Amelia Clark rubbed her eyes sluggishly and yawned. The little digital clock on her nightstand read 7:03 am. Why hadn’t Amanda awoken yet? She was almost always up by now. The thought spurred her to rise from her warm bed and tiptoe silently into the nursery to check on her toddler.
Another punch to his cheek and he laughed. Mike just didn’t get it, he wasn’t going to tell him anything. “Tell me Burke!” Mike screamed again. They had been going at it all night long. Of course if only Mike knew the truth. Burke wouldn’t tell though, that would most definitely be suicide. “Tell me what you said to her!”
“Why, so you could kill me?” Burke laughed as he struggled again with ropes around his body and hands.
“I’m already going to kill you, asshole. You and your sister,” he threatened. Burke turned ghostly white, no way would he let Mike near his sister. “Now that got your attention, didn’t it?”
“You’ll never get away with this, Mike. Never.” Burke tried to threaten him, but his shaky voice gave him away. He was terrified.
Mike laughed at him, “You really think that I can’t make it look like you killed yourself, or that when I get to her, she’ll look as if she tried killing herself as well – she’ll be in so much grief over your suicide that she’ll want to kill herself. Now, tell me what did you tell her?”
“That secret dies with me.” Burke spat at his face. “Kill me, but I’ll never tell you what she knows.”
Mike aimed his gun at Burke’s temple and fired.
* * * *
Clara woke up with a start. She had no clue as to what she just witnessed. It was the boy, the boy from the drawing. The images kept getting darker as the days went on. She didn’t understand why this was happening to her. Normally the “fairies,” as her dad called them, would give her nice messages, but never this.
A hand on her back soothed her. “Clara are you okay?” She heard her brother. “Was it. . . was it another nightmare?”
Clara turned and flung herself into her brother’s arms. “They’re getting worse, Lijah.”
Her brother held onto her tight. Why was she having these nightmares.They all started the night she drew that picture. She didn’t remember even grabbing the piece of paper or pencil. She just felt it; like she was looking at the television and watching someone else controlling her body. It scared her so much, but she just allowed it. She didn’t want to scare the nice looking boy. He said he needed to get a message to his sister, and she said okay.
Now she wasn’t so sure about the boy. He was becoming scary at night. She just wanted the boy to go away.
“Clara, lets sleep now. I’ll sing to you, okay?”
Clara didn’t want to sleep, that’s where the boy would be. Lijah started to hum a song that Clara remembered her dad singing. Her brother’s arms were wrapped around her as he hummed. She couldn’t fight the “sand man” any longer. She found herself back into Dreamland, back into the other world.
Clara new she was different since she could remember. She always helped those in that came into Dreamland. Mostly they just wanted someone to talk to, then they would leave her alone. This time though, this one boy wanted more. She never had come across someone this strong. He’d already used her to draw. He said he was an artist, but she didn’t expect to be woken up. The boy was angry that she was woken that he didn’t speak for days. Now he was getting nervous, anxious, mad at her and the real world.
The boy stood there waiting for her again, “I’m sorry.” He mumbled.
“Why are you here?” She asked, “Why are you showing me those things?”
“I need my sister to know.”
“Laney? Is she your sister?”
The boy nodded, “She was. She’s in danger Clara. Do you know what danger is?”
Clara nodded. She knew about danger. Her brother and her daddy always talked about things being dangerous. Her daddy even said she was dangerous to Lijah once, though her daddy didn’t know she was listening. Daddy told Lijah that he had to protect her from not only the dangers of the world, but to protect her from herself.
“Are you Burke?” Clara asked. “Cause Laney asked how I knew Burke?”
“Why is she in danger? Is it because of me? I swear Burke, I won’t hurt her. I like Laney. She’s nice to me, and so is Marty.”
Burke smiled at her, “You’re no danger to her sweetie. Why would you think that?”
“Daddy once said I was dangerous.”
“Well, you’re not. You have an incredible gift Clara, and I know you know that. Laney is in a lot of danger by her step-father. Have you ever watched any of those cartoons with princesses in them, like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White?”
Clara smiled wide. She loved those movies.
“Well, you know the Evil Stepmother or Witch in those movies?” Clara nodded again. “Well, our step-dad is just as EVIL. He wants to make Laney disappear from your world and bring her into this one. I don’t want that. Can you help her?”
Clara just nodded. No way would she let Lane come to Dreamland. She didn’t want to lose Lane. “I’m not strong though. How can I help her if I’m just a little girl?”
“Find your mom, together you can fight the Evil Step-Father, just like those princesses do in all those movies. Promise me, you’ll find her.”
“Lijah’s been looking, I just don’t know if he’ll ever find her.”
“She’ll find you, I promise. She may not know it yet, but she knows you’re here. Just be ready.”
With that Burke disappeared and she woke up.
* * * *
Hannah sat up again. Her heart pounded in her chest for the second time that night. Clara was close, she could feel it more as the time went on. Hannah climbed out of bed and headed back to the sink to wash off the sweat from her head. She wanted her kids, safe, with her – or at least part of her did. The other part, the scary part, wanted them as far away as possible. She knew her daughter was in danger, ever since that night. She didn’t know what – or whom – was with Clara, but it was too strong of an entity that it rocked her soul. This spelled danger, and she didn’t like it.
She walked back to her room and rummaged in the dresser for some clothes. Throwing on whatever she could find, she hurried out of her apartment. The search was on – again. It’d been weeks, and still nothing. No sign of two children walking the streets. No sign of a teenager the detective told her about. No signs anywhere.
Now she searched again. She stopped at the school like everyday and watched as the kids hurried out of the bus, hoping that maybe her kids were smart enough to go to school. Would Elijah be smart enough to realize he and his sister needed to stay in school? Would he care? After all he is an eight year old boy. Hannah laughed, yeah because eight year olds love school. She turned and walked away after the bus left. Where were her kids?
She headed to downtown and walked around. She kicked a can on the street for a good block. She felt defeated. She wanted her kids, she needed her kids. She missed them everyday for the last five or so years, and wanted to take every day back just to be with them.
As she walked the blocks all day she came up to a group of boys sitting on a park bench. They looked menacing, and Hannah felt a bit fearful of them, but it wasn’t as strong of a feeling as she got from Detective Clark. She decided to take her chances with the boys, “‘Scuse me, have any of you seen two small children wondering around, boy and a girl, blonde hair?”
They all looked at each other and shook their heads, except for one. “He around eight?”
Hannah nodded and smiled. Oh God, please be the boy that the detective talked about. “You’ve seen him?”
The boy looked as if he was thinking on the answer, “Can’t tell you if I have. I’ve seen a blonde boy running around, just not sure if it’s the one. Never saw a girl though.”
Her stomach turned. Hannah wanted to hope that it was Elijah, but then she didn’t want to know. She feared that he had to leave his sister behind. She didn’t want that for Clara, she could only imagine how terrified a five year old would be in the busy streets of Bridgeport alone.
The boy jumped off the table and waved to his friends before walking up to her, “Name’s Matt. And maybe we could talk somewhere else. What’s the boy’s name?”
Hannah walked with Matt as they left the boys on the picnic. She felt more peace the farther they got from the boys. She felt serene around Matt, like he was trustworthy. “Elijah, and her sister is Clara.”
Matt nodded, “I know who they are. But I have to be honest with you, I’m not sure if I can get you to them. Consider me overprotective, but I’m not leading a stranger to my friends.”
“And I don’t blame you. I’m Hannah, their mother.” She held out her hand and hoped he’d take it. She smiled when he did. “So they’re safe?” Matt nodded. “And they’re with a girl, I assume?”
“How do you know?” He looked as if the wind was kicked out of him.
“Matt we have to get to them. She’s in more danger than my kids. I know things, I can’t explain it, but I can feel danger and know when and where it’s lurking around. I can feel it more and more, ever since I found out about my husband. We need to find her.”
Matt eyes widen with horror. “Lane’s in trouble?” he asked. Hannah could tell there was more to Matt then met the eye; he cared not just for her son, but for this girl – Lane.
* * * *
“Burke, why does the bad guy want Lane?” Clara asked.
“He’s a monster, Clara. He’s hurt her before. He’s hurt me. That vision I showed you, that I didn’t mean to show . . . “ Clara nodded. Burke could tell she remembered. It was written on her face.
The last moments of his life.
How do you tell a five year old girl that he’s not a fairy but a ghost haunting her dreams? She said she meets a lot of fairies in Dreamland. Burke didn’t like that idea. He hated the thought that this five year old could not only talk to the dead, but that they haunted her constantly when she should be actually dreaming of fairies and butterflies, princesses and princes.
He was stuck here, no matter how badly he wanted to leave. This wasn’t Heaven, or at least he hoped it wasn’t. It was as if he was stuck in this world, between worlds. He remembered the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and shivered. So there was such a place that Freddy could have gone to? He hated that idea, especially if one so evil came across such a sweet girl like Clara.
"Clara, has there been any bad men that’s visited here?”
Clara shook her head. They were sitting and playing in the flowers.She reminded him of Lane. Lane. He missed her. If it hadn’t been for Mike, they would have had an incredible childhood and teenage hood. He loved walking by her the last year of school and hugging his sister. Sure his friends made fun, but he loved Lane. He also loved when she hugged back.
“Burke, why did he hurt you?” She finally looked up at him, “What did he want?”
“I don’t know kid,” he lied. He wasn’t going to tell a five year old why a monster like Mike wanted him and Lane dead. After discovering Mike on top of his sister all those years ago, he kept the man at bay. He stopped Mike every time the man was drunk and wondered down the hall towards his sister’s room, though it cost him.
Burke felt shame that he let Mike do it, but it was better him than Lane. He never told his sister. He threatened the man that once he graduated he would be leaving with Lane in tow and if Mike followed, he’d make sure Mike’s secret would get out. He even told Mike that Lane knew exactly what was going on and told him, that if he tried to stop Burke, Lane was to go to the cops. Problem was, Lane didn’t know anything and now he was dead and Mike was trying to protect his own ass.
Burke sighed, “She’s in danger because I lied, Clara.” Clara didn’t respond. “Clara? Clara?” She was looking out towards the meadow, glossy eyed. He could feel a pull, but he wasn’t sure what it was or how to stop it. He screamed for Clara as the pull intensified. Then Clara was gone and he was in darkness . . . again.
Marty had read about sleepwalkers in one of her medical books. The term was somnambulism. She knew it was an old wives’ tale that waking a sleepwalker could cause the person to go into shock and potentially kill them, but Marty nevertheless felt it was best not to wake Clara when she walked into the room, sat down at the table, and started to draw.
When the girl had first come out of the bedroom, Marty thought that she had just woken up. “Was the TV too loud?” Marty asked, lowering the volume. “Sorry. I’m not used to having people here.” Marty turned to get the child back into bed when she realized that Clara was not awake.
The girl’s eyes were lifeless. Marty knew from her studies that sleepwalkers can do some strange things in their sleep…normal everyday things that they often did like take showers, make food, or walk out to their cars.
It was eerie seeing the little girl draw in her sleep, but Marty didn’t see what harm it would do to let Clara continue until she returned to her bed naturally. These are not my children, she reminded herself. For the thousandth time in the last few days, Marty asked herself why she was doing what she was doing. What business did she have harboring runaways? Why wasn’t she calling the cops or child protective services?
You’re a doctor, she told herself. Actually, she was a medical student, but she would be a doctor someday and doctors were supposed to help people. Marty admitted to herself that this was sort of a flimsy reason—Doctors help sick people, and she knew that the kids were all healthy, or seemed so. Shaking her head at herself, out loud Marty muttered, “I’m a fool.”
Clara was still drawing when Lane came in from wherever she had been. Marty explained what had happened with the girl and told Lane not to wake her. “She’ll go to bed on her own.”
Lane reminded Marty of her sister, Jackie. That’s probably why Marty had stepped in when she’d seen her looking so hungry and eying the bar peanuts at Euji’s.
17 years previous…
“Where’re you going Jacks?” nine-year old Marty asked her sister who was packing clothes into the backpack she normally used for school. There was a sleeping bag next to her bed.
“Camping,” the teenager said.
“Duh. But where? Can I come?” Marty worshipped her older sister. Despite the difference in their ages, Marty and Jackie had been really close. But now that Jackie was in high school, things had changed.
“Nowhere you’d know. And no.”
“You never let me hang out with you and your friends!” Marty stomped her foot.
