As Luck Would Have It

The following is my story that recently won third place in the Golden Nib Award competition.

Enjoy!

Maureen felt him force himself inside her and squeezed her eyes shut despite the blinding darkness. She went away in her mind to escape the devastating violence, imagining her grandmother’s flower garden instead. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and several varieties of hydrangeas grew everywhere, coloring the landscape, making the ordinary sublime. She did her best to imagine this scene of beauty and ignore the pain and invasion. As she went away, she remembered a conversation she’d had with her grandmother while walking in the garden when Maureen was no more than seven or eight.

“What’s your favorite flower, Grandma?”

“The ones in bloom.”

“But there are lots of them in bloom.”

“And they’re all my favorite.”

“How can you have a lot of favorite flowers?”

“The same way I can have a lot of favorite people.” Her grandmother looked down at her and smiled, “Like you.”

The violence continued, squirming its way into her consciousness despite her best efforts.

 

Lori Dobson’s analyst had advised her to start a new project to help take her mind off her daughter’s disappearance, but that wasn’t possible. Not yet. Maybe never. The reality met her each morning like a devastating phone call in the middle of the night and stayed with her throughout the day until sleep finally anesthetized her to the loss. Then, the previous day would repeat itself. It made Lori think of the movie Groundhog Day, but without the happy ending. There could be only one happy ending here: Maureen’s safe return home.

Lori’s only daughter had been kidnapped seven months ago. There had been no phone calls, no ransom demands, no body—no closure. The fourteen-year-old had simply vanished as if alien monsters had zapped her into oblivion.

As she went through each day, she looked at the faces of every stranger, wondering. She pictured Maureen somewhere, locked in a room, screaming fruitlessly. Her daughter was alive. Something, somewhere, would feel different if she died, as if the pain of severing that permanent umbilical cord between mother and daughter would register with her.

Lori’s husband, Stephen, had broached the unthinkable two months ago. “Start facing it, Lori! She’s gone! She’ll never be back! It’s best to accept that and get on with our lives!”

Two weeks later, Stephen packed his bags and moved out, disappearing as surely as Maureen had, except that he at least left a note saying he was leaving, or as she thought of it, running away. Not that she would have searched for him. Their marriage had died the moment he’d told her he believed Maureen was dead. She’d known the marriage had been dying for some time, and she didn’t have the energy to fight the inevitable.

Unlike Stephen, Maureen had not run away. The police were sure of that. A girl who knew Maureen from school had seen her walking toward the rec center. In the thirty seconds it took the girl to put on her coat to join her, Maureen had disappeared. It had been an empty street with open sightlines well down the road. Only a few of the houses were occupied since most of the neighborhood was under construction. The girl remembered a white work van parked at the corner when she first saw Maureen, but it was no longer there when she came outside seconds later. The girl’s description of the van led police to believe the older cargo van was possibly a Ford or Chevrolet, but they didn’t narrow their search by make, only color. The girl had been adamant that there had been no writing on the side panel. The police had looked into workers in the area, but their vans all had advertising on the sides.

That was the extent of the clues.

Each day had been the same for Lori. Wake to the nightmare and slog through the habit of what her life had become until sheer exhaustion from the worry led her to bed and dreams of Maureen. Sometimes they were good dreams of her little girl alive and home, but when she woke, the brief joy would crash into a heap of memories and pain.

However, today had finally dawned differently.

The buzzing of her phone had awakened her. She groggily stared at the vibrating phone on the bedside table, buzzing insistently as if it knew the importance of the call.

When she saw the screen announcing Maureen was calling, she bolted awake. Lunging for the phone, she knocked it to the floor and scrambled to get to it before it went to voice mail.

Kneeling on the floor by the bed, she grasped the phone and pressed the button to answer, nearly screaming into the mouthpiece, “Maureen?!”

Only silence greeted her at first, and Lori thought her daughter had hung up, thinking her mother wasn’t answering because of all the pain, or worse because she didn’t care.

Then a breath. A man clearing his throat.

“Maureen?” Lori said again, confused, as if the name Maureen in the caller ID had identified the actual person calling, not the phone being used to make the call.

She waited an eternity that lasted seconds. Then a man whispered, “I know you’re worrying. Don’t. She’s alive. She’s with me now. Move on. Forget her.”

“Who is this?!” Lori demanded.

“I’ve got her now,” the man continued, ignoring the question. “She belongs to me. I just wanted you to stop worrying. She’s alive.”

“Please!” Lori begged. “Let me speak to her! Please!”

There was a pause, as if the man might be considering her request. Then, the call went dead.

She stared at the phone as her first tears of joy in months spilled down her cheeks.

Lori immediately called the detective that had been assigned the case. He’d given her his personal number, and his groggy voice answered. She suddenly realized it was still early but didn’t apologize, instead launching into the details of the call.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a prank?” Detective Pantera asked.

“It had her caller ID!” Lori said while doing her best to contain her excitement.

Pantera thought for a moment, yawned, and said, “Okay. We can assume it was the guy who took her. Tell me again exactly what he said.”

Tony Pantera had gotten to know Mrs. Dobson well enough that he had little doubt that the conversation would be etched in her memory for years, so he trusted the words she repeated. He doubted she got even one syllable wrong. In his twenty-two years with the Richmond police force, he’d learned how intent some parents could be when it came to finding a missing child. He’d never met a woman more focused on getting her daughter back than Lori Dobson.

He wrote on his bedside pad what Mrs. Dobson told him and said, “This is good. It sounds as if he might be a bit remorseful, worried that you’re worrying, that sort of thing. He might even completely regret what he’s done. I’ll be out there as soon as I can. I have some things to take care of first. Then I’ll come right out.”

Lori thanked him and disconnected. Then she fixed a breakfast that for the first time in months would taste good.

When Detective Pantera arrived, he sat across the kitchen table from Lori. He was lean and muscular for forty-five. He had an angular face that was clean-shaven and thick, dark hair that was graying at the temples.

“He called from her phone,” he said, “so we can see what cell tower the signal bounced from on his end by getting the information on that call from your carrier. That will give us a perimeter to work from. It was early and if he was home, that will help a lot.”

“What if he calls back?” Lori asked.

“Keep him on the line as long as you can. If he’s driving, the signal will bounce off successive towers, giving us an indication of his route. That could give us some clues about the area of town where he works.”

Pantera was shocked the guy had made the call, but then again, he wasn’t. The perps always made a mistake, a miscalculation; otherwise, they wouldn’t catch any of them. The guy had probably felt safe using the girl’s phone instead of a burner after all this time. So many people knew nothing of cell technology. For the first time since he’d caught this case, Pantera could see a possible light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t much of a light right now, but it was the first beam he’d glimpsed, and he felt good about it. Once they did one stupid thing, they often did more of them. He hoped this guy would. This case had haunted him for months. If the guy was telling the truth, and Pantera thought he was, one of these could end well for a change.

Calling his precinct, Pantera got someone working to get the LUD’s, or Local Usage Details, on Maureen’s phone. Once he had them, he could determine which cell tower or towers were used to relay the call. Leaving the Dobson’s, Pantera took care of a few unrelated matters before driving to the precinct, giving them time to get the LUD’s.

Using them and a large map of the city with cell tower locations, he found the tower the call had gone through. Using a drafting compass, he marked a circle with a two-mile radius around the tower and stared at the map. Because the surrounding terrain was residential and fairly flat, Pantera was certain the call had to come from somewhere inside that circle. He continued gazing as if staring at the map long enough would yield the location. Using a pencil, he began to shade out small areas inside the circle that might have gone through a different tower due to the proximity to other cell towers.

When he finished, he had what amounted to a number of subdivisions where the call most likely originated.

Then he took out a box of pushpins and the months-old list of local owners of older white cargo vans in the area and began painstakingly placing pins on the map to indicate the vans’ locations while ignoring the ones too far from the circle to be considered. When he was finished, his scalp tingled. Three pins were lodged inside the circle. Two of those were inside the areas likely not covered by a different tower.

Prior to this moment, all they had was a list of 112 white cargo vans owned by people in the four-county area. They had already eliminated the ones owned by a business that had lettered the side panel with advertising, leaving twenty-seven. They’d spoken to each of the twenty-seven already. None of those panned out, at least not with anything they could prove. Now, though, they had more. They had a possible location that matched only three of the vans.

Of course, they’d considered that the perp might not even be from the Richmond area, but they had to go on what they could until the trail led elsewhere. This call basically proved he was local. Although not a spiritual man, Pantera prayed this would be the break they needed.

A K9 unit met him at the home of Landon Morris, a small-time landscaper. When they arrived late that afternoon, the van was parked in the driveway. They let the dog sniff a shirt Maureen had worn that had been ziplocked into a bag the day after the disappearance and approached the door.

Pantera pressed the doorbell, and Morris came to the door.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Mr. Morris? You remember me?”

“Should I?”

“Yes, we spoke several months ago about your van.”

Morris eyed the detective for a moment before recognition dawned. ‘Oh, yeah. Still lookin’ for that girl?” he asked.

“Afraid so. You mind if we come inside?”

Morris shrugged. “I got nothing to hide.” He stepped back and let the K9 officer and dog in with Pantera, who already had the feeling they wouldn’t find anything here. Morris had seemed genuinely lost as to why they might be there, and the real perpetrator would not forget the previous visit and questions. Pantera doubted he was faking.

“Do you mind if we have a look around?” Pantera asked.

