there was a semi truck in her blind spot. While she knew little about her friend’s research, Lynn had explained to her the swarming of the beetles at the time of William’s disappearance, and how even the government kept them in canisters at the hospital in Argentum to serve as a warning of what was to come.
“Are you sure? They’re so far above trees. I didn’t think insects could fly that high.”
“Neither did I,” Lynn said, walking towards the house. “But once I saw them again in the sky this morning, I knew there was a reason I feel that awful … foreboding. It’s so much stronger this time … I feared it was finally happening.”
“You mean you’ve seen them in the sky like that before?”
“Just once.” Lynn was quickening her step. “Not long after William left. I thought at the time it was just the anxiety of realizing he was gone again, even if it was of his own choosing. I wasn’t surprised that I woke up the next day a bundle of nerves and ended up in the woods again, looking for something to help me understand what happened to us. Here, watch the stairs. They’re wet from the sprinklers.”
“At least you finally are worrying that I’m going to wipe out. But I’m fine. Go on.”
“It wasn’t even cloudy that morning,” Lynn said, holding open the screen door. “But when I entered the clearing, I immediately noticed something was casting shadows on the ground. That’s when I looked up and saw it. So many of them … far above … so thick that I didn’t understand, at first, what I was seeing. Then, I saw the ladybugs everywhere, thousands of them. I ran inside to get my phone to document it, and thankfully also grabbed Tom’s old Canon.”
Lynn ushered them through the kitchen, down the hall, and into the study. “Sit at the computer.”
“At long last.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t. I probably shouldn’t.…”
“Because you think it might shock me? I think we’re past that point.”
Lynn’s hand hovered over the mouse. “I’m sorry, Roxy. Just in case I haven’t said it lately. I’m sorry for dragging you into all this.”
Roxy placed her hand on top of Lynn’s. “If you recall, I shoved and pushed and corralled my way in. You would have left me back at the train station fifteen years ago if you’d had your way. I chose this. I’ve held back on demanding answers to what you’ve been up to because I know you worry that it could end up harming me. But I want to know. So get that mouse moving.”
Lynn sighed. She reached into her pocket, withdrawing a flash drive.
“Do you routinely walk around with those in your pockets these days?”
“I keep them in Tom’s gun safe. It was the first thing I grabbed before I headed outside. I wanted it on me just in case.…”
Just in case you died. That whatever is in you was activated and your ears bled and you died or went into a coma, like all those people in that terrible hospital. We would have found your body and ultimately that flash drive. Your last secret to reveal.
Roxy patted her hand. “Show me.”
Lynn plugged in the flash drive and typed a long security code. A series of folders emerged on the screen.
The cursor moved to one labeled “SWARM.”
Inside were dozens of photographs, and Lynn scrolled through them, clicking on one.
“These are from Tom’s camera. The lens is much better than my phone’s camera.”
Roxy put her glasses on and leaned in. A tree in the photo looked as if an infection had overtaken it; a red mass covered every inch of its trunk.
“Those are all ladybugs?”
“Yes. Look at this next picture. They swarmed up the tree. Covering every inch of it. Now, look at this.”
She closed the folder and opened another labeled, “IN THE SKY.”
Even taken with the excellent lens, the photograph just showed a mass of black dots against a blue sky.
“I don’t get it.”
Lynn pointed to the photograph. “They started to move, like a wind had blown them off the tree. They just kept drifting upward. Now, this is the picture I took when they resettled.”
She opened another photograph that showed the beetles had begun to make a formation, moving into clear curves.
“How can they do that? I know birds know how to fly in formation, but bugs? But it’s not like they’re forming an arrow pointing to the grove or anything. What is it?” Roxy asked. “And what are these other folders? Michigan, London, Argentum—”
Lynn opened another folder. It was an illustration, clearly taken from a scientific journal. She moved the graphic to sit directly beside the photo of the formation the beetles had made in the sky.
“My God,” Roxy said, covering her mouth with her hand.
“It’s what they did to us,” Lynn said. “It’s why I have to find William.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jeremy Finley