Jackie gave one of those quintessential teenager sighs. “Look, Marts. You can’t go with us. We’re going somewhere only for grownups. You’re too little.”
“Am not! And you’re not a grown up either.”
“More than you.” Jackie returned to her packing.
“Come on Jacks. I never get to do anything fun. Please can I come?”
“No Marty. You have to stay here. You have to tell mom and dad that I’m spending the night at Tracy’s. Okay? I’m with Tracy and I’ll be back on Sunday. Can you do that?” Jackie zipped her bag and turned to look Marty in the eye.
“Mom and Dad don’t know you’re going camping?” Marty was a bit confused. Jackie never lied to her parents. She didn’t like it when Marty lied to them either.
“They wouldn’t understand.”
“Well, there’s this boy…” Ugh. Marty rolled her eyes. Boys. Ever since Jackie had gone to the high school, boys were all she could talk about.
“Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me go if they knew that John was going to be there. That’s why you can’t tell, Marts. I’ll be back on Sunday, ‘kay?”
Though Marty thought it was stupid, she agreed to do what Jackie was asking. When she agreed, Jackie hugged her. That was the last hug Jackie had ever given her. Even though Jackie came back on Sunday just as she promised, she was never the same. And then a few months later, she was gone.
Marty was snapped out of her reverie when she heard Lane shouting. She was bent down over Clara shaking the drawing the little girl had made.
“How do you know?!” Lane was screaming. “How do you know Burke?!”
Marty leapt off the couch. Clara was definitely awake now. She looked confused and a little scared. She kept looking at Lane’s angry face and at the picture Lane was waving at her. Lane kept repeating her questions, getting louder with every second. Tears were streaming down Lane’s face as she shouted and Clara looked as if she was about to cry, too.
“Lane.” Marty put her hand on the teenager’s shoulder, trying to be reassuring. “Lane. She doesn’t know.”
Heavily, the girl dropped into a chair. Her shoulders shook as she lowered her face into her hands and kept sobbing. Marty turned to Clara.
“Go on back to bed now, Clara,” Marty said gently. “It’ll be ok.”
“Why’s Laney so upset? Who’s Burke? Is he the boy in the picture?”
Marty ushered the little girl into her room which she’d given to the children. Clara’s brother Elijah was sprawled out in the bed. “We’ll talk about it in the morning. It’s pretty late for you to be out of bed now.”
When the child was all tucked in, Marty returned to the living room of her small apartment. Lane was still at the table, but her sobbing had subsided. Marty sat down in the chair that Clara had vacated.
She listened to Lane sob softly for a few minutes. Finally, she said, “I wasn’t going to ask you why you left home, you know?” Marty looked at the distraught teen. “I figured it was none of my business. You’d tell me when you were ready.”
Lane looked up. Her eyes were fearful, not quite meeting Marty’s. Marty sighed and leaned back in her chair. She closed her eyes and then reopened them, looking at Lane. “You remind me of my sister. Her name was Jacqueline, but she went by Jackie. I called her Jacks. She ran away when she was about your age…16? I was 9.”
“Is that why you’re helping me?” Lane’s voice was barely a whisper. Marty nodded.
“I don’t know what happened to her. My parents think that she’s probably dead, but they never say that out loud. It’s been 17 years.”
“That’s a long time.” Lane sniffed and wiped her face with her sleeve.
“I know.” Marty was silent for a bit. She was thinking back to the day they had all found out that Jackie was gone. Her mother was the one who found the note when she went into Jackie’s room to tell her it was supper time.
Jackie had never contacted them, and even though they had spent thousands of simoleons trying to find her, they never had. It was like Jackie had simply disappeared. Knowing that Lane was waiting for her to continue, Marty told her about Jackie and what happened 17 years previous.
“I always hoped that someone was nice enough to help her. I would like to believe that she made a new life for herself. Whatever had been so awful for her, I hope she found a way to overcome it. I just wish…I just wish that she had contacted us like she said she was going to. She should have let us know that everything was ok.”
“My parents won’t care what’s happened to me,” Lane said, turning away from Marty. “They won’t try to find me.” She looked unsure of that answer. Marty could see that she didn’t really believe it.
“And I didn’t leave because I did something bad,” Lane insisted, and Marty saw fear in her eyes. She didn’t think the fear was because Lane was afraid Marty wouldn’t believe her. The fear looked older, deeper.
“Why did you leave?” Marty asked. Lane didn’t say anything. Realizing that Lane wasn’t going to speak, Marty got up to get ready for bed herself. “You’ll tell me when you’re ready,” Marty said as she went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Again she asked herself why she had taken in these three kids.
When Marty returned, Lane had the sleeping bags laid out and was already zipped up to her neck. Marty was trying to get comfortable in her bag when she heard Lane whisper, “My brother died…that’s why I left.”
“Tell me about him.”
In the dark, cocooned in her sleeping bag, Lane found that she was able to say the things she had wanted to say at the Suicide Support Group meeting. She explained to Marty how Burke had committed suicide and how her mother cared more about her step-father and half-sister than she did about Lane.
“Burke had always protected me,” Lane said. “With him gone, I…I just couldn’t stay.”
Marty listened to Lane talk and asked very few questions, for which Lane was very grateful. Lane didn’t want to have to explain that there was more than just Burke’s suicide that had forced her to run away. It was hard enough to talk about Burke’s death. She didn’t want to have to explain Mike and his wink.
But after she had finished her story, Lane lay awake worrying. What if Marty decided that Lane needed to at least call her mom and tell her she was ok? Lane couldn’t do that. If she called, Mike would find a way to track her down. Lane knew this to be true. If Mike found her, he’d come for her and bring her back home. She’d have no choice but to go with him, too. No one would believe her if she told them the truth about him. Even Marty, as nice as she was, probably would think that Lane was making things up to avoid going home. Staring up at the ceiling in Marty’s dark living room, Lane prayed that Marty would accept Lane’s assurance that her mom wouldn’t care that she was gone. If Marty pushed her too hard, Lane would have to leave again.
“Noooooooo!” Hannah Kemper woke up screaming. She sat up in her bed, her heart pounding, and her night gown soaked in sweat.
It was several minutes before she could calm down enough to swing her legs out of the covers and plant her feet on the floor. The scars on her face were throbbing. Hannah got up and went into the bathroom for some aspirin and a glass of water. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, reassuring herself that everything was ok.
“No blood,” she said, fearfully. The scars were just scars. Old wounds, not fresh and bleeding.
For the last three nights—ever since the two detectives came to her door—the dream had been the same. She remembered very little of it…just flashes, like blinks of an eye. Blond hair. A purple ribbon. And the blood. Always the blood.
Hannah ran a finger over the scars. Ever since those cops had left, she felt an urgent sense of danger. Hannah had run out of her apartment to search for the kids as soon as they were gone, but her efforts had little results. Each night after work she searched, but always came back with no leads. That’s probably what triggered the dream again.
She’d told them about her daughter just enough so they’d realize that the kids might not be together anymore, but not so much that they’d figure out what she was…what Clara really was.
The lie about Clara’s “problem” was an old one. ‘Schizophrenic’ sounded better than the truth…more believable unless you know a lot about what that disorder was really like. Most people didn’t , so when you said it, they’d nod their heads in pity, but not question.
It had always worried Hannah that any children she had would potentially be victims of the curse that plagued her family. It didn’t affect every person, sort of skipped around at random. She had it, but her older sister didn’t. Her aunt Kelly’s kids weren’t affected at all, but her cousin Jennifer, who lived with her because Jennifer’s mom died when she was a baby, was even more affected than she was. Jenny’s mom had also been cursed. Hannah’s mom, who didn’t have the curse, always said that she and Jenny were “special”, but as Hannah got older, she realized that it was better…safer…to be “normal.”
In Hannah, the curse was pretty mild. She knew things sometimes and got feelings about people, places and sometimes objects when she came in contact with them. She couldn’t tell the future, but sometimes she got impressions that things…usually bad things…were going to happen.
Jenny was like Hannah, but she also saw people who weren’t there and sometimes talked to them. Hannah just thought that Jenny had imaginary friends, but Hannah’s mom knew the truth. Jenny could sense and speak to the dead. It was a scary thing, to Hannah’s mind, talking to dead people, but Jenny told her that most of them were nice.
“But not all of them are nice, Jenny. Right? There are bad ones, too. I read about them. They’re called p-pol-polterg…Whatever it is, they’re mean spirits.”
“I avoid the mean ones. The nice ones usually make them leave me alone.” Even though Jenny tried to reassure her cousin, Hannah knew that the bad spirits didn’t always stay away from Jenny. They shared a room and Jenny had nightmares. Sometimes she talked in her sleep and her voice didn’t sound right. Sometimes she even walked in her sleep. These times scared Hannah.
One night, Jenny got up out of bed. Hannah thought she was awake and asked if anything was wrong, but when her cousin looked at her, she realized that Jenny wasn’t awake at all. Her cousin’s eyes looked dead, and Hannah shuddered.
“Jenny?” She whispered, getting out of her bed. She had some notion of turning on the light so Jenny would wake up.
It happened really quickly. One minute Jenny was next to her own bed and the next she was next to Hannah’s. She pushed Hannah back into the bed, ripping at Hannah’s pajamas, her hair, her face. Jenny’s fingers were like claws, ice cold and sharp as razors.
Hannah’s screams brought her parents running into her room. Blood was everywhere. Hannah had fought, kicking, and thrashing, and trying to push Jenny off of her, but by the time her dad managed to pull Jenny off of her, she had pretty much collapsed. There was so much blood. Jenny’s white nightgown was stained red. Most of the blood was Hannah’s.
Later, Hannah’s mom told Hannah what had happened to her cousin. Jenny had been possessed by one of the mean spirits. Hannah’s mom had heard of things like this happening to members of their family, but not in many, many generations. She told Hannah that once someone had been possessed by a spirit, it became easier and easier for spirits to do it again. “The person becomes like a doorway to an empty room.”
So Hannah’s parents had had to send Jenny to an asylum. “She’ll be safer there. She won’t be able to harm anyone else.”
“Won’t the spirits come for her at the asylum?” Hannah had asked.
“They might, but it won’t be so bad. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but what I know about our family is that our gifts…our powers…they are stronger if we’re together. My gran, she told me that’s why it’s rare that a lot of children in one generation are born with the powers. And usually it doesn’t pass down from mother to daughter.” But it had passed down from Jenny’s mom to her. Hannah wondered how her aunt had died.
Before they were married, Hannah explained the curse to David. She didn’t think it was fair to marry him if he didn’t know about it. She was surprised that he married her anyway. He told her that they were strong enough to deal with anything that happened.
When she told him she was pregnant with Elijah, he said, “There’s only a chance of our kids being affected, right? It might not happen.” She had been so scared, but David swore that everything would work out.
“You were wrong,” she told her reflection, hoping that David’s spirit could hear her. Maybe he was watching, still trying to make everything ok for her and the kids. She rubbed at her scars.
When Clara was born, Hannah knew that she was different than Elijah. It was one of those feelings that she often got. The night that they brought Clara home, Hannah dreamed about the blood, the ribbon and the little blond haired girl.
At first, Hannah thought the dream was about herself when she was little…a memory of Jenny’s attack. The dream only happened the one time, so she tried to ignore the feeling she had about Clara. But as the baby grew into a toddler, Hannah had the dream a few more times. Eventually, when Clara was about four years old, Hannah realized that the dream had nothing to do with Jenny. It was a warning about Clara.
One night Clara got a strange look in her eyes. She was sitting on the carpet playing with her toys and laughing one minute, and then she was just staring…at nothing. That was the night when Hannah saw more than quick impressions in her dream. The blond hair with the purple ribbon framed a face…Clara’s face. She was awash in blood.
That night Hannah woke up screaming, too. It took David several hours to calm her down. She knew that Clara was in danger…they all were in danger. She wanted to run away, but David soothed her and told her that everything would be fine. “Nothing can harm you,” he said. “Nothing will hurt our children.”
But it would. Hannah knew that it would. She knew it just as surely as she knew that the only way to prevent it was for her to leave. The danger would follow her and leave Clara alone if she left. So Hannah did. It was the hardest thing she had to do. She left the man she loved and the children she had given him to go to Bridgeport. Somehow she knew that Bridgeport was the place she had to be. It was the only place she could go to keep Clara safe.