“Be my guest.” Morris went back to his sofa and the program on TV. He appeared completely unconcerned.

After a thorough but fruitless search by the dog, Pantera stepped into the room to thank Morris for his cooperation before leaving. There hadn’t been a single hint from Morris’ behavior that he was lying.

Climbing into their cars, they drove to the next location, the home of Wilbur Armstead. After they knocked, a woman came to the door and told them she had been married to Wilbur Armstead, but he had died three months ago of a sudden heart attack, an event that didn’t seem to bother his widow at all. A quick phone call verified the woman’s story.

Finally, they stopped at the home of Jason Kormann, the man who lived outside the more likely area of the circle Pantera had drawn on the map. When they arrived, Pantera knew it would be a long-shot. The house appeared vacant; it sagged in the overgrown yard. He knocked on the door, but nobody was home. There were no vans or other vehicles in the weed-choked driveway, so Pantera decided to check with a neighbor. Kormann had indeed moved to Denver four months before.

The K9 officer left, and Pantera decided to drive around the area, not knowing what he might spot, but doing his best to familiarize himself with the surroundings. It was something he did when stuck on a case that felt ready to burst open despite today’s disappointment. He liked to return to the crime scene or some other place associated with the case and just drive around, thinking and trying to put the pieces together so they all fit. That was something that drove him. While working a case, he didn’t understand how the pieces fit together, but he knew they did. He just had to solve the jigsaw puzzle of facts.

Someone who likely lived in this area had made that call. The call had come early in the morning, around six. Most people didn’t think about how easy it was to track cell phones. He couldn’t imagine this creep doing something like coming to this neighborhood to throw them off the scent, especially that early in the morning. It was possible, but highly improbable.

In his wanderings, Pantera reached a slightly more affluent area. This was more of a middle-class neighborhood, one with mostly manicured lawns and a few shade trees. The houses were small, but well-maintained. Pantera lived in a neighborhood like this one, nice but not too pricey. He thought of these places as “decent job neighborhoods” because the owners weren’t rich, but they had a job that was good enough to afford a nice little home.

A late-model Buick pulled onto the street from a side street ahead of Pantera. He paid no attention to it until the driver turned into a driveway. Pantera glanced down the driveway by habit, and what he saw nearly made him jam the brakes to a tire-squealing halt.

In front of where the Buick was parking sat an older, slightly dented white cargo van. It seemed out-of-place in the neighborhood, where most of the cars were fairly new and in good shape. Pantera parked his car on the street a few doors down and took out his phone, pulling up a picture of the pin-marked map. Of course, there was no pin in this location, but it was in the area of the circle he thought of as the likely origin of the call.

Turning in his seat, he stared at the van, and puzzle pieces began gathering to form the beginning of a shape. This guy could have purchased the van since the kidnapping, but one detail made Pantera believe that wasn’t the case. The van had been backed into the driveway, so the front faced the street. Pantera had asked for information on white cargo vans in the four-county area. The hood of this van was a dull red. The rest was white with no lettering, and the white paint looked much newer. When this van had been purchased, it was red. It wouldn’t have made his requested list, especially if the paint job had been done since the last tag renewal, which in Virginia could be as long as three years. Pantera pulled out his phone.

Twenty minutes later, the K9 unit had returned and joined Pantera, who had used the time to ring a few doorbells and ask about the van and its owner.

“Yes, he’s owned it for about a year. . . .”

“Well, it was red, but he painted it right after he got it. Lord knows why he didn’t paint the hood. . . .”

“Mr. Carson? Yes, I know him. Nice gentleman. A teacher at Clayborn High School. . . .”

When he heard that, Pantera’s heartbeat quickened. Maureen had gone to Clayborn. He took out his earliest notes on the case and saw the name Don Carson from when he’d interviewed Maureen’s teachers. He was her math teacher.

He’d thanked the neighbors, and after bringing the K9 officer up to speed, he rang Mr. Carson’s doorbell. They waited several minutes, but no one came to the door. Even more suspicious now, Pantera pounded on the door.

“Mr. Carson?” he called. “Please open the door, sir. This is the police. We have a few questions.”

The fact he knew Carson was in there and not answering the door led Pantera to believe they had found their kidnapper. The three deadbolts on the door, security overkill, told him he wouldn’t be able to kick the door in, heightening his suspicions even more.

Turning to the K9 officer, he said, “Stay here! I’m going around back!”

Pantera moved carefully around the side of the house. When he got near the back yard, Carson leapt from some bushes and ran toward the front around the opposite side of the house.

Pantera called out, “He’s running!”

Suddenly, vicious barking came from the front, along with a scream of terror. When Pantera arrived, the dog was standing over the prostrate body of Don Carson while the K9 officer cuffed him. The dog continued to bark, assuming the stance used to indicate he had found the scent he was tracking. The smell of Maureen Dobson was all over Don Carson.

“What’s wrong?! Why were you chasing me?!” Carson demanded.

Pantera knelt beside Carson’s head. “Where is she?”

“Who?!”

“Maureen Dobson. She’s here, and we know it.”

“You’re crazy! I live alone here!”

“The dog says different.” Pantera knew he could claim imminent danger of an occupant of the home since it was possible Carson had injured her before fleeing, and he fished Carson’s keys from the man’s pocket.

“What are you doing? You can’t go in my house without a warrant!”

“I can if the dog says I can,” Pantera said.

Finding Maureen had been simple after that. A heavily padlocked steel door had been opened, revealing a second padlocked door to a room within the soundproofed outer room. Inside that room, they found a naked and afraid Maureen. The totally dark interior room where she’d been kept had toilet, sink, and shower in one corner. A switch in the outer room operated a ten-watt bulb in the ceiling of the inner room. Night-vision goggles in the outer room told the rest of the story.

They found her clothing in a bedroom and allowed her to dress in the dim light of her prison before blindfolding her to protect her eyes from the bright light she’d not seen in seven months. Pantera escorted her to a separate bedroom to get her away from what she had to view as a torture chamber. Pantera called Lori with the good news. She arrived shortly after the ambulance.

Lori held Maureen, who buried her face in her mother’s shoulder and wept, beginning the lifelong process of healing.

Though not able to leave yet, Pantera went outside and climbed into his car, finally relaxing as he smiled. Sometimes luck was a cop’s best friend.

Chapter One of My Novel, FLOATING TWIGS (c) 2017 by Charles Tabb

The following material is the first three chapters of my completed novel, FLOATING TWIGS. These chapters basically serve as a "Download a free preview" link you will find at Amazon, etc., when looking for a good book for your Kindle. 

The book will be released on September 15, 2018. There will be a book release party that is open to the public at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland, Virginia, from 2 - 5 PM. The public is invited. I will provide personalized autographs to anyone who purchases a hard copy of the book from me while there.

FLOATING TWIGS--Sometimes a small moment can change a life forever.

1

I had known the day would come when circumstances forced my return to Denton, Florida, where I grew up. My parents had died before I finished high school, but another funeral brought me here now.

The Denton of my childhood reminded me of an old man, settled and unchanging. However, on that sunny day back in 1990 as I drove across the bridge that spanned the inlet between Denton Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, I looked over the expanse of emerald-green water to the harbor that lay protected by Sugar Isle, a long barrier island of sugar-white sand. Instead of a harbor filled with fishing boats lazily dotting the landscape, a waterfront teeming with jet-skis and noise greeted me. New boat docks grew and twisted out of the adjoining land like cancerous growths. Beside the more expensive boats that had invaded the harbor, the older fishing boats looked like impoverished cousins. Seventeen years had scarred the town.

Beyond the bridge I turned onto the road that led away from the harbor toward the house where I'd grown up. The small, rundown place still sagged among the pines and scrub oaks. As I approached it, grief and loss struck me, and I sat alone in my car and cried for the first time since leaving Denton. The memories flooded back along with the tears, but this time I welcomed them instead of pushing them back into their dark corner.

Memory has a way of playing tricks on us. Sad memories fade into a haze that we never can be sure is honest, since we often embellish them with colorful hues to make them bearable, while good memories take on a luster they don’t deserve. But my memory of the events surrounding my thirteenth birthday is good. At least I think it is.

It all began with finding Bones back in 1968 the day Roger, Lee and I swiped Dan Russell’s rowboat for a quick trip out to a barge that had become stuck in the sand a few days before. Roger and Lee were my best friends. We were always finding something to do, sometimes dangerous and often slightly illegal, and on that sunny June day we were on the verge of another adventure. Lee and Roger would be in trouble if we were caught with a stolen rowboat. I wouldn’t be because, well, my parents wouldn’t care.

The barge sat mired on Sugar Isle’s north shore, which faced the harbor about three-hundred yards across the inlet. We figured fish would be swarming all around the accidental reef, and we wanted to catch some before someone hauled the barge away.

We knew that Dan Russell, the rowboat’s owner, was in jail for at least the next few days after he vandalized his ex-girlfriend’s car and broke into her apartment, so he would never know we had “borrowed” his boat unless someone saw us and told, and that wasn’t very likely, but we still argued the point.

“Man, what if your sister finds out and tells someone?” Roger said to Lee. “We’ll get it for sure then. Not only will Dan find out we took his boat, but our parents will kill us, too.”

“Maybe we could bribe her,” I said.

“Naw, Jack,” Lee said, his blue eyes twinkling at me from beneath his shaggy, sun-bleached bangs. “Sandra won’t tell. I got something on her if she does and she knows it.”

“What?” I asked.

