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Authors: David Bell

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BOOK: Since She Went Away
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Jenna took another drink of wine. She remembered the night so well. It was warm, Indian summer. And as she’d dressed she felt a flutter of excitement in her belly she hadn’t felt in years. Once she was ready, she told Jared where she was going and that she wouldn’t be gone long. He was reading a novel, something with a creepy clown’s face on the cover, and she made him promise to keep the doors locked and to text her if he needed anything. She expected to get a grunting response, something that indicated an utter lack of interest in his mother’s activities, even if the timing of her departure was a little strange.

But then she saw the bottle on his desk. Jim Beam. She never knew him to take a drink, never knew him to show any interest in the stuff, although she also knew that day would come soon enough. She went into full mom mode, asking a ton of questions about where it came from and who it belonged to.

She decided not to go, to call Celia and cancel the plans.

But Jared told her to go, that they could work it all out. He dumped the booze down the sink right in front of her.

And she didn’t want to cancel. Didn’t want to let her friend down again.

“So I was late,” Jenna said. “I was always late. But that night I never heard from her. She didn’t show up. I texted and texted but didn’t hear back. I figured something came up. Hell, something came up with my son. I figured maybe it was Celia’s daughter, Ursula, or maybe Ian. I called Ian finally, and he reported her missing. He thought she was with me. I thought she was with him. And then later I found out she thought someone might have been following her. She never told me that, so it hit home that we weren’t as close. I could have picked her up. We could have done it all differently.”

“Wow. I’m sorry, honey. But you can’t beat yourself up over that. It’s just . . . a coincidence. A horrible coincidence, but that’s all it is.”

“I try to tell myself that.”

“Are you sure she didn’t run away?” Sally asked. “You know people say things. They speculate. Would she leave her life that way?”

“Leave her child?” Jenna asked. “Like I said, she wasn’t a perfect mom. And Ursula, her daughter . . . she’s shown it a little bit.”

“Wild?”

“Not that so much,” Jenna said. “Just . . . unhappy, I guess. Kind of an angry kid once she hit her teenage years. A couple of weeks after Celia disappeared, she got into a fight with a girl at school. No big deal, really. No one was hurt. They pulled Ursula off the other girl before it got too bad.”

“And if her mother just disappeared, you could understand her anger.”

“Sure. Look, Celia could be impulsive. She could be emotional. Every once in a while, she’d get mad at me and shut me out. She did it about four years ago.”

“Why?”

“We were out with friends, and I mentioned this guy she hooked up with in college. She and Ian were on a break back then, and I thought all our friends knew she had this thing with this guy on the swim team. Apparently not everyone did. She froze me out for two weeks. I didn’t even know what my crime was.”

“So she had some places she wouldn’t let people go.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

But Sally looked as though she had something else on her mind, something else she wanted to say.

“What?” Jenna asked.

“It’s nothing. It’s—I’m sure you’ve thought of it. It’s kind of a morbid thought.”

Jenna didn’t push her, but she knew exactly what Sally was thinking. She knew the same question lurked in the minds of everybody in town. Yes, if Jenna had been on time, Celia might not have been taken.

But what if she’d been on time and suffered the same fate?

That scenario ran through Jenna’s mind at least one hundred times a day. She couldn’t count the number of nights she lay in bed, the room and the house dark, the red glow from the bedside clock in her peripheral vision. She felt the guilt—and she felt a painful, almost sickeningly sweet sense of relief.

What if she’d been there? And what if she’d been the one taken away?

And every time Jenna considered her life—all the things she had and all the things she would have left behind. Like Jared. Her mother.

Everything.

And she always reached the same conclusion: When push comes to shove, she wouldn’t have traded her life for Celia’s.
No way. No way.

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

T
he rain let up, but Jared didn’t notice. He walked through Caldwell Park, his feet splashing through small puddles, which would soon be turning to ice, the sweat from his exertion drying and cooling against his skin. His heart still thudded but was slowing down, and the frantic energy that had been running through his body since he first approached Tabitha’s house wound down like a clock with a dying battery.