“Please don’t follow me,” she told David in the note she left behind. “It’s my fault that the children are in danger. I tried to warn you, but I wanted to believe that everything would be ok. Clara won’t be safe forever, but if I’m not there, the spirit will follow me. I’m more powerful than Clara is.
David, I will always love you, but this is for the best. Keep the kids safe. Don’t let them come to Bridgeport. But if anything happens, I want you to be able to contact me. This is the address of the P.O. Box I’ve rented. Write if anything happens, especially to Clara. She’s a special girl, but she needs to be watched closely.
Please tell the kids that I love them. Tell them that it wasn’t their fault I had to leave. Make them understand why I had to go. I’d do everything I have to, including leaving, to make sure that you are all safe. Someday, when this danger has passed, I hope that we can be together again. I love you so much.”
Hannah never did stop loving David, but perhaps he had stopped loving her. Why hadn’t he written her about his illness? That detective said he had died and the kids were left alone. She checked the P.O. Box every day and there had been no letter. Why hadn’t David contacted her?
“Goddamn it!” Detective Mike Clark slammed his hand against the hotel room wall.
It had been another wasted day in this godforsaken city. He and his partner were no closer to finding his step-daughter. Thinking of Lane, his lip curled. He lowered his head against the wall to hide the sneer.
His partner, Detective Franklin, gave him an awkward pat on the back. “We’ll find her, Mike.” Franklin headed over to the drip coffee machine in the corner and poured himself a cup. “Maybe we should go to the Bridgeport PD, now. I know you think they wouldn’t do anything, but we could really use some of their resources.”
Going to the PD was not what Mike wanted to do. He had to be the one who found Lane. He wanted to see the look in her eyes when she saw him. His annoyed scowl was replaced by a secret smile. Her eyes would be filled with delicious fear…
And once he found her, he would find out what she knew. What had Burke told her? That stupid boy had said that Lane would know everything.
Everything. Mike had to find his step-daughter.
“Goddamn it!” Mike punched the wall again. Lane was the only one standing in his way.
As soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth, Lane wished she could lasso them back in. How could she ask this question and not expect Matt would want an answer in return?
Lane exhaled, hoping that would make the gnawing feeling in her stomach go away. She cast her eyes away as another tear fell. She hated crying in front of anyone, but especially someone she hardly knew. She felt like a complete idiot for attending this stupid meeting. She knew she shouldn’t have bothered. What was the point? It was just a bunch of people talking about their feelings.
All the talking in the world wouldn’t bring Burke back.
Now, here she was, trapped. How could she tell this complete stranger why she was fleeing a suicide survivor’s support group? Why should she have to explain herself to anyone? And, why the fuck did she care so much what Matt thought of her?
Matt mentally kicked himself when he saw Lane’s tears. “I’m sorry, Lane. I don’t know what I was thinking. That was thoughtless of me to ask. I just wasn’t expecting to run into you here, of all places,” he said, glancing awkwardly at the sign next to the door.
When Lane saw a flicker of pity in Matt’s expression when he looked at the sign on the wall, it was all it took to light her fuse.
Who the hell did he think he was to judge her for being here!?
“What the hell? Did you follow me here? Are you some kind of stalker? It’s none of your damn business why I’m here!”
At that moment, the door opened and Dr. Lopez peered out. Lane suddenly realized how loudly she had shouted. Not only was she the freak show who had run out of the meeting, now she was outside screaming at someone.
However, instead of addressing Lane, Dr. Lopez turned to Matt.
“Matt, dear, we started a little later than normal. We’re just now starting refreshments. Do you mind waiting a little while longer?”
Matt nodded. “Sure, Mom. I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
Dr. Lopez met Lane’s eyes and Lane quickly looked away.
Without a word to Lane, Dr. Lopez turned back to Matt. “Thanks, dear. It shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes.”
With one last look at Lane, then Matt, she walked back into the room and quietly closed the door behind her.
Lane looked at Matt sheepishly. “Okay, I feel like the biggest asshole. Sorry I jumped on you like that. I just didn’t know why you were here. I’m really sorry.”
Matt chuckled quietly. “I don’t blame you a bit. I probably would have thought the same thing. In fact, I did for a second.”
He didn’t add that instead of being creeped out, he had been flattered to think that she had tracked him down.
“Of course, when I saw the look on your face, I realized I was mistaken,” he continued.
Matt reached for Lane’s hand. She tensed, but didn’t pull away. “You’re going to be all right, aren’t you,” he asked, searching her eyes for a clue of what to say or do next.
Lane nodded, blinking back tears that were already starting to form again. “I hope so…”
She then switched gears to take the focus off of herself.
“So, Dr. Lopez is your Mom? I wasn’t expecting that. Elijah mentioned you were a runaway so I guess I jumped to the conclusion that you were a street kid, or something.”
Matt’s puzzled expression turned quickly to laughter. “Oh no, I think I know where he got that idea. I said I was about his age when I ran away from home. My parents got divorced when I was about Elijah’s age, hence the running away bit. I managed to get myself completely and totally lost for a few hours, but eventually found my way back home. That’s why I felt compelled to help him. I know how scary it can be to be lost in this city. That’s funny that he thought I was some homeless street kid though. Maybe I look the part,” he added with a wink and mischievous grin.
“It’s unfortunate how we tend to make our own stories about people based on appearances and a few random bits of information,” Lane remarked.
Matt opened his mouth in mock horror. “So, you’re confirming that I do look like a street urchin?” He watched the color creep into her cheeks then punched her in the arm playfully. “Relax, I’m only kidding. I’m fully aware that most fathers wouldn’t celebrate if their daughter brought a guy like me home.”
Lane looked away, embarrassed. She felt horrible for judging Matt solely on his appearance. He seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. Lane had to remind herself though that just because someone seems nice doesn’t mean he is. Lane couldn’t help but wonder how many innocent fools are taken in by her stepfather’s nice-guy cop routine?
Matt watched first embarrassment, then suspicion wash over Lane’s face. He wanted to know what was going on behind those beautiful brown eyes. He was starting to realize just how little he actually knew about Lane. He knew her name and he knew she was taking care of a little kid named Elijah. Other than his suspicions as to why she was attending the suicide support group, he had no idea who she was or what she was all about. He wanted to change that.
Just as he was about to ask Lane to hang out some time, the door opened and the support group attendees filtered out of the room. Dr. Lopez was the last to walk out.
“Thanks for waiting, dear. I’m sorry things ran a bit long.” She pulled the door closed, checked that it was locked, and took down the sign that she had taped next to the door.
“It’s no problem, Mom. I had a chance to catch up with my friend here. By the way, Mom, this is my friend, Lane. Lane, this is my mom.”
Emily Lopez offered her hand to Lane and smiled kindly. “It’s nice to meet you, Lane.”
This was getting to be a bit too Twilight Zone for Lane. This woman already knew something very personal about her, but now has to pretend she’s never met her. It was so much easier to share information with people when you don’t have any connections to them. Would accepting Dr. Lopez’s hand and acknowledging her connection to Matt let her get too close? Would she try to use her connection to Matt to pry more information and feelings out of her? Things were just getting way too close for comfort.
Lane ignored Dr. Lopez’s hand and turned to Matt. “Hey, I need to run. I’ll see you around.”
As Lane quickly walked away, Matt turned and shrugged to his mother. She smiled in understanding and then mouthed the words “Go after her.” Matt smiled and took off after Lane.
He caught up with her at the base of the stairs. “Wait, Lane. Here’s my number, if you ever need anything.” He quickly scribbled it onto her hand.
Lane couldn’t help but smile. “Matt, your number’s in my phone from when Elijah called me.”
It was Matt’s turn to look embarrassed, as he smacked his palm against his forehead. “I knew that. I am an idiot.”
Instead of letting her go, he held Lane’s hand in his for a moment longer before closing her fingers around his phone number, as if that would keep the numbers from jumping off of her skin.
Matt held Lane’s gaze, hoping she wouldn’t look away. “I’d just really like to see you again, Lane.”
Lane’s heart was beating so hard against her chest that she thought Matt could probably see it, if he looked close enough. “I’ll call you,” she whispered hoarsely.
Lane then turned and ran out of the building.
She ran all the way back to Marty’s apartment. As she climbed the steps in front of the building, she realized her fist was still clamped tightly around Matt’s phone number. She opened her hand and stared at the inky digits that were now smeared by her sweat.
She shook her head as she rubbed at the numbers with her thumb, a futile effort to get them off of her palm. Sure, there was a part of her that wanted to call Matt, but she knew she never would. The closer people get to you, the greater the chance is that they’ll hurt you.
Lane opened the door to Marty’s apartment and was surprised to find Clara still awake. It was after 9 o’clock. Clara sat at the kitchen table, with a sketch book in front of her, staring blankly.
“Clara, why aren’t you in bed?” No response.
Lane looked at Marty, who sat on the couch, watching a rerun of Friends. Marty shrugged her shoulders.
“She won’t respond. She was in bed, sound asleep, when she got up and walked over to the table and started drawing. I think she might be sleepwalking or something. Pretty creepy, if you ask me.”
Lane walked over to Marty, stepping lightly, so as not to startle Clara as she walked by. “Do you think I should try to put her back to bed?”
Marty shook her head. “It’s not a good idea to wake up a sleepwalker. She’ll probably eventually get up and go back to bed on her own.”
Lane nodded. “Oh, okay.”
Out of curiosity, she leaned over to see what Clara was drawing.
She felt dizzy and had to swallow the scream that threatened to burst out of her mouth.
Staring back at her from Clara’s drawing were familiar eyes, eyes that smiled at Lane a thousand times over the last 16 years. Eyes that had rolled at her when she did something silly and glared at her in annoyance more times than Lane could count. These eyes, looking up at her, were eyes that she would never see again…
Clara then turned and looked at Lane with a dull, almost lifeless, expression. Her voice was as emotionless as her face, when she finally spoke.
“Burke told me to tell you that he didn’t leave you…he would never leave you…”
Hannah Kemper poured a cup of tea with the hopes that the tea would soothe her frayed nerves. She had felt a persistent uneasiness for the past few days.
She pulled her bathrobe tighter around her body as she curled up on her couch with the latest Kathy Reichs novel.
“Ha, no wonder I’m on edge, I can’t stop reading these damn mystery novels,” she muttered to herself.
Twenty minutes later, Hannah awoke with a start. Her book lay closed on the couch next to her. She must have fallen asleep reading. She could have sworn that she heard her doorbell. Perhaps she dreamed it?
There it was again. It was unmistakable. Hannah looked at the clock. 9:43 PM. Who could be at her door this late at night?
She stood, modestly holding her robe closed at her neck. She peered through the peephole in her door.
Two nicely dressed men stood outside. One looked to be in his fifties, the other in his mid 30s. Her heart was racing.
“Who is it,” she called out.
The older of the two men held up his badge to the peephole. “Mrs. Kemper. My name is John Franklin. I’m a detective with the Redcliffs Police Department. My partner, Detective Clark, and I need to speak with you about your husband.”
Hannah quickly undid the locks and opened the door. She knew they held the answer to why she had been so on edge. “What is it? Has something happened to David? Are my children okay?”
Detective Franklin eyed Hannah gravely. “May we come in, Ma’am?”
Hannah stepped back, allowing the detectives to step inside. “I apologize. Excuse my manners.”
Detective Clark motioned toward the couch. “Mrs. Kemper. Would you like to sit down?”
Hannah eyed the detectives warily. This couldn’t be good. No one asks you to sit down in your own house unless they have bad news. She moved toward the couch and sat down on the edge of the cushion.
“Just tell me. Has something happened to David or my children?”
Detective Franklin sat in the chair across from her and calmly stated, “Mrs. Kemper, I regret to inform you that your husband, David Kemper, has passed away.”
Hannah tried to hold the sobs in, but the dam broke and she dissolved into hysterics. She didn’t know how long she cried before looking up at the somber faces of the detectives.
Her eyes darted from one face to the other. “If David is dead, then where are my children?”
Detective Clark spoke in a no-nonsense tone, stating the facts of the case. “Mrs. Kemper, the first officers on the scene discovered your husband’s body in his bed after an anonymous tip led them to the residence. The dispatcher who took the call believes that the tip came from a child and the call came from Mr. Kemper’s residence. When we arrived, there were signs of children living in the residence, but no children could be found. We hoped that they had come to find you. One of the other children in the neighborhood stated that your son Elijah confided that he was going to Bridgeport to find his mother.”
Hannah’s hands started shaking uncontrollably. “They have no way of knowing how to find me.”