“Caught her smoking with Greg.”

Greg was Sandra’s boyfriend. I knew she wouldn’t tell with that hanging over her head. Her parents despised Greg. Adding smoking to being with him would only make the offense worse.

“What if they come for the barge and we’re fishing from it?” asked Roger. His freckles would grow as red as his curly hair when he became agitated, and they shone brightly now.

Lee looked at Roger as if he had sprouted another nose. “So? We just leave. All they can do is yell at us.”

“So, what are we waiting for?” I asked with a grin.

Lee and I clambered into the small rowboat and Roger followed, still complaining under his breath. We stored our fishing gear in the shallow hull while making bets about who would catch the most fish. Untying the rope that secured the boat to the dock, we took turns rowing across the waters of the natural harbor. Once we were on our way, Roger's apprehension faded, as we knew it would. He would always complain, but he never backed out of a plan.

Soon we were approaching the trapped barge. After we found a place to tie the boat to the abandoned craft, I climbed onto the flat, metal deck and instantly regretted it.

“Hot feet! Hot feet!” I squealed as I danced around the surface of the barge, lifting my bare feet as soon as they landed on the sun-heated metal. Laughing, Lee and Roger grabbed two of the buckets we had brought to hold the fish, filled them with water, and emptied them onto the hot surface. I immediately hopped onto the wet area.

“More. It’s better but still too hot,” I said, still doing a jig.

They doused the deck a few more times before I was able to walk on it. “Man, you looked like your feet were on fire,” Lee said, laughing.

“They were,” I said, joining their laughter.

I was enjoying our simple camaraderie despite my home life, or maybe because of it. Although Lee and Roger knew my situation at home, we never discussed it. Everyone in town knew my parents were drunks. I had watched lots of Andy Griffith on TV and thought every town had its own drunk, and that it was my bad luck to have been born to Denton’s resident “Otis” and his equally intoxicated wife. However, I never laughed at the comic character on the TV show. For me it felt too real to be funny.

We prepared to drop our lines into the water, baiting our hooks with bits of the raw bacon Lee had taken from his family’s refrigerator. The emptiness of Sugar Isle stretched out behind us, with only sand dunes to witness our day. The sun hung overhead and cooked our backs, already browned to a deep, golden tan from a lifetime of exposure.

Lee’s line hit the water first, and a swarm of silver trout rushed to the greasy bait. “Whoa!” Lee said as he pulled his line up as fast as it had gone into the water. A small silver trout dangled and flipped on the hook.

“Wow! They must be starving or something,” said Roger, dropping his line into the water. Immediately, a fish struck the bait. “Man, I ain’t never seen anything like this!” he said as he lifted the squirming fish from the water.

“You ain’t never been to school either, huh?” I said and laughed.

Roger looked at me. “Yeah, well you better get your line in the water if you expect to catch more than I do, Poindexter.”

I dropped my line into the salt water with the same result. “Cooler than grits,” I said, holding up the wriggling fish.

Within fifteen minutes, each of us had crept past any reasonable limit, but we continued to fish, undaunted. Finally, Roger noticed the abundance of fish and spoke up.

“Hey, guys. I think we’re past our limit.”

Lee and I looked at the three buckets, which were nearly overflowing.

“Aw, man, look at that!” said Lee, amazed at how many we could catch so quickly. “We must have at least fifteen apiece!”

“If someone sees that, we’re sunk. We’re gonna have to put some back,” said Roger. His tone hinted he expected disagreement.

“Are you crazy? I worked hard for those fish,” said Lee.

“Worked hard? It’s only been ten minutes!” said Roger.

“More like fifteen,” I said.

“Gee, five more minutes. I’m sure the Marine Patrol will overlook the fact we’ve doubled what we could legally catch and keep because it took us a whole fifteen minutes to catch this many,” Roger said.

Of course, it was Lee who made the pronouncement. “We’ll keep the thirty biggest ones. That’s ten apiece.”

“But the limit is eight,” reminded Roger.

Lee looked him in the eye and shrugged. “I’m keeping ten. You can throw all yours back if you want. No skin off my nose.”

As we began choosing our fish, I heard a sound behind Lee. I looked toward the soft noise and my eyes bulged. “Oh, my God,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Look,” I said, but they had seen my frightened gaze and had already turned in its direction.

“Sweet Jesus in a chariot race,” said Roger.

Hobbling toward us was a large, mixed-breed male dog, at least that was what it seemed to be. It looked more like a dog’s skeleton with skin thrown over it like some threadbare rug tossed over a bush. The dog was starving. It was easy for us to see every bone beneath his hide. His fur was pale yellow with some white areas mixed in, but his most noticeable feature, other than the fact he was starving, was he was missing his right foreleg. It appeared to have been amputated at some point, and he had adjusted to getting around on his remaining legs.

“What do we do?” asked Roger, the fear straining his voice to a squeal.

At the sound of Roger’s voice, the dog’s tail began to wag sluggishly as his head drooped in submission. I exhaled, unaware I had been holding my breath. We didn’t know where the dog came from, or how he got to Sugar Isle, but he appeared to be friendly at least.

“He must have smelled the fish,” said Lee.

“Or the bacon,” I said. With that, I reached down and picked up the remaining bacon and tossed a few small pieces of it to the dog, who caught every piece before it hit the ground and swallowed it before he knew it was in his mouth. Fascinated, we stared at the result of extreme neglect.

“What do we do?” asked Roger again, this time with pity.

“He looks like he’d be a fine-looking dog if he wasn’t starving,” I said.

“Yeah, and had four legs,” Lee added.

“So what do we do?” asked Roger a third time.

“I’m taking him home. I’m adopting him,” I said. I was as surprised at my decision as my friends were.

“Are you crazy? Your dad won’t let you keep a dog!” said Lee.

I looked at him. He looked exasperated, as if I’d suggested we bring the barge home and store it in my back yard. I could tell what Lee was thinking; it was in his eyes. Your dad and mom are drunks. They’ll never go for this! Dogs cost money. You’re poor, the look said. But I had made up my mind.

“Are you gonna take him home?” I asked Lee, challenging him.

“I can’t. My mom’s scared of big dogs, especially ones that look hungry enough to eat you.”

I looked at Roger.

“No way!” said Roger without being asked. “We already have a dog. My dad would just put him down anyway, which may not be such a bad idea. He’s suffering.”

“Not if he gets fed,” I said and began to approach the dog warily.

“Ja-a-ack,” said Roger.

“It’s okay. I’m the one with the food,” I said, holding up the remaining bacon. When I got close, the dog went to its back and bared its belly. I knelt to pet him, and he wagged his tail some more and licked my face. I could smell the raw bacon on his breath. I fed him the rest of it a piece at a time and smiled down at what I was already viewing as my new dog.

“See? He’s my dog.” I looked at him as if he had suddenly been transformed into an award-winning show dog. “Come home with me, boy. I’ll figure out a way to fatten you up.”

I stood and made a kissing sound, patting my thigh as I walked to the rowboat, the fish all but forgotten. The dog struggled to his feet and followed.

I saw Lee and Roger exchange bewildered looks. “What are we gonna do?” Roger asked Lee, this time referring to me.

Lee shrugged his shoulders and continued sorting the smallest fish from his catch and throwing them back. “Help him bury the dog when his dad shoots it, I guess,” Lee said, not caring if I heard. They lacked my faith, which in reality I had no right to have.

They looked at me again. I must have looked as though I had just found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And in a way, I guess I had.

We climbed into the rowboat, making room for the dog, and paddled back to shore. We cleaned our catch, tossing the fish guts to the dog, who continued to swallow the offered food too fast to taste it while I wondered how I would convince my parents, especially my dad, to let me have the dog. Keeping a dog costs money. He obviously needed some veterinary care and lots of food. As we took turns rowing, we discussed how the dog ended up on the island in the first place. It was apparent from his condition he’d been abandoned for some time, probably roaming the beach and looking for food until we showed up.

“You wanna come with me?” I asked Lee and Roger.

“Where?” Lee asked.

“To talk to my dad about the dog.”

For the second time that day, Lee looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “No way.” I didn’t even need to get an answer from Roger. His look said it all.

“How you think I should do it? I mean, you could at least try to give me some advice or something.”

“You already ignored my advice,” Lee said.

“Come on, Lee,” I said.

He looked at me, accepting my decision with a shake of his head. “Well, I’d make sure he was in a good mood first. Other than that, I don’t know.”

Roger spoke up. “How will you get the money to feed him? Your dad’s sure not to like that.”

"I guess I could clean fish,” I said.

In Denton many of the older kids would go down to the docks where the larger party boats brought the tourists in from a day of deep-sea fishing. They would stand along the edges of the dock, asking those getting off the boat if they needed their fish cleaned. The going rate was ten cents per pound of fish. A few red snapper and a couple of large grouper could net as much as three dollars. If the fishing was good and the tourists drunk enough, they might even add a tip on top of that. That was a lot of money in 1968, especially for a twelve-year-old. It would also pay for enough dog food for a week at least. One good week could pay for a veterinarian to look at the dog and take care of any minor problems. Three good weeks, and a kid my age felt like a Rockefeller.

Roger, of course, was quick to point out the problem with my plan. “They don’t let kids our age clean fish. Nobody under thirteen is allowed.”

“That isn’t a law or anything. It’s not even a rule of the party boats,” I said.

“No. But it’s Tommy’s rule.”