He couldn’t believe he’d thrown a rock through Tabitha’s window.

They couldn’t have seen him, could they? He felt sick to his stomach, like a child in trouble with his parents. Which made him think of home. He pulled out his phone.

His mom would be freaked. He wandered around in the cold and the wet while she sat at home stewing. And they hadn’t even talked about Tabitha, about her being in the house. In his room, on top of him after school.

Hell, that was unlikely to ever happen again. If she knew or suspected he’d been spying on her and then busted her kitchen window while her dad stood and watched—he could kiss all of it good-bye.

Her dad. He couldn’t get the image out of his head. His hulking size. Those meaty hands.

That kiss.

But girls kissed their fathers all the time. His own mom occasionally pecked him on the cheek, even as a teenager, although he squirmed away when she did. But that was on the cheek. And she knew he couldn’t stand it. He knew she did it just to irritate him.

He wished he could erase the image. He wished he never looked.

Honey, where are you? Getting late.

He wrote back:
On my way home. No worries.

He stopped his wandering and headed in the direction of their house.

He told himself to be calm. No, Tabitha and her dad hadn’t seen him throw the rock. Tabitha told him to go home, and as far as she knew, he did. They couldn’t see out the kitchen window into the darkness. And even if they’d caught a glimpse of him running away in the night, he’d have been a darkened shadow, a figure in a heavy coat moving away. It could have been anybody.

But where had the anger come from, the insanely spiking jealousy that drove him to do something so out of character? He knew some of his friends—acquaintances, really—liked to go out and damage property from time to time. They smashed pumpkins in the fall. They lit discarded Christmas trees on fire after the holidays. Jared never went along. They weren’t his good friends, and he didn’t want to get caught. He hated getting in trouble with his mom. It rarely happened, but when it did, she conveyed her disappointment loud and clear. He hated that part the most. The disappointment, the tone in her voice and the look in her eye that said
I expected more from you
.

So Jared bargained with the universe. He vowed never to do it or anything like it again. And he vowed never to be so irrationally angry and jealous again.

But that kiss. He couldn’t shake it.

It wasn’t just that her father had kissed her. It was all of it together.
The lecturing, the looming. The control he seemed to be exerting over every other aspect of Tabitha’s life. The curfew and the limited use of the phone.

Was the guy some kind of creep? Or was he a strict and controlling father, trying to keep a very careful eye on his beautiful daughter in a new town?

Tabitha never said much about him, never indicated that he hurt her in any way. She seemed in awe of him, as though her father was an impressive, powerful figure, like a wizard in a kid’s storybook. And she seemed a little afraid of him, a little like she’d do just about anything the man asked. Jared figured a lot of girls were like that about their dads. And the guy
was
a single dad, trying to raise a teenage girl. Who knew where her mother was or what role she played in Tabitha’s life?

He retraced the steps he’d taken while walking Tabitha home earlier. He wished he could go back in time to that moment, or the moments in his bedroom. How had it all gone wrong so quickly, just when everything was going well? Was it possible to feel nostalgia for something so recently in the past? The houses he walked past again really hadn’t changed. Families still gathered in front of the TV. Kids did their homework, looking forward to the day to come.

These families were safe and secure, wrapped in their cocoon of comfort and privilege.

But was Tabitha safe? Was she really?

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

J
enna said good-bye to Sally at the door, hugging her friend and making her promise to drive safely even though the rain had stopped.

“It could be icy. And you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine,” Jenna said.

“Are you kidding? I have that every night.”

“I can’t afford to lose anyone else,” Jenna said.

The words just slipped out. She hadn’t meant to sound like such a sad sack, but there it was. And Sally responded with another hug and an assurance that tomorrow would be a better day. Jenna felt a little lift.

She locked the door behind Sally and checked her phone. The texts kept coming in, proof that Reena Huffman’s show reached a lot of people in Hawks Mill. She ignored them. She’d said what she’d said and done what she’d done. Tomorrow Reena would be dropping the hammer on someone else if Jenna was lucky.