She had made sure of that.
Her voice broke. She was unable to keep the trembling out of her voice. “Are you telling me that my children may be wandering the streets of Bridgeport alone?”
The detectives exchanged glances before Detective Franklin spoke.
“Yes, Ma’am, that is what we believe. We have two eyewitnesses that lead us to believe this is the case. The first is a ticket attendant at the Redcliffs Bus Station. He remembers selling two tickets to a young woman, who said she was 16 years old, for two children that he positively identified as Elijah and Clara Kemper. We also alerted the Bridgeport Police and a patrol officer recalls seeing a young blond boy, resembling the photo we have of Elijah, walking alone on Sterling. She said his brother was with him, so she let them go.”
“Elijah doesn’t have a brother. Why would he say he was with his brother? And who is this girl buying tickets for them,” Hannah asked, hysterically.
Detective Clark looked uneasy when he responded. “We are not sure who the young man is, Mrs. Kemper. We suspect that Elijah is either hiding from the police or this young man forced him to lie. We do, however, have a strong lead on the young woman. We suspect she is my stepdaughter, Lane Bridgewood. She ran away from home the same day that the police received the tip about Mr. Kemper.”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry, Detective,” Hannah gasped. “You must be as worried as I am.”
The detective smiled reassuringly and nodded. “Yes, but I’m just glad that I can help with the search. Please know that I am very motivated to find all of the children and return them safely home.”
Hannah nodded. “Of course. I’m so glad you’re here to help.”
Detective Franklin moved forward with questioning. “Mrs. Kemper, can you think of a reason why the children wouldn’t be together any longer? Are there family or friends that Elijah may have left Clara with?”
Hannah shook her head and hugged herself tightly. “Not that I know of, but I may know why they aren’t together.” She looked up at the detectives, guiltily. “Clara is not quite as she seems. She’s a very different little girl.”
The statement caught the detectives off guard. Detective Clark spoke first. “What do you mean, Mrs. Kemper? Are you implying that Elijah would abandon her because she’s different?”
Hannah quickly shook her head. “No, not at all. Elijah adores his sister.”
She pointed at the scars on her face. “What I’m saying is that, for his own safety, he may not have had a choice but to leave her.”
Judging from the perplexed expressions on the detectives’ faces, Hannah realized she had to explain herself.
She spent the next thirty minutes recounting her final weeks living with David, Elijah, and Clara. When she finished telling them all that had happened, Detective Franklin shook his head, as he and Detective Clark stood and walked to the door.
“I’m sorry for all you have been through. I understand now, Ma’am, why you are afraid for your son.”
Detective Franklin handed her his business card. “If either of the children contact you, please contact one of us, immediately.”
Detective Clark reached into his pocket and handed her his card, as well. She looked at it, noting that his first name was Mike, before slipping the card into her bathrobe pocket.
Detective Clark reached out to shake her hand before parting. The moment her hand touched his, fear gripped her.
She met his eyes, and the kindness she thought she had seen earlier was gone.
“We’re going to do everything we can to find the children, Mrs. Kemper. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Strangely, instead of a reassuring promise, his words sounded more menacing, like a threat.
Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her. That wasn’t uncommon for her. If that was the case though, why couldn’t Hannah shake the feeling that Elijah and Clara, and this young woman, Lane, might be in more danger if this man did find them.
As she shut the door behind the detectives, she quickly turned the lock and slid the chain into place.
She crumpled to the floor and sobbed. She sobbed for the man she still loved deeply, for her son, who was probably alone and scared in this city. She even wept for her beautiful, special Clara. As much as Clara’s powers frightened her, she loved her daughter and would never wish harm to come to her.
When there were no tears left unshed, Hannah stood up and went to her dresser. She pulled on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans.
As she ran out of her building, she vowed she would find her children before the detectives. She only hoped she wouldn’t be too late.
“Hey kid, are you okay?” a rough voice said from seemingly far away. Elijah groaned, his eyes still closed as he shifted on his uncomfortable bench. Was this a dream? “Err, kid? Do you…do you need any help?” the voice asked again, suddenly sounding less than a foot away from his head. Elijah gasped and sat up, breathing heavily as he surveyed his surroundings. His body was covered in a light sheen of sweat, his arm completely numb as he had trapped it between himself and the bench as he slept. He blinked back sleep and turned his gaze blearily upward, where a somewhat strange looking teenaged boy was looking down at him, clearly feeling awkward and unsure of himself. “Er…hey buddy. Um, are you hurt?” he asked, looking uncertain as to what to do now that he was awake.
“No!” Elijah blurted out immediately, hopping off of the bench and backing away from the intruder in fear. What if he took him to the police? What if he kidnapped him? The guy didn’t look like someone that ANYONE should approach, let alone an eight year old boy. “I’m fine, just go away!” he cried out, bolting in the opposite direction of the teen. Just keep running. Just keep running!
The sound of pounding footsteps behind him panicked Elijah even more, his heart beating like a jack rabbit’s as he sped down the street…right smack dab into a police officer. No, no, no!!! That was the worst thing that could possibly happen!
“Umph! Woah there, kiddo,” the cop chuckled good-naturedly, taking a step back. “Can I help you?”
“N-n-no I was just, just running,” Elijah babbled, thrown off from bumping into such a solid object and immediately feeling stupid after giving his answer.
“I see,” she said slowly, looking down at him skeptically. Elijah flushed and looked down at his shoes, realizing he must have looked like a train wreck after wandering the bad parts of the city alone half the night and ultimately passing out on a park bench. “Where’s your mom?”
It was a testament to how emotionally unstable and scared that Elijah felt right now that his eyes immediately burned with hot tears. He made a point not to look at the cop as he mumbled something about her being at home. The cop opened her mouth to say something, but it was at the moment that another voice sounded from behind him.
“Hey, there you are little brother! I’ve been looking all over for you!” the teenaged boy he’d met earlier suddenly called, sounding completely relieved. He came up to Elijah and put his hand on his shoulder, meeting his eyes with a pointed stare. Even at just eight years old he knew exactly what the guy was saying: just go along with it. Elijah stood frozen for a moment, unsure of what to do. Should he go with the police officer and risk her calling child services and taking him away, or should he go with the stranger who was trying to help him out…for completely unknown reasons. Elijah’s heart beat faster as he looked from the cop, to the guy standing next to him. Make your decision quick, Elijah.
“I wanted to explore,” Elijah finally said with a pout, looking up at his “big brother.”
His new “sibling” sighed, shaking his head and putting his hand on his hips in a show of disapproval. “Again? Seriously man, you’re going to give mom and dad a heart attack. You can’t just go out on your own like this!”
Elijah chanced a glance at the cop, who seemed to be eyeing them both suspiciously at this point, but after a moment she shrugged, seeming to buy the story the young man gave. “You kids alright then?” the cop asked, just to be sure.
“Yup,” the two boys said simultaneously. The cop nodded and went on her own way, while the boy kept his hand on Elijah’s shoulder and steered him back down the street and around the corner. Once they were far enough away, the teenager stopped walking and looked down at Elijah.
“You ran away,” the teenager stated without hesitation, looking down at Elijah knowingly.
“Kind of,” Elijah said in a small voice, suddenly wanting nothing more than to get away. After all, he was wasting time, time that he could be using to find his mother, or heck, even time that he could just be using to find his way back home. Sure he was thankful that this guy had gotten him out of a sticky situation, but now he needed to get moving again- and quick.
“I’m Matt, by the way,” the boy said, as if knowing his name somehow made him less intimidating.
“I’m Elijah,” he responded in turn, staring up at the teenager. His curiosity won out on his urgency though and he found himself blurting out, “Why are you helping me anyway? You could have let the cop take me, you know.” He flushed afterward, looking away. This kid looked like he worshipped the Grim Reaper. Elijah shuddered at the thought.
“I….don’t really know, actually,” Matt admitted slowly, looking down at him. “I mean…I guess you remind me of myself. I wasn’t too much older than you when I ran away too.”
“I didn’t run away,” Elijah now interjected, feeling the need to correct himself. “I’m looking for my mom.”
“Oh. So you’re lost then?”
“No. I mean yeah. I mean…” Elijah hesitated, unsure how much he should reveal to this virtual stranger. “It’s a long story,” he finally finished, using a line he had heard numerous adults use when they didn’t want to reveal something.
“Fair enough,” Matt said, seeming to get the point. “Well…is there anything I can help you with? I’d feel kinda bad leaving a little kid like you alone in the city….Bridgeport isn’t exactly the safest of places….”
“I’m not a little kid!” Elijah retorted, stomping his foot and feeling immediately defensive.
“Whoa, whoa, man,” Matt said, taking a small step back and holding his hands up. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Look, can I help you find your way home? I’d feel a hell- er…uh…a lot better if I didn’t just leave you here….”
Elijah hesitated, biting his lip and looking away from Matt as he thought quickly. This guy clearly wasn’t out to hurt him, and wasn’t going to turn him into the cops, so maybe, just maybe, he could actually be of some help. “I…I can’t find my way home,” he finally admitted, feeling small.
“Oh. Well, okay, I’m pretty familiar with the city so…do you know the address?”
“But I know a lady named Marty owns it. That’s who we’re staying with,” Elijah supplied quickly, his heart beating hard with the fear that he’d never find his way back.
“Okay. That’s a good start. Do you know her last name?”
“N-n-n-no,” Elijah stuttered, his eyes suddenly filling with tears again. He tried his best to keep them held in, but he couldn’t help it, bursting out into hysterical, frightened sobs and covering his face in embarrassment. He’d never find his way back! Never! What would happen to Clara? Would he ever see her again? What would Lane think? She was so nice and this was how he repaid her?! And would he EVER find his mother?
“Aw crap, hey buddy, it’ll er, it’ll be okay,” Matt said, awkwardly patting Elijah on the back. “There’s no reason to cry. I’ll get you back home. Do you have a number you could call or anything? I have a phone….”
Elijah abruptly stopped crying, staring into space as if he’d just been whacked over the head, and to be honest, he felt like he had been. How could he have been so stupid as to forget that he had Lane’s number!?!? All of this freaking out over nothing! So, so, so, STUPID. “Give me your phone!” Elijah blurted out in his excitement that he wasn’t lost forever, and then immediately back-tracked. “I mean, could I- could I please use your phone?”
Matt laughed, taking his cell phone out of his pocket and handing it to the kid, “Here you go, buddy.”
“Thank you,” he responded gratefully, reaching out for the phone and then hastily punching the numbers he had so diligently memorized. Elijah bounced up and down on the balls of his feet as he waited for an answer. Please pick up, please, please pick up!
Lane had JUST been about to have a complete mental breakdown over losing Elijah when her phone, as if right on cue, began ringing loudly, the volume having been turned up to its maximum level to ensure that there was no way she missed it. Her heart jumped into her throat as she anxiously removed her phone from the pocket of her jeans. It was a phone number she didn’t recognize.
That was a good sign.
“Hello?” Lane answered eagerly, then holding her breath as she waited for the response on the other line.
“Hi, Lane!?” a familiar little boy’s voice sounded from the other end. FINALLY!!!!! Lane had to exercise great restraint to keep from jumping into the air with joy, forcing herself to remain calm so she didn’t miss anything that was said on the phone.
“Yeah, this is her. Where are you, Elijah?! I’ve been so worried!” she admitted, anxiety creeping into her voice, as well as a bit of annoyance at the child who had caused her so much undue stress. Not to mention countless hours roaming the city in vain, like she had yesterday. Lane listened as Elijah described how he had gone looking for his mom, clearly leaving out details as he stumbled over a vague description of his travels. “Uh huh…and where are you now? Whose phone are you using anyway?” Lane heard Elijah quietly ask someone else where he was, and there was the sound of a slight shuffle as the phone exchanged hands.
“Hello?” a new voice sounded, much older than the eight year old boy she had been speaking to previously.
“Hey, um, my name’s Matt Dockson. I kind of…ran into Elijah here. He’s okay. We’re currently on Central and 16th, by the old warehouse.”
Lane had no idea where that was, but figured at least that a cab driver would. “Alright. Well, stay put, I’m going to head there now to pick him up, okay?”
“Sounds good. By the way…I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh,” Lane said, suddenly flushing for reasons beyond her. Maybe it was the soft, deep voice whoever this Matt person was had, or maybe it was because she felt stupid for having not mentioned this obvious piece of information before, but either way, her cheeks were significantly more pink right now. “Um, Lane. Lane Bridgewood.”