Roger said this as if it were worse than any law the police might enforce. Tommy Gordon was the biggest kid at the docks. He was sixteen and had quit school the day after he’d reached that milestone when the state believed a person was old enough to decide whether or not to attend. Tommy was known for being a bully, especially to the younger kids like me. He more or less ruled the docks as far as Denton’s youth were concerned. Nobody my age argued with Tommy unless he wanted a severe beating. The word was his parents hadn’t even argued with him when he quit school. I figured that was probably more because he was destined to work on the fishing boats instead of going to college, and they recognized his mental shortcomings in the areas of reading, science, and math, but it wasn’t hard to imagine they were afraid of him. We were, so it was easy to think everyone was.

One thing Tommy was good at, though, was controlling his turf. The docks were his turf, and he always made sure the competition for work cleaning fish was kept at a minimum. I guess he decided denying anyone under thirteen the right to work the docks was his way of making sure he had enough fish to clean, not to mention it gave him a chance to bully the younger kids.

I wondered how I would get around that when an idea struck me with such clarity I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it before. “I’ll just tell Tommy I turned thirteen. He doesn’t know my birthday.”

I could see they were surprised they hadn’t thought of this simple solution themselves. Tommy wasn’t the smartest kid around by any means. I was nearly thirteen anyway and a bit tall for my age, so he might believe me. Probably would, in fact.

“You still have to convince your dad to let you have a starving dog,” said Roger.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Maybe if I hang out in town ‘til he heads home from work, he might be in a better mood.”

I wasn’t saying it, but Lee and Roger knew what I meant. My dad worked at a local bar. He shucked oysters and served beer until around eight most evenings before he stopped by the liquor store on his way home and spent his tips on a bottle of cheap whiskey. He would drink most of it on the walk home, so he was drunk, or close to it, by the time he arrived.

Fortunately, my dad wasn’t a mean drunk. He was only mean when he was sober and needed a drink. I knew if I caught him about half way home from the liquor store, he would be in a fairly good mood. I would promise him almost anything if he would let me keep the dog.

“What’ll you name him if your dad lets you keep him?” Lee asked.

I looked at the dog and said the first word that came to my mind.

“Bones.”

This cracked Lee and Roger up. “It fits, at least,” said Lee, packing his cleaned fish into his bucket and setting off toward his house. I could hear him chuckling to himself, repeating my dog’s name as he walked away. “Bones—sheesh.”  He stopped after taking a few steps and said, “Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”

Roger picked up his bucket, which held only eight fish, the legal limit. “Good luck with your dad,” he said and strode off.

I stood there with my bucket of cleaned fish. I started for home to put them in the refrigerator before meeting my dad on his way home. He would be happy I’d caught some trout for dinner, and I hoped that and the whiskey would put him in a good enough mood to let me keep Bones.

When I arrived home, my mom was asleep on the couch, the TV blaring. A half-finished can of beer sat on the scarred and ring-marked table beside her. I didn’t care for beer, but I took a swallow before putting the fish in the refrigerator. I took Bones to a place in the woods about a hundred feet behind our house and tied him to a tree so if he barked he wouldn’t wake my mom. After that, I walked back toward town, but not before telling Bones good-bye and I would be back for him. He was starting to even act like my dog. We seemed to have some sort of communication, and he lay down in the sandy dirt as if to wait for me.

It was almost eight o’clock, and my dad would be getting off work soon. I would wait for him on the corner a few blocks up the street from our house. Over a half-hour later, I saw him strolling up the street. It was getting dark, but I could tell by his gait that he was already drunk. He held a paper sack in his right hand. In it, hidden below the lip of the bag, was the neck of the bottle. He would shuffle a couple of steps, take a swallow, and stumble along until the need for another swig hit him. As he weaved slowly up the street, I rehearsed for the thousandth time what I would say while still making small changes to my argument as I thought of his possible objections.

He stopped in front of me, a happy smile forming on his face.

“’Lo, Jack! You know? You look just like your brother when he was your age.”

I had a brother who had joined the marines. His name was Rick, and he was about to ship out to Vietnam.

“So, what gives?” he asked, obviously wondering why I was meeting him, which I did sometimes but not often.

“Not a lot,” I lied. I knew I would have to ease into my pitch. “I caught some trout for dinner. Eight of 'em.” He wouldn’t care if I went over the limit, but I didn’t want him to know I had filleted and given the other two to Bones.

“That’s great, boy. Where’d you catch ‘em?”

“Lee, Roger and I took Dan Russell’s rowboat and went across to Sugar Isle where that barge is stuck. We caught a whole bunch but threw the little ones back. The rest are in the fridge. I can cook ’em if you want.”

“Sounds good to me,” my dad said, taking a swig from his bottle and continuing his stroll home.

“Strangest thing happened when we were out there,” I began as my heart hammered against my ribs.

“Oh? What?” He was still concentrating on his bottle and wasn’t really listening.

“This dog came along on the shore.”

“Who you reckon it belonged to?”

“Don’t know,” I said, hoping this next part would go well.

“A stray," he said. "Gotta be careful o’ strays. They got diseases. Bite sometimes, too.”

“Not this one. He was gentle. He turned his belly up to me.”

He looked down at me, and his face told me he’d been listening better than I thought.

“Can’t keep a dog, Jack.”

“Why not? He’s starving, Dad. You can see all his bones under his skin. I mean all of them.”

“There you go. Dogs cost too much to keep. He’ll be needin’ a vet and a ton o’ food to get him healthy again.”

“But that’s the best part,” I said, launching into what I hoped was my big selling point. I had once heard that a good salesman turns objections into reasons to want the product. I was going to do the best job of that I could do.

My dad looked at me, his eyes swimming slightly in their sockets. If he hadn’t been drunk, the look would have been just like Lee’s earlier that day. “The best part is he costs too much?” he asked.

“Not really. The best part is I can earn the money to feed him and everything.”

I could see that struck a chord. “How you gonna do that?” At least he was still listening.

“Clean fish at the docks.”

He laughed. “You know Tommy Gordon won’t let a kid your age work at the docks. He’ll chew you up and spit you out.”

“I’ll be thirteen in October. He doesn’t know when my birthday is.”

“You planning to tell him you’re thirteen?”

“He’ll never know the difference.”

My dad considered that as he swayed like a boat in choppy seas and decided it was possible. “That takes care o’ the summer, but what about when the boats ain’t runnin’?”

“I figure I can make enough for the whole year.”

He made a noise that said he doubted it.

“If not, I could work during the winter washing people’s cars and running errands. Please, Dad. I’ll make enough. I promise you won’t have to pay a dime for the dog.”

“Promises are cheap. ’Specially from a boy who wants a dog.”

We had reached our house. I stopped and stood in the moonlight, facing him. I think he was surprised at my determination.

“This promise isn’t cheap. If I don’t make the money to keep him, I’ll put him down myself.”

He paused, nodding. “I don’t want to have to do nothin' for this dog, you hear me?”

“Yessir.” I was winning!

Then he dropped the bomb. “But a person who makes money pays rent. What doesn’t go for the dog goes to me and your mama for your room and board.”

This was completely unexpected. Pay rent? “Why do I have to do that?”

“Because. If you start gettin’ the idea all the money you make is yours, you get the wrong idea. All your money ain’t never yours, just as all mine ain’t never mine. Rent has to be paid; ’lectric bill has to be paid. Groceries ain’t cheap.”

Because I was trying to get his permission to keep Bones, I didn’t bother to point out that he spent more money on booze than he did for food. “But how can I save money to get me through the year? I was hoping to be able to save some this summer to help carry me through the off-season when the work might be slower.”

He seemed to laugh at me with his eyes. “That’s your problem, now ain’t it?”

I decided that it was as fair a deal as I was likely to get. I would pay rent, but I had my dog. And anyway, I could find ways around giving them all my leftover money.

After my dad went inside to finish what little was left of his whiskey, I walked out to where I had left Bones. He was still there, waiting for me.

Chapter Two of FLOATING TWIGS (c) 2017 Charles Tabb

     

           

The next day I spent time with Bones, sneaking leftovers out to him from the kitchen and letting him get to know me. I ended up giving him bread and some gravy that had been in the refrigerator for a few days, along with some baloney and stale rice. It wasn’t much of a meal, but he ate it the way he had everything else—in huge gulps.

            I sat with him trying to figure out what breed of dog he was. I had no idea. Later, the vet told me he appeared to be a yellow lab mix. Healthy, he would weigh about seventy pounds or more, maybe eighty. The first time I took him to the vet he weighed only thirty-seven pounds.

            When it was almost time for the party boats to return, I made my way to the boat docks. I got there just as the boats were arriving so Tommy wouldn’t have much time to question me. If the boats were just docking, he would be forced to start asking for work as the tourists disembarked. Also, if he told me to get lost, I could ignore him because he would be too busy getting work to do anything about it. Of course, I would have to face him later if that happened, but I would deal with it then.

            I arrived with my pliers, filet knife, and fish scaler. The pliers were for gripping the skin of those few fish that needed to be skinned. Skinning was an extra thirty cents per fish, which was only necessary for certain ones, so I was hoping that I could get a few of them. As I expected, Tommy saw me coming and walked over to me, a look of doubt on his face. I could tell he was prepared to send me packing, regardless of my saying I’d turned thirteen.

            “What you think your doin’, kid?” he asked, sneering at me.

            “I just turned thirteen and was going to clean fish.”

            “When’s your birthday?” It felt like a job interview and I guess in a way, it was.