But she did see the text from Jared, telling her he was on his way home.

Relief coursed through her. She turned around and unlocked the door again, offering him easy access to the house.
Hurry up,
she thought.
Just get back here.

She started straightening up the kitchen to distract herself from waiting for Jared. She knew she had to address the girl in his room, but to be honest, she didn’t really care about that anymore. She told herself if he came home safe and sound, if he walked through the door again, she wouldn’t say much of anything about it at all. Hell, shouldn’t she be happy that he was opening himself up and spending time with a girl? At least someone in the house was getting some romantic action.

She smiled as the landline rang.

It rarely did. She certainly hadn’t given that number out to any reporters. Jenna figured it was her mother calling back, offering more advice on how a proper lady conducted herself on CNN. But when she picked it up, no one was there.

She heard the sound of breathing and a rustling on the other end, a movement of some kind.

“Hello?” she said again. “Mom?”

Then a voice came through, low and raspy. “Do you kiss your mother with that filthy mouth, bitch?”

The words hit Jenna like a slap. “Who is this?”

“Why don’t you go away, bitch? You might as well as offed her yourself—”

She slammed the phone down, her hand shaking as she lifted it from the receiver. The calls had come before, mostly in the first month after Celia disappeared. Kids and cranks, weirdos offering their own theories of where Celia was and who took her. But sometimes a man like this called, one who seemed to be calling only to inflict some kind of emotional pain, to take a dig at Jenna and probe her wounds. No wonder she thought people in town blamed her.

“Mom?”

She spun and jumped at the same time. Jared stood in the kitchen doorway, his hair and coat wet. Under the harsh kitchen lights, his cheeks glowed from the cold. “You scared me.”

“I told you I was on my way home.”

“I know. I’m glad you’re here.”

He pointed to the phone, sniffling a little. “Another crank caller?”

“Some creep. Yes. It’s no big deal.”

“I told you to get rid of the landline. You don’t need it, and you keep the number listed. Anyone can call and say whatever shit they want to you.”

“We’ve been over this,” Jenna said. She was glad—no, thrilled—he was finally home. She wanted to hug him but didn’t, knowing he would grow rigid under her touch and back away in protest. “Did you lock the door?”

“Yes. Of course. I know the protocol.”

“Because you didn’t lock it earlier today when I came home.”

“Mom.”

“Okay, okay.”

“If Celia comes back or wants to find you, she knows your cell number. You don’t have to keep a landline listed for her.”

Jenna moved across the kitchen and continued with her cleaning. “I know it isn’t logical, okay? None of it is. I just want to make sure there are multiple ways for her to find me. I think you can understand that.”

“I get it. Really, I do.” He gave her a little smile, an expression of sympathy. Most of the time, he tolerated his strange mother very well.

“You should get out of those wet things,” she said. “It’s cold.”

“Yeah.”

But he didn’t move. He lingered in the doorway of the kitchen while Jenna rinsed glasses and plates and put them in the dishwasher.

“Aren’t you going to say anything about Tabitha?” he asked.

Jenna stopped what she was doing, dried her hands on a relatively clean towel. “I am sorry I walked in on you two. You know I try to respect your privacy. Like I said, I was a little frazzled today.” She watched his face. He seemed curious, his eyes intently watching her.
“They thought they found a body out in an old barn.” She shook her head at the mad emotional rush the whole thing had brought down on her. How had she given in to it so easily? “I went out there for nothing. It was a deer skeleton. They found the leg bone and thought it was a person. Then they dug around and found antlers and everything else. So I let myself get worked up. When I came home and the door was open and I thought you weren’t here, I freaked a little. Sally came over tonight and calmed me down.”

“That’s messed up.”

“It is. Better yet, I cursed on camera, and they ran it on CNN tonight.”

Jared’s face brightened. “Really? What did you say?”

BOOK: Since She Went Away
13.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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