“Nice. So um, guess I’ll see you in a bit?”
“Yeah,” she answered, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. “See you in a bit.” Lane slowly hung up her cell phone and slipped it into her pocket, feeling inexplicably uneasy as her thoughts drifted, unbidden, to wondering what the owner of the smooth, low voice looked like. GAH! Don’t fucking do this to yourself, Lane. This is the LAST possible thing you want to deal with right now. To hell with men. Lane took a deep breath, hurried downstairs, and then flagged down a taxi, lost in her thoughts as she mumbled her destination. She barely paid attention as the city moved past her, but the more they drove, the more she began to get worried.
“Erm, how uh, how much further is it?”
The taxicab driver raised a thin eyebrow at Lane in the rearview mirror, probably wondering why she had no idea where she was going. “About five minutes or so. We’re almost there,” he answered smoothly.
“Right. Okay. Thanks.” Lane sighed and rested her forehead against the cool glass of the window, the feeling comforting on her suddenly over-warm skin.
“Don’t do that! You’ll leave marks on the window!” the cab driver snapped.
Lane snapped to attention, knocked out of her calmed state. Before she could say anything though, a small blonde boy came into her sight, as well as a young man, who looked a little older than herself, standing awkwardly beside him. “Could you pull up to them and then wait a second?” Lane asked. The cab driver nodded, slowing down beside the two boys and coming to a stop.
“Lane!!” Elijah cried out excitedly, darting toward her and throwing his little arms around her as soon as she exited the car.
“Oomph. Hey, you,” Lane said, her awkwardness around children forgotten for a moment as she squeezed him back tightly. Thank goodness he was okay!!!! “Alright mister, if you ever, ever do that again, I’m going to whack you upside the head. I don’t have to be nice to you!” she threatened, half-playfully, half-seriously. “Do you understand me?”
Elijah laughed through tears of happiness, wiping his eyes and looking up at her. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I was stupid, I just…I just wanted to find my mom,” he sniffled, fresh tears filling his eyes.
“I know,” Lane said quickly, not wanting him to keep crying. “We’ll find her. I promise. But we’ll find her together…no more wandering, okay?”
There was an awkward silence then which was only broken when the young man, presumably Matt Dockson, cleared his throat. “So uh, yeah. I can give you guys a ride home, if you want? No need to pay even more for the cab,” he said, nodding his head toward the yellow car waiting for us.
“Umm….” Lane said hesitantly, eyeing Matt uncertainly. He uh, didn’t exactly look like the most trustworthy person she’d ever seen….
“He’s really nice, Lane!” Elijah chirped, clearly noting her discomfort. “He helped me get away from the cops!” Elijah’s eyes went wide then and he covered his mouth as he realized what he had said.
“Excuse me!?” Lane asked in shock.
“Heh, it was nothing bad,” Matt supplied with a half-smile. “A cop just noticed a lost kid and I prevented him from being picked up. That’s all.”
“Oh, well that was awful n-” Lane’s words were interrupted by the impatient sound of a car horn. Oops. She looked from the cab, to Matt uneasily, her heart doing a little flip when she met his eyes. Oh no, no, no, no. There was absolutely NO way she was going down that road. ….ever. Lane’s thoughts automatically went to what Burke’s reaction would be if she ever got a boyfriend…and then her heart twisted painfully as she remembered all over again that she would never get to see what his reaction actually WOULD be. God, Burke, why? Why, why, why?!
“Are you okay?” Matt asked suddenly, touching Lane briefly on the arm. Her eyes had gotten overly bright, her face screwed up in a pained expression. Her body even seemed to have crumpled in on itself. Lane jumped, pulling her arm away hastily and stumbling backward. “We’re going to take the cab,” Lane mumbled, refusing to meet Matt’s eyes.
“Awww, but Matt is cool!” Elijah protested, clearly having warmed up to the guy in the small amount of time he’d gotten to know him.
“Heh, don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.” Matt assured, trying not to look at Lane too much. She looked so upset that it took everything in him not to do something…anything, to help alleviate that. But what could he do? As Matt mulled this over, Elijah continued to protest until Lane cut him such a fierce look that he shut up immediately, his eyes wide with confusion and surprise.
“No. We’re going to take the cab now, okay?” she said, her voice breaking. Lane breathed in deeply, took Elijah by the hand, and then made a beeline for the cab, hurriedly making sure he got in safely.
“Is it okay if I call you sometime?” Elijah asked from inside the car, looking at Matt with bright eyes. If the guy knew the city so well, he may be able to help me find my mom!
“Yeah, sure,” Matt said, standing awkwardly outside the cab and giving them a half-hearted wave. “Nice meeting you guys…..”
“You too,” Lane muttered, getting into the taxi too without looking at him. “Thanks,” she added in a whisper. With that, Lane pulled the car door shut and the taxi sped off into the distance, leaving Matt standing awkwardly by himself.
What in the world had just happened?
Life went back to normal (or at least as normal as it could be for three runaways) fairly quickly after Elijah’s return. Clara had been overjoyed to see her brother again, immediately racing toward him and throwing her arms around him when he had stepped through the door that day. Marty had been intensely relived, and Lane, well, she was happy too. She may not have known these kids too well yet, but she already felt an intense responsibility toward them to at least keep them safe until they found their mother.
What if they never find her though? What if she doesn’t want them? What if she passed away long ago?
Lane pushed these troublesome thoughts out of her head as she continued down the street, on her way back home after taking some time to explore the city. She probably could have gotten home a lot faster if she just took the subway, but there was no way she was going to go down there again, so she continued her trek. At the crosswalk, Lane shifted her weight from foot to foot, waiting for the sign to turn to “walk.” As she waiting though, her eyes caught notice of a neon-blue sign taped to the traffic light post.
Survivors of Suicide Support Group
Helping those who have lost a loved one to suicide resolve their grief and pain among others who have experienced the same.
Sessions led by a licensed psychologist.
152 Main St.
Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 7 PM
All are welcome.
Lane stared at the sign for quite some time, completely missing the light flashing that she could walk. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Should she…should she rip off one of those addresses? Lane’s eyes drifted to the bottom of the paper, where three of the slips had already been taken, the rest still rustling in the wind. Did she really want to talk to others about this though? It hadn’t been enough time. The wound was still so fresh. Still, if this could help….oh but no, it couldn’t possibly. It would just make everything worse. Besides, no one else needed to hear about Burke. This was her burden to carry. And yet….? Resolve their grief and pain. Lord knew she needed to do that.
She took a deep breath, glancing around her surroundings. No one was around. She could just…take the information slip. Just to have it. It wouldn’t hurt just to have it. It didn’t mean she had to go. Oh, but what was the point? There was no way she would. After all, the thought of attending a session like this tonight horrified her…and appealed to her. Finally, without allowing herself any other thought, Lane reached up, tore one of the slips of paper off of the sign, and then darted across the street without looking. Somehow, she made it, the traffic light on this particular afternoon, but she barely noticed, her thoughts solely on the tiny slip of paper burning white-hot in her pocket.
7 PM. All are welcome.
“Since it’s 7:05 I think we’ll go ahead and get started now,” a soft voice announced just as Lane walked into the room. Lane froze, frowning slightly and looking in the direction of the voice where a kind looking lady with glasses smiled at her. “Welcome. Feel free to sit wherever you’d like.” Ducking her head, Lane slid into a seat by the door, one away from a middle aged woman on one side and one away from a kid sitting next to her father, both of whom were looking at the young woman. Lane looked down instead, her cheeks burning as she stared at her sneakers and fought the urge to dart right back out of the room.
“Welcome, everyone,” the young, bespectacled woman said, smiling again. “I see both new and familiar faces today. For those of you I already know, thank you for joining us once again, your wisdom and strength bring so much to this group. For those of you who I have yet to meet, we’re so glad you’ve joined us. I’m Dr. Lopez and I’ll be leading this session, but this is mostly an open, informal forum where anyone can discuss anything that’s on their minds and anyone can comment. Our only rule is that we must always be respectful of one another. There is also no pressure to speak. If you do not wish to share anything today, that is entirely in your right. We want everyone to feel safe here. Before we begin, does anyone have any questions?”
The room was silent, some people shaking their heads slightly, and a select few looking away awkwardly as they tried not to make eye contact. Lane was one of the select few. “Alright,” Dr. Lopez said, smiling once more. “Let’s begin with brief introductions. I am, as I said previously, Dr. Lopez, but you may call me Emily if that feels too formal for you. We’re all friends here. I’ve led support groups such as these for six years…and my best friend committed suicide when I was 14 years old,” she ended quietly. Lane glanced up for a moment in surprise, the father and daughter group doing the same, while the others nodded sympathetically, already knowledgeable of this information.
Next, a man to the left of Dr. Lopez spoke. “I’m Rick and two months ago my father committed suicide….”
The introductions continued thusly, the atmosphere in the room feeling heavier and heavier as person after person around the circle told everyone who they had lost. Lane felt suffocated, her hands gripping the edge of her chair as her turn loomed closer. How could she ever thought she could do this? This was so messed up! Everyone spoke so openly, so matter-of-factly, how were they doing this?!?!
Lane noticed then that the room got unnaturally quiet and realized that it was her turn. “Um…” she began, avoiding looking at anyone at all costs. “I’m uh, I’m Lane and…I…I lost my brother,” she finally finished in a mumble, unable to say the words that everyone else had spoken so frankly. No one said anything though, just nodded sympathetically as the introductions continued. Why couldn’t she at least just admit what had happened here? After all, everyone here had experienced the same thing! But no, no, not really. This was her fault. Lane’s eyes burned as the thought crossed her mind. No matter how many times the logical part of her brain told her this wasn’t her fault, the guilt still remained.
“It’s been one year, today, that my son, Anthony, committed suicide,” the middle aged woman, Linda, suddenly said. They must have moved to discussion without Lane realizing it…. “I thought that maybe, one year after, it would somehow hurt less, but it doesn’t. I do, however, know how to better deal with it now. I can look through old photo albums, and remember the fun times we had, and the hurt becomes a little less overwhelming. I can remember how, when Anthony was 5, he used to take a running leap onto my bed at 6 in the morning to wake me up…funny how that has become a good memory now, by the way,” she added with a laugh. The room laughed too…minus Lane, who sat still, willing her eyes not to spill over with tears. “I can remember how, as a teenager, he always used to say ‘sup, mom’ whenever he saw me.” The room laughed again. “I can remember how….”
One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three. One. Two…just keep calm, just keep calm. Everything is going to be just fine. Just relax. You can do this, Lane. You need to talk about it. You need help. You need-
“But then sometimes, I remember that I’ll never hear my son say ‘sup, mom’ anymore, and I’ll never get those hand-written birthday cards from him anymore, and I’ll never see his smile, never hear his laugh….”
“You know, even when my day feels absolutely shitty, you always manage to make me laugh, Laney.…”
Why didn’t she ever see the signs? Why didn’t she hear the misery veiled in his words? Why wasn’t she better at seeing beyond those well-crafted lies and forced smiles? Why didn’t she notice that he was dying inside?! God damn it!!!!
Unable to take it anymore, Lane stood up and darted straight toward the exit. Her face burned with embarrassment, hot tears spilling down them. She felt so stupid. So weak. Why could these people stand it when she couldn’t? Lane pushed through the door hurriedly, it slamming shut behind her just as she crashed into something decidedly solid.
“Umph!” Lane gasped out, stumbling backward and nearly tripping over her feet. A pair of strong hands took hold of her waist, steadying her. It wasn’t something she had crashed into, it was someone. Stunned, Lane looked up only to find herself looking straight up into the eyes of a very familiar face. Shit.
“Are you okay?” Matt asked, looking at Lane in surprise.
“Yeah,” Lane mumbled in response, averting her gaze and hastily wiping her eyes. She looked back up at him then, questioningly, only to find herself looking back into eyes that were just as curious.
Then, as if on cue, their mouths opened simultaneously and out tumbled the same question from each of their mouths, “What are you doing here?”
Lane stared at the empty bedside for several minutes. She closed her eyes tightly for several seconds, certain that her tired mind was playing tricks on her. When she opened her eyes again and found that the bedside was still empty, she felt the stirrings of what could only be described as panic in her chest. Laney hardly knew these kids. They were as good as strangers to her. And truth be told, Laney wasn’t exactly the nurturing type. Or rather, she didn’t think she was. And yet… and yet… she already felt responsible for the brother and sister, as though they were her children and it was her job to protect them. They were so young, so vulnerable, and utterly unprepared for the real world. Just like me, Lane thought. She hadn’t anticipated what Bridgeport would be like. It had been a real stroke of luck that she’d met Marty.