            “I turned thirteen on Wednesday.”

            “What year ya born?”

            “1955.”

            It took him a moment to do the simple math in his head. He was still suspicious. “Ain’t you Cookie’s kid?” Cookie was my dad’s nickname. He had been a cook in the navy, but he rarely did any cooking anymore.

            “Yeah.” I stood there in a posture that I hoped was a mixture of defiance and respect for his self-proclaimed authority.

            “I didn’t think your birthday was in summer. I always thought it was later.”

            “You’re probably thinking of my brother. He went in the marines.” I silently prayed my lie would work. My brother’s birthday was in April.

            He eyed me. Deciding he couldn’t prove I was lying, I suppose, he nodded.

            “Take the end of the line,” he said, unhappy about the added competition but forced to stick to his own rule.

            The end of the line meant I wasn’t allowed to be the first to greet the tourists. I had to be last in the line of kids asking to clean fish. I would end up asking the people that the other boys were too busy to take, and it was no guarantee anyone would be hiring anyway. I sighed, again figuring this would be the best deal I could get.

            I took my place as the tourists began stepping carefully off the boat, carrying their day’s catch and laughing from too much fun and beer. Tommy, of course, was first in line.

            “Can I clean your fish for ya?” he asked one fat guy with a bad sunburn he would feel after he sobered up.

            “How much?” asked Mr. Sunburn.

            “Only ten cent a pound. Beats doin’ it yourself.”

            Sunburn considered for a moment before giving the answer many of them gave once they thought about the mess and work they could escape.

            “Okay, you got a deal.”

            One after another, the tourists filed past, many giving their fish to a kid. Some, though, weren’t hiring, thinking they would clean the catch themselves or perhaps mount the best of them. The tourists were beginning to thin out, and I still didn’t have any work.

            The boy in front of me, a guy named Carl Hicks I didn’t know but recognized from school, was asking the last tourist off the boat if he wanted his fish cleaned, mentioning the price in his pitch. The man, carrying at least twenty-five pounds of fish, was about to answer when I blurted out, “I’ll clean it for nine.”

            The man looked at me and back at Carl, who was already glaring at me for starting a price war. Carl glanced at Tommy. Tommy had begun cleaning his customer’s fish and didn’t notice, but something told me that didn’t make any difference. He would hear about this and beat me senseless.

            “Can you go under that?” the tourist asked Carl, obviously pleased.

            Carl cut a look at me while he gave his answer. “No,” he said, sounding as sullen as he looked.

            “You’re hired,” the tourist said to me, and I took his catch to the scale for weighing. Twenty-seven pounds. I did the math in my head.

            “It’ll be $2.43. If you want, I can skin the triggerfish. It’s better that way, and it would only be another thirty cents. That would bring it to $2.73.

            “Sure,” said the man.

            I saw Carl step up to Tommy and speak to him. Tommy looked over at me then spoke to Carl.

            I pretended not to notice, but my heart was doing back flips. I was in for it and nobody would take my side. I had been desperate and blurted out the lower price, and now I wondered how much of the money I would be allowed to keep.

            Being unused to cleaning this many fish, I was the last one done, and the guy paid me $2.75 since he didn’t have the exact change.

            I thanked the man and started toward the dirt road that led to the highway, hoping I could get away without being stopped by the other boys. No such luck. They circled around and headed me off, surrounding me like a pack of wild dogs practiced at cornering prey.

            I looked around at the circle of faces, none of them friendly. I was trapped.

            Tommy did the talking. “Carl says you undercut his price.”

            “What about it?” I said as if what I’d done was the norm. “There isn’t any sign that says there’s a set price.”

            “Well, there is,” said Tommy, menace in his tone. “No sign, but it’s agreed. The price for cleanin’ fish is ten cent a pound. No more.” His voice hardened. “And no less.”

I could hear my heart beating. “I didn’t know that. I need the money kind of bad.”

            “Carl?” Tommy said, speaking to Carl but still looking at me with a dangerous smirk. “Did ya need the money, or was it just for skippin’ coins across the water?”

            Carl said, “Yeah, I needed it.”

            Tommy continued staring at me. “We all need the money, kid. That’s the idea here. This is my cigarette money.”

            “Same here,” said Carl, and my head spun around to him again. “What should I do for my cigarettes, kid?”

            “Maybe we could light him up and smoke him,” suggested one of the other boys. Cruel laughter rippled through the pack.

            “I’m sorry, I spoke without thinking. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

            “You’re right about that, at least,” said Tommy. He looked at the other boys, and I knew it was the signal to attack me.

            With a rush, they were on top of me, pummeling and kicking. Fortunately, we rarely wore shoes in the summer. Still, I felt a sharp pain in my side as a boy kicked me in the ribs. I tasted blood when Carl punched me in the mouth. I could feel the teeth loosen as my cut lip ballooned. My nose felt broken, and one eye was already swelling shut.

            Finally, the boys parted from their handiwork, moving once again into a circle to consider me the way any animal pack looks at fallen prey. Carl was reaching into my pockets and taking the money, including the dime I had found beside the road on my way to the docks that afternoon. I had thought I was lucky when I found it.

            I lay there crying as defeat settled on me, but it was more than that. I wondered where I would get money to feed Bones. I couldn’t keep taking groceries out of my house. If my parents caught me, they would beat me too, even though that rarely happened, but stealing from my family would surely lead to a severe whipping.

            The thought of not being able to feed Bones was worse than the beating I had received at the hands of this senseless mob who were more interested in where they got their next pack of smokes than in saving a good dog’s life. I probably couldn’t keep Bones. My dad would make me put him down instead, explaining if I couldn’t make the money to feed and care for him, he would be better off dead. I even began to worry about the money my dad would expect for my rent.

            Tommy leaned over me and growled, “You’re banned from the docks, kid. You show up again and the beatin’ will be worse. You got me?”

            I did. He had just sentenced my dog to death. I wondered where I could find more work but couldn't think through the pain and the threat of loss. The idea anyone would hire a kid with a broken nose, a fat lip, a black eye, and probably a few cracked ribs seemed ridiculous.

            Bones was as good as dead.

            The sun was nearly setting when the boys began their walk toward the highway, leaving me in the sand. Carl called out his final insult. “Thanks for cleaning those fish for me.” They went away, their harsh laughter sounding through the approaching dusk.

            I managed to sit up and take inventory of my injuries. Maybe my nose wasn’t broken, and perhaps my ribs were only bruised. Still, I ached all over. Against the onslaught, I could do no better than wrap my arms around my head and hope for the best. Fighting back would have been useless. The tears were drying, and the flow of blood from my nose and mouth had nearly stopped. I was wondering what I looked like when a man’s voice rang out from the dimness nearby.

            “They sure got the best of you.”

            I looked up but the last flashes of the setting sun gleamed behind him, preventing me from seeing him clearly. I squinted, trying to soften the glare, my vision also hindered by the swelling around my right eye.

            “What?” I’d heard him, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

            “I said that they sure got the best of you.”

            “There were seven of them.”

            “I know. I saw.”

            It took a moment to understand that a grown man, had witnessed my beating without even saying anything to my attackers. It had not been a fair fight.

            “Why didn’t you stop them?” I asked.

            “Well, first it wasn’t any of my business, but mostly it occurred to me that seven strong, young boys who would attack a kid smaller than they were would think nothing of taking revenge on an old man like me.”

            Great, another coward, I thought to myself. “Who are you?” I finally asked.

            “Mr. Pittman. Henry Pittman. I live in the broken-down bus.”

            That made things a bit clearer. I knew who he was. Down by the docks, near where the ground rose sharply uphill to the highway, a dilapidated school bus had sat for as long as I could remember. All the tires were flat, and the engine was gone. Curtains hung in the windows, which were always closed, even in the summer heat. Its owner was a man who looked to me like the actor Burl Ives. I guessed he was in his mid-to-late fifties, maybe older, though it turned out he was only fifty-three. He had a salt-and-pepper goatee and mustache to match his thinning hair, and he was a man who carried nearly half his weight around his middle. I sometimes saw him drinking beer in Kirby’s Oyster Bar, where my father worked.

            As I considered his explanation for not stopping the attack, I realized, coward or not, he was right. If he had tried to break up the fight, Tommy and the other boys would have paid him no attention until they had nothing better to do than harass an old man. Then, they would remember his attempts and act as if it had been a tremendous problem for them at the time.

            “Who are you?” he asked.

            “I’m Jack.”

            “Do you have a last name, Jack?”

            “Turner.”

            He looked at me with dawning recognition. “You’re Cookie’s boy, aren’t you?”

            “Yeah. He works at Kirby’s,” I added without needing to because I could think of nothing else to say.

            “I know. I go there sometimes for a beer.”

            “Yeah. I’ve seen you in there.”

            “Come to think of it, I’ve seen you there, too. You want to come in and sit for a minute and get bandaged up?” he asked, gesturing toward the bus as if it were an award-winning hospital.

            “That’s alright,” I said. I didn’t relish the thought of spending the evening keeping the old guy company. “I’m not hurt that bad.”

            “Well, at least you could wash the blood off your face. You look like something out of a horror movie.” Then he chuckled. “They could call it I Was a Teenage Punching Bag.”