The bathroom. He got up and went to the bathroom but he didn’t turn on the light because… because he didn’t want to disturb anyone.
She wasn’t fooling herself. She knew it was impossible for Elijah to be in the bathroom as she had been in there just moments ago herself, but she couldn’t resist the impulse to check anyway. Feeling her way in the dark, Lane stumbled toward the bathroom and knocked tentatively on the door. “Elijah?” She called softly. “Are you in there?” When there was no response, Laney gripped the door knob tightly and twisted it. She pushed the door open and flicked the switch. The bathroom was empty, as she had known it would be. Fear clutched at her throat.
The feeling that she had failed yet another person in her life was overwhelming. Objectively, Laney knew she wasn’t to blame. Elijah had chosen to get out of bed and sneak out of Marty’s apartment without waking anyone. But Burke had made his choice, too, and Laney still blamed herself for it. There must have been something she could have done to prevent Burke’s suicide just as she should have woken up to prevent Elijah from sneaking out.
Lane slipped to the floor right then and there, allowing the feelings of panic and failure to take over for a few minutes. What should I do? She knew that the right thing to do would be to phone the police and notify them that the child was missing. But what then? What if the police arrested her, and even Marty, for aiding two children who really should have been taken up by social services? What if they did find Elijah? They would take him and his sister into the custody of the state and then what? All of their hopes of finding their mother would probably go up in smoke. Not like that was really Laney’s problem but… she cared about these kids. Besides, Laney didn’t exactly trust the police. Not anymore. Not after what had happened with Mike. She knew that not every cop was corrupt. She knew that not every cop wanted to hurt her. Most were probably the exact opposite; friendly and honest, honor bound to protect civilians. But in a strange city filled with strange people, Laney felt like she just couldn’t trust the local police force.
The best choice would probably be to wake Marty up so that’s what she did. Lane tiptoed toward the older woman, kneeling down and gently shaking her shoulder. Marty snapped awake immediately. She looked blearily around the apartment, seeking the source of her abrupt awakening. When her eyes landed on Lane, her mouth curved into a frown and she glowered at the teenager. Marty was typically a pretty nice person but even she did not like being woken up in the wee hours of the morning.
“Why, may I ask, are you waking me up at,” Marty paused, glancing at the alarm clock, “four in the morning?”
“Elijah’s gone.” Laney whispered, not bothering to beat around the bush with an apology.
“What?” Marty gasped. She untangled herself from her sleeping bag and stumbled over to the bed. She took one look at the empty bedside and at the peacefully slumbering girl. She strode back toward Laney, reaching out a hand for the bathroom’s door. “He’s not in the bathroom?”
Laney shook her head. She watched the emotions play out on Marty’s face. The shock, fear, anger, disbelief. It all registered briefly. In the end, concern won out over all the others. “Where do you think he went?” Marty asked.
“They’re looking for their mother.” Laney said miserably. “He probably felt he lost a lot of ground today.”
She might have thought the same thing if she were eight years old, alone, and frightened in a strange city. After losing his sister, finding her, and then spending the rest of the afternoon in an apartment, no real progress had been made. I’d probably be desperate enough to brave this place alone, Laney thought. Especially for Burke. Oh Burke… If only it were as simple as looking for her brother in a large and unfamiliar city. But she would never see her brother again. Stop thinking like that. Laney reprimanded herself sharply. The past was the past. There was no changing it. But she could do her best to help Elijah and Clara. If she could just find Elijah.
“Basically, what you’re saying is, he could be anywhere.” Marty said, snapping Laney out of her reverie. She cast an eye around her apartment before crossing over to the dresser. She yanked up the jeans she’d tossed on the floor last night, her eyes scanning the room for her discarded shirt from the day before. “Listen, you stay here with the little girl, keep her calm if she wakes up. I’ll go look for him. Did he ever mention his mother’s name?”
The fear Lane felt for Elijah was momentarily blocked by a sudden panic at being left alone with Clara. Entertain a little girl? Her? She glanced at Clara’s slumbering face and swallowed the lump in her throat. “No, he didn’t but… what about the police?” Laney asked. Much as she detested and mistrusted anyone in the blue uniform, it was starting to look like a much better idea than having Marty tromping around outside in the dark and by extension, leaving her alone with a child. Laney had never been the best when it came to young children. Too awkward and uncertain. Aside from hating that her mother obviously preferred Amanda, it was one of the reasons she could never get along with the toddler.
“They won’t do anything,” Marty said. “Not until twenty-four hours pass to prove he’s actually missing. Plus, no one goes out after the clubs close around here if they can help it, including the cops.”
“Then I’ll go look for him, Marty. It’s my fault the kids are here anyway.” Laney said, crossing to where she’d left her sweater. Waking Marty had been a bad idea. This was her responsibility. She should be the one wandering around outside when apparently no one else in their right mind would. Not Marty.
Marty shook her head. “You don’t know Bridgeport. Chances are you’ll just get lost.” Laney knew she wasn’t being unkind, just honest. “Besides, I’m the one that took you guys in. I like you guys. I don’t want anything happening to any of you. I’ll be back soon, promise.”
With a look of grim determination on her face, Marty set off into the dark night of Bridgeport, leaving Lane alone with the still-sleeping Clara.
Elijah was tired. His feet hurt, his eyes hurt. His head hurt, too. He wasn’t sure for how long he’d been walking but, after an exhausting day with Clara and no where enough sleep, his body was protesting.
He had expected Bridgeport to be quieter at night, less exuberant. He had been wrong. If anything, Bridgeport was even louder than it had been during the day. While the people throughout the day were rude and imposing, the people of the night were worse. It was almost like the day people had sent out scarier versions of themselves. They were loud and raucous, drunk on alcohol and drugs and who knew what else. There were catcalls from the ladies and shouts and out-of-tune singing from the men. And above all else, there were swearwords everywhere.
No matter how hard he tried, Elijah could not find a place to rest his eyes. From the neon colors, the strobe lights decorating the entrances to clubs, or the brilliantly bright billboards depicting the faces of people he didn’t know, it was all too much for Elijah to take in tired as he was. He had a pounding headache but still, he pressed onwards, determined that his decision to sneak out would not be in vain.
But he couldn’t keep from noticing things about the city which he didn’t like.
The lights were too bright and music blared from open car windows and the numerous clubs and bars which seemed to be on almost every street corner. At one point, Elijah had passed a particularly naughty looking establishment, having averted his eyes, when a woman leaned out the window and called to him.
“Well aren’t you a precious little thing?” The woman had cooed. She was tall and curvy, her face caked with make-up. Her hair had to have been dyed, surely no one had hair color that was quite so blonde. “So lovely and young and fresh, I could just eat you up! How ‘bout you come inside and let mama take care of you darling, hmm?”
There was no denying it. Bridgeport was massive. No matter how far Elijah walked, there seemed to be no end to it, no city limits or borders. Momentarily, Elijah thought that Bridgeport was the end of the world but he reminded himself that that, of course, was silly. And impossible. There was no way that Bridgeport could be the end of the world. The city had to end somewhere. Right? And even if by some weird twist of fate Bridgeport never ended, there was surely a navigation system of some kind, right? How else would people get around from place to place without one?
But after several hours of searching for something, anything, to aid his search with no results, Elijah found himself growing desperate and weary with frustration. Although he had known that the chances of finding his mother had not been the highest, especially not after a mere twelve hours, he had not anticipated the difficulties that Bridgeport would pose. When Elijah found one of the city’s numerous entrances to the subway, he nearly cried with relief. Not because of the subway station but because of the map. Elijah studied it carefully, seeking the You Are Here marker. But… surely this map wasn’t an adequate representation of Bridgeport, right? There was no way he had walked so much and had traversed so little.
He studied the map a little while longer, trying to make heads or tails of it. He had yet to cover geography in school and had no real knowledge of how to read a map. For all he knew, those multi-colored lines led to absolutely no where and were as good as meaningless squiggles to him. That was when it struck him – he did not know the way back to Marty’s apartment.
Elijah hadn’t taken the subway, nor was he entirely sure that he had seen a station nearby when he had first set out from Marty’s place, but it couldn’t hurt to try, right? Determined to be brave, he walked down the stairs and jumped lightly over the rail. Although he felt guilty about it, Elijah tried to look as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. Like he belonged. He darted into the first cart he saw, sitting quietly by himself and praying that it was going in the right direction.
When next Elijah saw the sky, there was absolutely no doubt about it. He was completely, and hopelessly lost. He did not recognize his surroundings and, although most of the buildings looked the same, he was fairly certain he had never seen these before. They were tall and daunting with their scores of blackened windows and dirty surfaces. Not for the first time, he felt afraid. Taking the subway had been a bad idea and no amount of courage, false or otherwise, could convince him to turn around and take the subway back to his original starting point. Chances were he’d just get even more lost than he already was.
He paused to look at the map outside the subway station, trying hard to remember the name of the street he had been at previously. If he was right, he was now further north. What did that mean? Was it a good or a bad thing? And what if he was wrong? What if he wasn’t further north? What if he was further south or east or west? Elijah wasn’t all that great with directions. His strengths lie elsewhere such as math, not map-reading. Taking a bus was one thing but, as Elijah had learned, taking the subway was quite a different story.
He refused to let his fear get the better of him though and so he pressed onward, hoping that his instincts might lead him back to Marty’s apartment, back to Lane. Back to Clara. Clara. What kind of a big brother would he be if he couldn’t even find his little sister? His thoughts wandered back to the scare he’d gone through earlier in the afternoon and he shivered. If he had managed to lose track of her in such a short span of time in broad daylight, then there was no guarantee that he could find… no. He would find her. He had promised his father that he would keep Clara safe. And Elijah always kept his promises.
Elijah pressed on, thoughts of his little sister flooding his mind. Her carefree laugh, her strangely knowing blue eyes. The way she call him‘Lijah! Even the way she pouted was a precious thing to him. No matter how creepy Clara could be, she was still his little sister. A part of him. A part of their father and their mother. Just like him. He closed his eyes, imagining all the things that tied him to his sister leading him in the right direction. I can do this, Elijah thought to himself. I won’t break my promise.
As Elijah carefully made his way through the slowly quieting streets of Bridgeport, his mind still focusing on his sister, he realized that he was glad he had not brought Clara with him on his foolish attempt to find their mother. There was no doubt in his mind that she would have been whining by now, dragging her feet, and asking if they could stop and rest. Above all else though, he knew that if he was scared, she would have been absolutely terrified. And with her… abnormalities… who knew how she might react? He felt better knowing that she was sleeping peacefully with two people that would keep her safe while he was gone. Or would they? What if they turned Clara over to social services?
No. No. Lane wouldn’t do that. She had helped them. She had made it possible for them to go to Bridgeport in the first place. She had come running when he thought he’d lost Clara, ready to help him. Through Lane, he had found a safe place to rest. He thought of the older woman as a sort of friend. And friends don’t betray each other, right? He had to trust her. If he couldn’t trust Lane, and by extension Marty, then he couldn’t trust anyone and Elijah didn’t think he could handle that.
Bridgeport grew steadily quieter the longer Elijah walked. It was not totally silent, never that, but the atmosphere had changed once again. Where in the afternoon, it had been bustling and busy, and in the evening it had been loud and raucous, now it felt… ominous. Elijah paused, examining his surroundings. Nothing had changed. The buildings were still tall and dirty, the streets still paved with asphalt, the lights still rotating from green to yellow to red and back again. Elijah looked again. It was then that he realized… he was alone. The streets were empty, devoid of the numerous taxis and cars he’d seen cruising along just moments before. Where had they gone? Surely they couldn’t have just vanished into thin air, right?
Elijah felt oddly small and vulnerable. He couldn’t get his bearings. It frightened him to know that he did not know what lurked behind the buildings. He felt trapped, as though Bridgeport was a cage and he was the small animal trying desperately to break free. Although he was alone, he felt as though someone was watching him. He whirled around, trying to pinpoint the source of the uncomfortable feeling, but it was impossible. Anyone could be looking at him from anywhere and he would never know it.
Elijah broke into a run, desperate to escape the threatening feeling of eyes on the back of his head. I don’t like Bridgeport. Elijah thought as he ran. He couldn’t understand how anyone could like this awful place. It was dirty and smelly and filled with rude people and women who tried to rob the innocence of young boys. Who could stand to live in such a place? He felt more than uncomfortable. All the feelings of fear and frustration and determination came bubbling to the surface all at once, threatening to make him sick.
His stomach roiled uncomfortably. Every time his feet touched the ground, a sharp jolt of pain stabbed at his temples. I shouldn’t have had those extra slices of pizza, Elijah thought. I should have stayed and gotten some sleep. He couldn’t keep running. It was too painful. His head was pounding and his already sore feet were screaming in protest. The pizza he’d had earlier was threatening to make a reappearance. Elijah wasn’t sure how far he had run or where he was headed, but with one last burst of energy, he ran up the steps to what looked like a promising building. It was well illuminated and would give him the chance to rest without feeling like he had to guard his back.
Elijah stared at the building he’d selected. It was somehow more impressive than all of the buildings he’d seen since his arrival in Bridgeport thus far. With the flags waving gently in the breeze, he guessed that it was a building of significance, perhaps city hall. But the building’s magnificence could not hold his attention for very long. The fear that had settled in the pit of his stomach came back as soon as he’d caught his breath. He looked up at the sky, hoping to see the stars. The city’s electricity made it almost impossible to see the tiny pinpricks of light, but many shone brightly, determined to be seen. Momentarily, his fear turned into disgust. What sort of people would want to live in a place where the pollution and the lights were so thick you couldn’t see the stars?
And what about his mother? She supposedly lived in Bridgeport. What if she was like these people? What if she rushed in the streets, rudely pushing anyone who got in her way without so much as an “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”? What if she was cold and uncaring? What if she had been one of those catcalling women he’d seen, half-naked and drunk, in the streets earlier? Why had Hannah Kemper moved here of all places? Maybe she was just like everyone in Bridgeport. No. Not everyone. Marty wasn’t like that. At least, he didn’t think so. But… did that mean his mother could be different too? What if she wasn’t? Did he even want to meet a mother who wouldn’t care? What if he was wrong? What if looking for their mother had been a bad idea? And what if he found her? What would he do if Hannah turned her backs on them again? What would that do to Clara?
The more Elijah thought about it, the more his head hurt. All of his questions simply created more questions, none of which he had any answers to. I need to find Marty’s apartment. He thought wearily. He was almost sure that he’d seen this building before but he could not say if it had been before or after his nighttime stroll.
Elijah looked up at the starry sky once more. “Help me find my sister” He whispered before setting off once again.
Lane hadn’t taken to waiting all that well.
First, she had taken to pacing around the tiny apartment. When that had done nothing to calm her nerves, she had sat at Marty’s only dining table. Half of her was certain that Elijah hadn’t gone far, that she’d woken up in time, and that she would soon be hearing two sets of footsteps in the hallway.
Her hopes of finding Elijah quickly vanished when ten minutes had slowly, agonizingly, turned into an hour. And then two. In an effort to distract herself, Laney browsed through Marty’s bookshelf. Most of the books were complicated texts about medicine with long, confusing words Lane couldn’t pronounce and almost embarrassingly detailed sketches. Eventually, after several minutes of searching, Lane stumbled upon the only book that wasn’t a school book. Eragon was written in golden script across the book’s blue jacket. It had the portrait of a dragon on it and looked promising. But Laney had only gotten to the first page when her cell phone started ringing. Laney sprang to her feet and whipped the phone out of her pocket, hitting the talk button.
“Hey,” Marty replied. “How’s the little girl?”
“She’s fine,” Laney said, glancing at the bed. Sure enough, Clara was still there, her eyes closed and her breathing slow and even. “She’s still sleeping. Did you find him?”
Lane’s spirits sank. She had been certain that Marty would call with good news. Lane swallowed hard. “You didn’t find him?” She had to ask. She had to be sure that she hadn’t heard incorrectly.
“No, I haven’t found him yet.” Marty sighed. “I searched the building first but he’s not there. He’s not in any of the areas surrounding the complex either so I tried retracing our steps from this afternoon. So far, nothing.”
Laney couldn’t speak. What was there to say? Elijah was missing. Gone. Only he knew if he was alright or not. If this is what it feels like to be a mother, then I never want children. Laney thought desperately. The anxiety, the fear, the crushing guilt. It was all just too much.
“Hey, don’t lose hope.” Marty’s voice cut into Lane’s thoughts sharply. “Just because I haven’t found him yet doesn’t mean he’s not somewhere nearby. Bridgeport’s a pretty big city and it’s easy to get lost but I’m sure he hasn’t gone too far. He’s just a kid. He’s probably tired. He’s definitely got to be resting somewhere.”
Although Marty’s words did not necessarily reassure Lane, she heard the truth in them. Surely Elijah had stopped wandering around by now, right? At the very least, he might have gone to the police station to report himself lost. “He doesn’t know your last name.” Lane said suddenly. “What if he can’t find his way back?” The thought was a terrifying one. She could see the little blonde boy in her mind quite clearly, lost and alone and confused.
“He’s a smart kid, Lane.” Marty said. “Even if he can’t find his way back, he’s probably hiding somewhere until he can borrow a phone. He has your number, right?”
“Yeah. But what if no one lends him a phone?” Lane asked, worried.
“Okay.” Lane said softly. She hung up and stuck the phone back in her pocket. Well that had been less than reassuring. Laney was about to turn around and pick the book back up so she could continue reading when she heard a noise. The sound of blankets rustling. She looked up, expecting to see Clara shifting in her sleep but what she saw chilled her to the bone.
Ordinarily, this might not have been cause for terror but something about the way Clara was standing, staring at the wall with her hair obscuring her face, coupled with the fact that Lane had no idea where Elijah was turned her blood to ice. She had been right to worry. Up until now, Lane had never considered that something might not be quite right with Elijah’s little sister. The girl stood unnaturally still for a young child. Something about her presence frightened Lane.
You can do this. Lane told herself. She walked toward the younger girl and tried to make her face look warm and reassuring. “Hey Clara. Aren’t you tired? It’s still pretty early.”
Clara turned to face Lane. Her eyes were as cold as ice. “I said where’s ‘Lijah.”
Lane tried to smile but the muscles in her face refused to cooperate. “He’s not here, Clara.” She finally managed. Try as she might, Lane just couldn’t lie. Not to a child. “But I’m sure he’ll be back soon so why don’t you go to be—”
“’Lijah’s gone?” Clara wailed. All the iciness and dangerous feelings melted away, leaving a normal five year old girl in their place. Clara’s eyes grew wide and her lips formed a pout. “Why didn’t he take me with him?” She demanded.
“Lane, I’m back!” Marty called. Laney turned away from the television with relief that quickly turned into disappointment when she realized that Marty was alone.
“Shh!” Clara said, her eyes glued to the screen. “Steve’s about to find another clue!”
Lane had been forced to find ways to entertain the girl. She’d absolutely refused to go back to bed. For a good half hour, Clara had cried and whined about how unfair it was that Elijah had gone on an adventure without her. It had taken every ounce of patience Lane had not to tell the little girl to shut up. When Clara had finally cried herself out, Lane had been left with the duty of finding out how to keep Clara distracted. She’d tried reading bits of Eragon to her but when Clara found out that there were no fairies in the book, she had quickly grown bored of it. Lane had been forced to raid the boxes underneath Marty’s bed for construction paper and glue to keep Clara occupied. The girl had fashioned a small crown for herself and taken clothes out of the backpack Elijah had thought to bring. For the next hour, Lane had been forced to play ‘princess’ in which she had essentially spent a great deal of time bowing and saying “Yes, your majesty” or “You’re beautiful, your majesty.” and other silly phrases until Lane had finally suggested watching television. She had browsed the channels, looking for something kid friendly and had finally landed on old Blue’s Clues reruns.
Laney spent all morning and most of the afternoon combing the streets of Bridgeport. She visited the Butterfly Esplanade where she had first re-encountered the children, wondering if perhaps Elijah had gone back to the familiar place. When she did not find him there, she screwed up her courage and turned to the public transportation system. She felt uncomfortable; Lane was used to riding a bike so seeing all of these cars was daunting to her.
She refused to let her unfamiliarity with the place beat her though. Lane sat in the back of a taxi, ordering the man to drive in no particular direction while she scanned the faces of the sea of people walking along the sidewalk. No one stood out. No matter where she looked, there was no tiny blonde boy amongst the suits. Surely it would be easy to find him, right? It was a weekday. Most children would be in school. A lone boy would attract attention. At least, Lane hoped that was the case.
She took to the subways when her taxi-search bore no results. Perhaps the boy had hidden in the underground? Lane steeled herself to enter, hating the idea of being beneath the surface. Knowing that Burke was buried six feet under made it harder for her. Lane felt claustrophobic and throughout the entirety of the ride, she found herself yearning for sunlight. Nope. No way was she going to do that again. And if it was terrifying for her, a girl who had been raised in a different world, it was probably just as frightening for an eight-year-old boy. At least, that’s how she rationalized her refusal to go back to comb the subways.
Lane stuck to the streets on foot after that. She walked as far as she could, running whenever she caught a glimpse of blonde hair. She stopped as many people as possible, asking them if they had seen a little boy wandering around by himself. Most people ignored her. Some people looked at her as though she were crazy. Many growled at her rudely, telling her that they “weren’t interested in what you’re selling, lady”. But a few were sympathetic and although they had not seen Elijah, they promised to keep an eye out for him. Lane felt the fear and the panic rising, choking her. But still, she pressed on.
Elijah… where are you?
If Elijah was completely honest with himself (which he wasn’t), Bridgeport was a terrifying place.
It was so different from the quiet suburbs where he had passed the first eight years of his life. For one, everything was so much bigger. So much louder. The buildings towered over him like menacing trees, leaning over him ominously if he dared a glance at the grey, smog-filled sky. The rushing drone of cars and the rumbling growl of the underground subways grated on his ears, the unfamiliar sounds seeming to vibrate through his nerves.
Every person he saw seemed to be in a hurry, pushing and jostling as he tugged Clara along the crowded pavement. His hand clutched hers tightly; he didn’t want to lose her in the faceless throng. Every time he saw a smartly dressed businessman brush past them his heart leapt to his throat, before sinking, tumbling again. No longer would he wake up to a gentle kiss on the forehead and a murmured ‘goodnight’, the lingering scent of the office – of paper and ink and men’s deodorant – settling over the house as his father drifted in from work.
He would never see his father again.
No, he mustn’t cry. No matter how tight his chest got, no matter how much the tears stung his eyes and trembled on his eyelashes, he mustn’t let them fall. He had to be strong. He was the man now. He had to protect Clara. He had to find their mother, even as his father’s face began to fade from his memory.
He swallowed hard, tightening his grip on Clara’s hand as they battled through the sea of people to the fountain on the city plaza. He wasn’t sure why he had chosen this as their first destination, only that – from a distance, at least – it seemed like a haven amongst the teetering, looming skyscrapers.
“Stop, ‘Lijah, stop!”
Clara suddenly pulled her hand from his and started to cry, her small form shaking with sobs. Elijah stopped in his tracks, startled and dismayed.
“Clara? Clara, don’t cry. Please.”
What had his father done when Clara cried? He had picked her up, spinning her around and around until she giggled and laughed through her tears. But Elijah couldn’t do that; he was too small. Too weak. A ball of hot guilt settled in the pit of his stomach. Why did their father have to be the one to die? Why couldn’t it have been him, so Clara still had the one person who could make her laugh no matter what?
“I don’t want to walk anymore!” Clara sobbed, stamping her foot. “I don’t like it here! I want to go home!”
“We can’t go home,” Elijah told her firmly, trying to keep his voice from wavering. He managed, just. “Remember? We have to find Mum.”
“What if we can’t find her?” Clara asked, snuffling and wiping her eyes on her arm. “What if she’s not here?”
“We’ll find her,” Elijah said, though he felt sick at his sister’s words. “Don’t worry. Leave it to me.”
“You’re the best, ‘Lijah!”
Elijah attempted a weak smile. For a moment, as he looked at her, he wished that he could take her to the police station and just end this. He wished he could give up that easily, to have the weight lifted from his shoulders by well-meaning but ultimately clueless adults.
But he couldn’t do that. Not to Clara.
So he smiled, and she accepted it as genuine.