            Ignoring his attempt at humor, I realized he was probably right. I didn’t want to go home looking like this. I stood and brushed the dirt and sand off as best I could and began to trudge up to where he was standing. As I approached, his large body blocked the sun, allowing me to see him more clearly. He was smiling at me as if he'd been expecting me for some time. It was a friendly smile that warmed the ice blue of his eyes. He had no pity in his gaze, just understanding. I’d always ignored him before, figuring he was just the crazy old guy living in the broken-down bus.

            We walked to the bus and I followed him inside, never thinking he could be dangerous. I guess it was a different time back then. I wonder now how often unfounded fears prevent us from getting to know good people.

            “Sit over there at the table,” he said as we entered, pointing at the small, cloth-covered table and two lone chairs perched along one side of the bus. As I sat, he shuffled toward the rear.

            While he was back there, I took time to look around the bus I had wondered about so often. Just how did an old man live in a bus? Where was the bed? Leaning out from my seat, I noticed the answer to my question. About half way back, squeezed between a small dresser and something that looked like a free-standing closet, sat a bed, or at least what passed for one. A thin mattress covered a small frame, which I recognized as an old, folding army cot. A threadbare blanket was spread neatly over the foot of the bed. A yellowed pillowcase that matched the dingy sheets covered the shapeless pillow. Toward the front of the bus, maybe three feet in front of the dresser that sat perpendicular to the wall, was the small table where I now sat. It was one of those chrome-legged tables so often found in cheap diners. The chair I sat in was chrome as well, with thin, red plastic that served as its upholstery. The plastic covering was torn in spots, allowing the thin padding beneath to poke out in small tufts. It reminded me of soft, white hair. Another ragged chair like it stood opposite me between the table and dresser like a boxing referee. A curtain was spread the width of the bus beyond the closet. I assumed it was where the bathroom was because once when I was walking by, I had seen pipes that connected the bottom of the bus to something below the ground, probably a septic system.

            He returned and removed some bandages and peroxide from the small first-aid kit he had brought from the back.

            “Mr. Pittman, I…”

            “Call me Hank,” he said, inspecting his supplies. “All my friends call me Hank.”

            “Well, Hank,” I said, trying out the idea of calling an adult by his first name, “you don’t need to do this. I’m fine.”

            “It’s the least I can do, seeing as how I couldn’t stop it.”

            Without further conversation, he arranged his materials like a doctor before beginning to work on my injuries. I decided I liked him. He was friendly and easy-going, and he didn’t treat me like a little kid, which I appreciated. Many adults talk to kids my age as if we were barely smart enough to walk and breathe at the same time.

            While he fixed me up, he talked about fishing, the tourists, his bus, and the fishing boats, asking for my thoughts on each topic, talking to me as if I had legitimate opinions. No other adults treated me as if I mattered.

            “Alright. Go look at yourself,” he said when he’d finished.

            I looked around for a mirror. “Where?”

            He chuckled. “Oh, sorry. Go through the curtain and you’ll see the bathroom. You’ll find a shaving mirror on the little table where the washbowl is.”

            I went through the curtain where a small battery-operated camping lantern lit an area that I was sure nobody besides Hank had ever been. A space that took up the rear five or six feet of the bus housed a toilet and small shower, both badly in need of cleaning. A tiny table sat nearby with a filthy porcelain bowl that he used for a bathroom sink, its faucet standing on one of the pipes that led down into the ground below. Anchored to the table where the bowl sat was a small, round mirror connected to an arm that would expand and collapse like an accordion, allowing the mirror to be raised to the height of the person using it. I stretched out the mirror and took stock of my injuries and Hank’s doctoring.

            Hank had mostly just cleaned off the blood and put band-aids on the cuts. I had a black eye and a swollen lip that I knew was cut on the inside. My nose reminded me of a tiny rose in full bloom. A cut on my left cheek stood out near the black eye. A small butterfly bandage held the cut on my cheek closed. I thought it looked as if it needed a couple of stitches, but I would never see a real doctor because my parents didn’t believe in medical help unless it would save someone’s life. The lip that seemed to weigh six pounds wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. It was swollen, but not nearly as big as it felt. I liked Hank’s handiwork and I liked Hank. He hadn’t gone overboard with the bandages, and I thought they made me look tough.

I turned to leave and noticed a wall with some black and white photographs. I could tell that some were of Hank when he was a lot younger, but I didn’t know who the other people were. One of Hank and a woman caught my attention, and I figured she must have been his girlfriend or wife or something. They were smiling and looked as if they liked each other. Another was of Hank and a small boy, with a younger girl looking on from behind them. I wondered if they were his children, and it was strange to think that this man who lived in a bus by the beach had kids somewhere. Then, I saw one of Hank in a military uniform. He was young, probably in his twenties or early thirties, and he had a bunch of medals and ribbons on his chest. One medal looked special. The only medal I recognized, a purple heart, was also pinned on him. I wondered how he was injured since they only gave it to people hurt in battle.

            I had been in the bathroom long enough and went back out to where Hank sat putting away the first aid supplies. I considered asking him about the pictures but didn’t want to get in a long conversation with him about them.

            I thanked him and started to say goodbye when he asked me to sit for a while.

            “I don’t get many visitors. And you haven’t told me why you were so desperate to earn money that you would risk crossing the likes of those dock boys by starting a price war,” he said. Apparently, he’d heard more than I thought. “That boy Tommy is headed for no good, and it took a lot of nerve to do something you must have known would make him mad.”

            I wondered if Hank would understand my problem, so I gave him the chance to prove he did. I told him how I found Bones and how my dad said I could keep him as long as I could pay for his needs. When I’d finished, Hank squinted at me. “You mean you’re doing this for a starving dog?”

            “Yes.”

            He looked at me so long it made me uncomfortable before he said, “So what are you going to do now? You can’t go back to cleaning fish after what happened.”

            I shrugged, as much at a loss as he was. “I guess I’ll go door-to-door asking for work. Maybe I could mow lawns with people’s mowers. I don’t have one to use. Or I could run errands or do other chores. I know I’ll do something though. I’m not sure how long I can get away with feeding Bones our leftovers without getting caught.” A thought occurred to me. “Or maybe I could get a paper route.”

            “You have a bike?” he asked, his tone suggesting he knew the answer.

            “I could walk my route,” I answered confidently.

            Hank shook his head. “Take too long. People would be calling the paper complaining.”

            “Oh,” I mumbled. “I guess you’re right.”

            He reached into his pocket and withdrew his wallet, fishing out two dollars. “Here. Take this and get your dog some food. What you do with the rest is your business.”

            “I don’t take charity,” I said. I wasn’t insulted. Charity had been offered before; I just didn’t accept it.

            “It’s not charity,” he insisted. I looked at Hank. He was holding out the money and eyeing me strangely. I could tell he was thinking about something, considering something that somehow involved me, and for a moment I wondered if I hadn’t been wrong about his intentions. He set the dollar bills on the table. “You really want to work, don’t you?”

            “Of course.” Where was he going with this?

            “Come by tomorrow morning and I’ll have something for you to do. This is just an advance.”

            “What do you want me to do?”

            “We can start with cleaning up around here. I’m getting too old to do some of the things that need doing, and I could use someone to help me.”

            “But what about after tomorrow? You can’t keep paying me money. Excuse me for saying so,” I said, looking around at the bus and its sparse furnishings, “but it doesn’t look like you have a lot of it to spare.”

            He got a funny look on his face and said, “You’re right. I don’t. But I have those two and three more like them for you tomorrow. We can figure out what comes after that.” He must have figured out what I was thinking. “You won’t have to do anything, well, odd. I’m not like that.”

            I considered his offer and finally reached down and picked up the money, stuffing it deep in my front pocket.

            The next thing I knew I was on my way to Grayson’s Market for some dog food for Bones and a Coke for me. I bought two cans of the cheapest dog food they had, figuring Bones wouldn’t mind. After I paid, I had $1.41 left. When I got home, I fed Bones both cans and gave my mom the dollar for rent and hid the forty-one cents in a jar that I placed under a loose floorboard I knew about in my bedroom closet. This would be my savings for vet bills and maybe even running away some day.

            Of course, my mom saw my face and asked what happened. I told her I’d gotten in a fight, but she should see the other kid. She didn’t ask if she could look at it closer or who had bandaged me up, and I didn’t tell her. She returned to the sofa, the TV, and her beer. A lot of kids would be bothered by that, but I was used to it. She and my dad loved me, I guess. It’s just they loved their booze more.

            I went outside to feed Bones and sit with him for a bit. He was still too weak to play much, but he seemed to enjoy being with me. I ended up just sitting and petting him while watching the stars turn in the sky.

            When I got up to go inside, he was sleeping soundly. I had fed him both cans of dog food—a feast for him—although the can only recommended one. I figured he had some catching up to do.

            I had promised Hank I would be at his place at eight o’clock the next morning, so I went to bed to try to get some sleep. Still, it took a while to fall asleep because of the soreness and the distant lightning that periodically threw bright flashes through the thin curtains of my bedroom. I wondered how Bones was handling the coming storm but decided that would be a small thing compared to what he’d already been through.

It had been a full day, and the memory of it kept rolling around in my mind. In my memories, though, I held off the pack of boys single-handedly, even preventing them from jumping Hank and robbing him too.

            I knew none of that had happened, of course, but that didn’t matter. My imagination was like my mother’s beer or my dad’s whiskey. It made me feel better than reality did.

 

Chapter Three of FLOATING TWIGS (c) 2017 by Charles Tabb

           

The following morning, I woke up later than I’d wanted, but still leaving enough time to make it to Hank’s by eight. The storm had knocked out the power along with the alarm clock by my bed, so I dressed quickly and went to check on Bones before heading to Hank’s and my first day of work.

            It was still raining, and I had no rain gear. I wore only a pair of cutoff jeans and a t-shirt.

            As I walked along the street toward the harbor, I stopped to look at the roads swollen with rainwater. My street sported a pair of temporary rivers along each side. These street-side rapids had always been a private playground for me. I loved to drop small sticks in the torrents and watch as the temporary rapids carried the twigs along to a destination only the water knew. I would follow the paths of nature’s intent until the twigs either became mired in a tangle of debris, where I would leave them, or were washed down a sewer line that eventually emptied into the Gulf of Mexico down at the waterfront, where the twigs, if they made it that far, would continue their unknown journey.

            Because I had stopped along the way to drop a few twigs and watch their voyage, I was late arriving at Hank’s. When I got there, I knocked on the bus’s doors, which swung open immediately.

            “Get in here!” Hank said. “Don’t you know we’re under a tornado warning?”

Looking inside the bus, I wasn’t sure if I would be safer inside or out. Even a small tornado could toss Hank’s makeshift home around as easily as I could throw a matchbox car. I stood there, undecided until Hank said, “Well?” I made my decision and stepped up into the bus, standing on the entry steps, dripping.

“Let me get you some towels to dry off,” he said and went to the cabinet for some towels.

“I didn’t expect you today, what with the weather the way it is,” he said, staring at me as he handed me the towels.

            “If I didn’t show up, I’d owe you the two dollars you gave me, and I’ve already spent it on Bones and rent.”

            “Rent?” he asked, surprised. I hadn’t told him that part of my story.

            “Yeah, that was another thing. My dad said if I was earning money, I had to pay rent.”

            Hank looked at me and shook his head. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but he looked troubled. I offered my dad’s explanation. “If I get the idea all the money I make is mine, I’ll be disappointed.”

“Your dad told you that?” Hank asked. I nodded. “How much you pay him of that two dollars?”

“A dollar. I gave it to my mom last night.”

“And what did she do with it?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. None of my business anyway since it’s their money.”

“Jack,” he said with a sigh, “nobody pays half their earnings in rent, especially if said rent is based on what the tenant earns.”

I looked back at him, confused. “So, how much should I pay? I kept out forty-one cents,” I said, proud of my planning. “My dad said that whatever didn’t go for Bones went for rent, but I have to save up to take Bones to the vet.” I left out the part about saving up to run away. Hank was a nice man, but that was one subject adults didn’t take kindly to, no matter how good the reason for leaving might be.

“If you applied for a home loan, they would figure you could afford up to a third of your take-home pay if you didn’t owe too many other bills.”

I wondered how he knew this. After all, he wasn’t exactly living in a nice home here. In fact, my house was probably worth more, but I ignored that argument. “You mean I should pay my parents a third of what I make?” I asked instead.

“At the most.”

I stood on the bottom step inside the doorway, rubbing the towel over my scalp and clothing. My shirt would dry quickly, but the shorts were another matter. The thick denim would hold the water for a couple of hours, but I was used to that even if I hated wearing wet shorts. Like most of Denton’s kids in summer, I wore no socks or shoes, so that wouldn’t be a problem at least.

When I had managed to dry myself enough to stop dripping, I took the seat Hank offered me, the same one I’d sat in the evening before. I draped the towel over the seat to keep it dry.

Hank had a four-burner propane camp stove and he had put a coffee pot on. When it was finished percolating, Hank made himself a cup of black coffee and offered me some as well. I was surprised since nobody had ever offered me coffee before. I accepted and sipped the hot brew, feeling like an adult, though not one, as it turned out, who particularly liked coffee.

“It can be an acquired taste,” Hank said, grinning at me.

I plunged on, forcing myself to drink so I could learn to love it as much as most of the adults I knew did. My dad had said that beer, wine, and liquor were acquired tastes, and I figured if I was going to acquire one, I would be better off drinking coffee. I’d seen what the others could do.

Once he’d finished his first cup, Hank stood, put on a large raincoat, and opened the doors of the bus, saying, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“Where you going?” I asked, curious where he would go in this torrent. I was a kid, walking in a storm was nothing for me. He was an old man.

“I’m going to get some bacon and eggs out of the refrigerator. We can have breakfast.”

“What if a tornado comes?” I asked.

“You’ll hear it before it gets here. Just crawl under the bus and pray if you do.” He stepped out into the wind and rain.

“Wait!  What refrigerator?” I asked, but he was already gone.

I watched out the window beside me as he shuffled as quickly as he could toward the boat docks. Taking out a key, he opened the offices for the party boats that moored there and went inside. Minutes later, he was rushing back toward the bus, a carton of eggs and a package of bacon in his hands. I wondered if I had just witnessed a theft.

When he came back into the bus, he could see the questions in my face.

“I watch over the docks when nobody’s here, sort of like a security guard. In return, Jerry Moreland lets me put my refrigerator in his office and use a sink to wash dishes and such. I let Jerry have one shelf of the fridge in case he wants to put a soda or two in there. I have no power in here, so I can’t have a fridge. It’s what’s called a symbiotic relationship. Jerry helps me and I help him.”

“Oh,” I said.

The various branches of the Moreland family, a widespread hodgepodge of David, the family patriarch, and his two sons, both of whom had grown children, owned most of the large party boats in Denton along with much of the property in the town. Jerry Moreland owned the docks where Hank had his bus parked—or his home, depending on how you looked at it.

There had also been two Moreland daughters, but they had married. One moved to Tallahassee and the other to Atlanta. The rumor was they rarely came back to Denton because they hated their father. As much as my dad wasn’t perfect, I still loved him, so I wondered why Mr. Moreland’s daughters hated him so. There had also been another son, but I heard he’d died.

Mr. David Moreland’s wife had died of cancer years ago, but young women were often seen at the family homestead though the faces changed on a nearly monthly basis. When I was about seven, I heard my dad say the faces changed, but not the figures. He had laughed at his joke, but I hadn’t understood it at the time.

Hank started the bacon cooking over the camp stove while we continued getting to know each other.

“Why aren’t you afraid of a tornado?” I asked. He’d looked worried enough when I had arrived that morning, but since I’d set foot inside, the worry had dropped to non-existent.

“Because, you shouldn’t be afraid of something you can’t control. If Ol’ Mother Nature decides to sweep my bus away, there’s not much I can do about it. I know I’d hear it before it hit, so I’d have time to crawl under the bus.”

“Couldn’t it still sweep you out with the bus?”

“Same answer. No use wasting time being afraid of something you can’t do anything about.”

“So the idea of a tornado or hurricane doesn’t bother you?” I asked.

“I didn’t say things like that don’t bother me. I respect them and the unbelievable power they have, but I’m not afraid of them. Fear makes people freeze up. When it comes time to act, you can’t. That’s more dangerous than storms.”

After breakfast, the rain let up, and I figured the tornadoes wouldn’t be coming for Hank’s bus that day. I rose from my seat, looked around and said, “So what do you want me to work on today?”

“Well, I was going to have you scrubbing the outside of the bus, but there’s no use in doing that now. We’ll need a dry spell for that since I want to paint it.” He looked around. “I’m not sure what you can do, actually.”

“How about if I clean your bathroom? No offense, but I noticed last night it could use it.”

Hank looked at me, surprised at my offer. “You’d clean my bathroom?”

“Of course. I owe you.” I didn’t really want to clean it, but it was true I owed him and I didn’t like feeling that hanging over my head. Without waiting for a response, I went to the back of the bus. “Where’s the sponges and cleaner?” I called.

“Bottom of the closet,” he said, and I went to work. When I’d finished a short time later, the entire area was spotless. I was proud of my work and hoped Hank would appreciate it.

“All done,” I announced.

He came to look and whistled at the results. “You’ve done well.”

Pointing at the picture of him and the lady that I’d seen the evening before, I asked, “Who’s that with you?”

He was silent and looked down at me. Finally, he said, “Maybe I’ll tell you one day.” I could tell my question brought up memories best left alone and was sorry I’d reminded him of them.

I continued working on the bus, cleaning the inside from front to back. By the time I left, the rain had stopped completely and the sun had started to peek out from behind the remaining clouds. He paid me the three dollars he said he would, telling me to give my parents no more than one of them, and I walked home, detouring to Grayson’s Market for more dog food. This time I bought six cans and another fifteen-cent soda, which came to $1.47. This left me a dollar for rent and fifty-three cents for my savings, bringing my savings to ninety-four cents. I was starting to feel prosperous for someone not even thirteen yet.

The next day I reported to Hank’s and he had me start scraping the bus down to ready it for painting, though I wasn’t sure why he would spend the money and time to do that. At the end of the day, he gave me another five dollars. I tried to give him a dollar back since he was also feeding me breakfast and lunch, but he wouldn’t take it. I told him he was paying me too much. Five dollars a day for a kid my age in 1968 was a mint. He assured me there would be days I would not get that much, as well as days he would have no work for me, so I should accept what he gave me and plan for the future.

I stopped at Grayson’s and just got a soda since I didn’t need more dog food yet. I gave my parents $1.70 for rent, rounding up to the nearest dime, and I was left with a whopping $3.15 for my savings jar beneath my closet. In just a couple of days, I had saved $4.09.