“I’m your brother,” he told her. “I have to be.”
Clara laughed and threw her arms around him, her earlier tears forgotten. He hugged her back in silence and, again, his own tears threatened to fall.
But Elijah Kemper was determined to never give up.
* * *
The Butterfly Esplanade.
After she had seen a large butterfly on a sign, Clara would not stop whining or pleading until Elijah had given in and brought her to where the butterflies were. It was a strange place in amongst the grey concrete of the city. It seemed almost unnaturally green, covered in vibrant flowers of every colour. Yellow. Blue. Pink. Maybe it should have felt like home to a small boy from the suburbs, but Elijah only felt unease rise like bile in his throat.
This place was no use to them on the quest to find their mother. He knew that.
But he couldn’t say no to Clara.
He could never tell what his sister was thinking. She was like a closed book, even during the briefest flashes of normality, when she would scream and cry like any other five-year-old.
But now, as she stared over the calm water of the pond, she seemed inifitely older.
He had told himself that running away to Bridgeport was all about finding his mother, but that wasn’t everything. He knew if they had stayed in that house, the police or social workers would have come eventually. He knew that they would have seen Clara as different.
And if they saw that she was different, she would be taken away from him. He had promised his father that he would look after Clara, that he wouldn’t abandon her to them.
He wouldn’t run away from her like their mother had done.
And, surely, now that they had no one else… their mother would not run from her again.
“Papa, Papa! Tell me a story!”
He chuckles, tugging the laughing girl onto his lap and hugging her tight.
“I think it’s someone’s bed time.”
The girl pouts and settles more comfortably on his lap. She shows no intention of moving or going to bed.
“But, Papa! You promised! Tell me about the butterfly princess!”
He chuckles again. His strong fingers comb her hair as his eyes gaze off into the middle-distance. The girl holds her breath in anticipation; the girl’s brother, sitting cross-legged in an arm chair on the other side of the room, is only pretending to read his book.
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess.”
“What was her name?” the girl demands, twisting in his arms to look up at him with wide, innocent eyes.
He laughs and kisses her nose.
“The princess’s name… was Clarabel.”
“That’s almost my name!”
“Now. The Princess Clarabel had a wonderful gift. She could talk to all of the beasts, all of the fish, the birds and the insects of her kingdom. But her special friends were the butterflies.”
“Why was that, Papa?”
He smiles and glances at the girl’s brother, who rolls his eyes and turns his attention back to his book.
“Her brother, Prince Lijah, said it was because they were the only creature in the whole kingdom that could match her beauty.”
“I would not say that!” the girl’s brother protests, giving up all pretense of not listening.
“You’re not Prince Lijah, silly,” the girl tells him primly, and then turns her attention back to him. “Papa?”
“The butterflies loved Princess Clarabel as much as she loved them, and they bestowed upon her a gift. But there was one condition.”
The girl gasps, her hands flying to her mouth. Her eyes are rapt.
“What did they want, Papa?”
“The butterflies told Princess Clarabel that they would grant her any wish in the world. But first, she would have to catch a magical glowing butterfly and bring it to the court of the Butterfly King. Then, and only then, she could have anything her heart desires.”
“That’s stupid,” the girl’s brother says, shutting his book with a loud snap. “There’s no such thing as a magical glowing butterfly.”
“Is too!” the girl retorts. “And I’m going to find one, and I’ll get the thing I want the most in the whole wide world!”
… Isn’t that right, Papa?
“Clara, there’s nothing here,” Elijah grumbled, after traipsing around the paths and scowling at the flowers. “Let’s go. We need to find some food or something.”
His stomach was growling, and he had come to the horrible realisation that their bags had been misplaced somewhere. He could remember having them on the bus, but after that…
He felt sick.
Clara’s clear voice interrupted his train of thought.
“I’m trying to catch a magical glowing butterfly! Just like Papa said.”
“Clara… there aren’t any butterflies.”
Clara just giggled as though he was stupid and turned away, starting to snatch at the air again. It was obvious to Elijah that he was not going to be able to get her to go anywhere for quite a while. Not without a screaming tantrum, anyway, and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.
He sighed and hugged himself, trying to come up with another plan. He wished that his father was there.
After a while, Elijah realised that he and Clara were not alone in the park.
His father had warned him many times never to approach strangers, but this man looked friendly enough. Besides, his father was not here anymore, and he knew he had to ask someone if they knew the whereabouts of his mother.
It was a long shot, but he might as well try.
“Excuse me,” he said softly, approaching the man cautiously.
The man looked down at him doubtfully, and then his eyes flicked around as though searching for an adult that wasn’t there.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, kid?”
“Um… no… I just got here with my sister. We’re looking for our mother.”
When the man didn’t reply, Elijah added hopefully, “She’s called Hannah. Hannah Kemper.”
“Look, I’m really sorry, kid. But I have no idea who that is. This is a big city.”
Elijah’s heart deflated at that, though he hadn’t really expected any other answer.
“It’s okay. Thank you.”
“Clara, we need to -“
But his sister was nowhere in sight.
Elijah swallowed, trying to squash the first flutterings of panic down in his chest.
This can’t be happening.
He didn’t know what he was going to do. Clara had never been out of his sight before. Had he failed his father already? Was Clara gone for good? What was he going to – ?
And then he remembered Lane’s phone number, written on a scrap of paper and stuffed in his pocket.
She seemed as though she knew what she was doing.
Maybe she could help him.
“Excuse me, mister? Could I borrow your phone?”
“All right. And then you can tell me what’s going on, okay?”
Elijah nodded a little desperately, but didn’t speak. The man sighed and dug in his pocket for his mobile phone.
Elijah studied the phone as the man took him through the mechanics of calling someone from it. It was a bit more hi-tech than the landline Elijah was used to at home.
“Lane? I need your help.”
Lane arrived at the Butterfly Esplanade with Marty about twenty minutes after Elijah’s panicked phone call. Marty had seen the panic on her face as she had answered the phone call and returned to her side whilst she had talked to Elijah. Then, when Lane had explained the situation, she had told her she would show her the quickest way to the famous Butterfly Esplanade.
Lane could have kicked herself. She had felt misgivings about letting the two kids go off on their own, but had decided not to get involved. And just look where that had led.
One of them missing, and the other in a right state.
She wouldn’t be making the same mistake twice.
Elijah was sitting quietly on a bench with the man he had told her about on the phone. When he had mentioned him, Lane had been anxious about the man’s motivations, but it seemed as though he was just a concerned passer-by.
But, after Mike, no one was going to win her trust by just seeming nice.
When Elijah saw her, he jumped off the bench and ran towards her. Lane couldn’t help a weak smile, though her stomach was churning with worry for his sister.
She had made them her problem when she had paid for their tickets.
And, somehow, their fate had become entwined with hers.
She was taken aback, however, when Elijah flung his arms around her and clung tightly. His body shook against hers with great heaving sobs.
“I – I’m s-sorry, I – I thought I could h-handle it b-but now she’s g-gone!”
Lane wrapped her arms around him, feeling a twinge in her heart as she thought of the many times Burke had comforted her this way.
“Ssh, it’s okay. We’ll find her.”
Elijah pulled back after a moment, biting his bottom lip as he tried to be strong. Lane could see him physically straining to hold back tears.
Lane’s stomach clenched. She couldn’t promise Elijah something like that, not truthfully – but what else was she meant to say?
Clara ran over the top of the small hillock, her arms spread wide. It appeared as though she had just been hiding all along.
Lane supposed she should feel angry at Clara for causing everyone so much anxiety, but all she felt was a wave of relief.
“False alarm, I guess…”
Now that she knew about the children, Marty had insisted that the three of them come back to stay at her apartment, at least until the children found their mother and Lane found somewhere stable to live. She didn’t have the biggest home, as she was currently in medical school and living off a loan and her part-time job at the local supermarket, but she insisted to Lane that they could manage.
Elijah and Clara were merely pleased that they had somewhere warm and safe to stay for the night. They weren’t that worried about the adult intricacies of money or rent.
Lane, on the other hand, was worried that she was taking advantage of Marty’s kind hospitality. She was exhausted, however, and already hungry again.
Any guilt that she was feeling could wait until the morning, when she was well-rested and could come up with a game plan with a clear mind.
Besides, Marty was very insistent.
Aware that all three of her guests were rather hungry, Marty had a quick look in her cupboards and the refridgerator, but found nothing but noodles and tins of soup.
“Hey, guys,” she said, addressing the room at large. “How does everyone feel about pizza?”
“Pizza!” Elijah said enthusiastically, whilst Clara nodded vigorously in agreement.
Marty laughed and pressed a button on her phone. It was a sad reflection of her med-student life that she had pizza delivery on speed dial.
Whilst they were waiting for the pizza to arrive, Elijah begged Marty for one of her cheap notebooks and a pencil. When she gave them to him, perplexed, he settled down cross-legged on the floor and began to make some notes.
He tried to write down everything he could remember his father telling him about his mother:
Hannah Kemper. Lives in
Brij Bridj the sity. Ran away from Clara. Hates cats. Has blund hair.
It wasn’t really much to go on, but it was something.
Elijah wished that he could remember her. His father had been so angry at her for abandoning them that he took down and hid away every photograph he had of her. He had never told Elijah the full story of why she had left – it was one of those ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older’ type things. He had merely gleaned snippets from conversations his father had with other people. Mainly on the phone, late at night, when Elijah was supposed to be asleep.
But, if he strained, Elijah could remember her. A blurry figure with long blonde hair, who smelled of soap and crushed flowers.
Yet… he could never remember her eyes.
“Guys! Pizza’s here!”
Silence had fallen over the apartment.
Marty, still playing the altruistic host, had given up her bed to Elijah and Clara. They had been so exhausted that they fell right asleep. Elijah splayed himself out and took up as much room as possible, whereas Clara curled up into a little ball.
Lane smiled as she looked at them. For whatever reason, she had become kind of attached to these two runaway kids.
They were in this together now.
Luckily (with the bed out of commission), Marty had a couple of spare sleeping bags in her cupboard. It was better than sleeping on the sofa or the hard floor, and Lane accepted gratefully.
And she dreamed.
The day was sunny and there were boats out on the lake. The sun’s light relected off the water in shimmering waves and, for the first time in a long while, Lane felt completely relaxed.
And Burke was there.
The day was perfect.
“I did a bad thing, Laney.”
This wasn’t a dream. This was a memory.
“You never do bad things, Burke. Don’t be silly.”
His eyes flashed as he looked at her, and for once he seemed angry.
“What do you call not being able to protect you from that – that -” Words seemed to fail him, then, and he deflated. The anger seeped from his eyes. “I’m not always a good person, Laney.”
“If this is about Mike, that wasn’t your fault.”
Burke sighed heavily and ran his fingers through his hair.
“This isn’t about him, it’s just…”
“Forget it, Laney. You wouldn’t understand.”
Lane sat up, hugging her knees.
Her tone was gentle, but Burke shook his head firmly.
“No, I – I shouldn’t have brought it up. It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
Burke exhaled and flopped down on his back beside her, staring up at the sky with a pensive expression.
A part of Lane knew that she should pursue her questioning, that she should get Burke to open up to her with whatever was on his mind. It was what he would do for her.
But she didn’t want to ruin that perfect day.
That not-so-perfect day.
Lane woke in a cold sweat, breathing heavily. Her chest was tight. Wriggling out of her sleeping bag and getting to her feet, she stumbled blindly in the dark through to the bathroom, scrabbling for a light switch. Her breath ragged with held back sobs, she splashed her face with cold water. She gasped, choking on air.
She had forgotten about that conversation with Burke. What he had done that night had completely wiped it out of her head – it had completely wiped everything out of her head.
She stared at her face in the mirror. Red-rimmed eyes stared back at her, accusing. Helpless.
If she had probed more, would Burke still be alive? Would he have been okay if she had been there to listen to him?
What had he been trying to tell her?
She wandered back through to the main room after a while, deep in thought about Burke. In the dark, she stubbed her toe on the sofa and muffled a curse, hopping around and clutching her foot. Tears of pain welled up in her eyes.
But then, she noticed something that made her freeze mid-hop.
The bed was half-empty, the covers pulled back to expose the white sheets.
Elijah was gone.
Elijah knew that he could find his mother alone. He knew that Lane would try to protect him, but he was worried that protection would mean her stopping him from looking.
He couldn’t stop searching. He had promised.
Clara was safe now.
That was all that mattered.