 I also stopped by the local vet’s office on my way home and talked to them. The lady there said Doctor Kelly, the vet, would look at Bones for ten dollars, but that any medicine Bones needed would be extra. She said the local humane society would pay for his shots since I was unable to afford them, and the doctor would neuter him for free as well. It was charity, but I figured it was for Bones, not me, so that was okay. I was also unsure whether or not I wanted him neutered, but the lady said if I didn’t do that, the humane society wouldn’t pay for the shots. I went home and apologized to Bones even though he had no more idea what was in store for him than those twigs floating down the road-wash.

Over the next few days, I managed to sock away the ten dollars needed to take Bones to the vet. I had to leave him overnight because of the surgery, which the vet almost didn’t do because of Bones’s condition. The lady at the welcome desk said I could pay for the medicine the next day since I had forgotten about that charge. I worked for Hank again and was able to make just enough to pay the vet off, and Bones had to wear this plastic cone around his neck for a few days to keep him from licking his stitches. I apologized to him again.

The doctor told me to feed Bones twice a day until he managed to get his weight and strength up. The next day at Hank’s we started painting the bus, and I knew that soon the money train would cease stopping at my door, which made me worry about having enough to pay for all that dog food.

By the time we had finished the bus, I had managed to save over twenty dollars. I’d thought I was rich before, but now I knew better. That money would be gone before I knew it. As everyone kept telling me, dogs were expensive, especially ones that had nearly starved.

I was surprised the loss of income wasn’t what bothered me the most when we finished working on the bus. It was the loss of Hank’s company and friendship.

When we stepped back to admire our work, I said, “You don’t have any work for me tomorrow, do you?” The words nearly caught in my throat.

“Not right now,” he said, as if I hadn’t asked about something vital. “You saved some money, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but—” I looked at the ground.

“But what?” Hank asked when I didn’t continue. The truth was I was afraid to say more. I feared I might start crying, which would embarrass me all the way to my stomach.

I continued anyway, praying I would be able to keep my composure.

“The money isn’t what’s bothering me,” I said.

“It isn’t?” Hank asked, his tone indicating he wasn’t sure what I meant.

“I—well, I like being with you. You’re nicer to me than my folks are.”

I felt his gaze on my shoulders as if it magnified the sun’s heat. He was silent as well for a moment before he said, “What? You thought I wouldn’t want you to keep coming by for coffee in the morning?”

I looked up at him and grinned, thankful he understood something I was too young to fully grasp myself, yet those same morning coffees were what led to the problems.

AND ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE: CHAPTER ONE — [FORMERLY “HELL IS EMPTY”]

Below is the first chapter of my next novel, titled HELL IS EMPTY. The title is from a line from Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, "Hell is empty and all the devils are here." This definitely would not be classified as literary fiction, as FLOATING TWIGS is. This is a thriller, which should be obvious by the end of the first paragraph. However, in this book I explore the damage done to an entire family when tragedy like this strikes, as well as trying to convey some of the terror being subjected to such torture creates in the victim, Maureen. I have begun working on chapter six, but I will post only the first chapter of this one for now. Be advised that this is NOT meant for children! Comments are urged! Just comment as a "Guest," but I would appreciate if you would "sign" your post so I know who is commenting. Keep in mind this is a work in progress. The final version may look nothing like this.

Maureen awoke to the sound of water dripping from a faucet somewhere. She lay there, aware only of the hollow tick of drops hitting metal like a bizarre metronome and the headache that wanted to rip her head apart. She could feel her nudity as her eyelids fluttered. The darkness surrounding her was so complete she had to blink to make sure her eyes were open as she wondered where she was. She tried to move, but taut ropes secured her wrists and ankles to something solid. Then memory began slinking back.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she grasped her last memory and moved forward from it.

She had decided to walk the two miles home from school instead of taking the bus so she could stop at a local rec center to watch Bobby Pepperdine play basketball. She would still arrive home in plenty of time to avoid being grounded again.

She took a shortcut through a neighborhood development. When she saw the van, she wondered if the driver had gotten lost. The same van with the rusty dent on the rear bumper had passed her just a few minutes before. Otherwise, the street was empty. The van turned onto the next street and stopped there. How does it feel to be clueless, dumb-ass? she thought.

As she crossed the empty street behind the van, the rear door burst open and muscular arms dragged her inside. A strong hand holding a rag reeking of chemicals clamped her mouth shut as she struggled, and within seconds of being grabbed the van’s rear door slammed. Her abductor’s face, hidden by a grotesque Halloween mask, swam into view before she blacked out. The next thing she remembered was waking up in this darkness.

Panic seized her as the full impact of what had happened punched her chest, and she screamed. Only the man standing near the end of the bed wearing night-vision goggles heard her.

*******

Lori Dobson swung the Audi into the driveway, braking suddenly to avoid demolishing her teenage son’s bicycle. She couldn’t count the times she had told Craig to make sure he kept the driveway clear of his things, and for a moment, she considered the harsh object lesson of running over the expensive Schwinn, but she knew that would only be punishing herself and their bank account. Stephen would insist on buying Craig a new bike, especially if he knew she had destroyed this one on purpose.

She honked the horn, hoping Craig would hear and come move his bike, but the honking only served to scatter a few birds from the elm in their front yard. Finally, she pulled herself out of the car and wheeled the bicycle onto the grass where she dumped it. Climbing back into the Audi, she pushed the garage door opener on her visor and pulled in, finally getting out and gathering the few groceries and a file from work before entering the house.

Her older daughter Callie was at the kitchen table, hovering over her phone with all the concentration of a scientist mixing volatile chemicals. Lori placed the grocery bags on a counter.

“Callie, could you stop texting for a minute and help put these groceries away?”

Callie grunted what could have been a yes, but Lori wasn’t sure.

“Now, please?” Lori said, putting the milk in the refrigerator.

Callie rose from her chair with a huff and started unloading a bag.

“Where’s Craig?” Lori asked.

“In his room.”

“What’s he doing?”

“How would I know?” Callie answered, shoving a box of cereal into a cabinet before closing the door a bit harder than necessary.

Ignoring Callie’s petulance, Lori went down the hall to Craig’s room, gathering all her patience as she went. He was Callie’s twin, but other than the mid-teen angst, they were as different as their genders.

Knocking on the door, she waited for him to open it. When he didn’t, she pushed the door open a crack and called, “Craig?” Nothing. She opened the door farther and saw him lying on his bed, reading a book with his ear buds firmly planted so he could listen to music, which was so loud she could hear it herself from the open doorway.

Annoyed, Craig looked at his mother and yanked an ear bud free. “Yeah?”

“First, you’re going to damage your hearing if you don’t turn that down. And second, you left your bike in the driveway again. I didn’t stop in time, so now it’s ruined.”

“What?!” He jumped from his bed, tossing the book onto the mussed covers.

“Okay, I did manage to stop this time, but next time you might not be so lucky. For the millionth time, put your bike away when you’re done with it. I left it in the grass. Go put it away.”

Craig heaved a sigh and stomped out of his room.

 “Where’s Maureen?” she called after him.

Craig shrugged as he walked away. “I don’t know. Haven’t seen her since lunch.”

“She wasn’t on the bus?”

“Nope.”

Frustrated, Lori returned to the kitchen, where Callie was back on her phone, her thumbs a blur on the keypad.

“Have you seen Maureen?”

“No,” Callie said without looking up.

“Why didn’t you tell me she wasn’t on the bus?”

“I don’t know, maybe because you didn’t ask?” Callie answered without looking up. “Besides, I figured you must have known.”

Lori felt a pang of disquiet. She always made sure her children were safe when she got home. It was her routine. Maureen could be headstrong, but she would always make sure at least somebody knew where she was. Checking the house phone’s last message, she found it was two days old.

Pulling her phone from her purse, she noted she’d not received any calls from Maureen and pressed a few buttons to call her. When the call went immediately to voice mail, Lori’s pang of disquiet became a twinge of unease tinged with anger. Her children were on strict orders to make sure their phones were charged overnight and not used during the school day unless absolutely necessary. Letting someone know about being home late qualified as necessary. Not only that, turning their phones off if they weren’t home was totally forbidden. Lori glanced at the time on her phone: 5:42.

Where the hell was she? And why did her call go to voice mail? Had Maureen traveled so far from home that she was in some rural area with no signal? Lori considered it but discarded the idea as far-fetched. There was no way any of her children would do such a thing without letting someone know, not even Maureen.

She phoned Emma’s mother, but there was no answer, the call eventually going to voicemail.

Doing her best to calm down, she decided to call Stephen. The kids sometimes called him instead of her, though that was so rare she couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. Still, it seemed to be the only explanation left.

As Stephen’s phone rang, she managed to convince herself that he would know where their daughter was. Maybe Emma, Maureen’s best friend since they were babies practically, had asked her to go somewhere with her family or something, perhaps to go out to the country to get some pumpkins from a local farm for Halloween.

“Hey, Hon,” Stephen said when he answered. “What’s up?”

“Did Maureen call you and tell you she wouldn’t be home ‘til later?”

“No. Why? She’s not home?”

“No, and Callie and Craig haven’t seen or heard from her either.”

“Well, she’s probably with Emma or something and forgot to call. Why not call her?”

“Oh, wow. Why didn’t I think of that?

“You called?”

“Yes, Stephen. It went straight to voice mail.”

He could hear the panic beginning to take root in her. “Maybe she’s having so much fun she decided to turn her phone off.”

“Only if she wants her mom to kill her,” Lori said. “She knows the rules.”

“Have you tried Anita?” Anita was Emma’s mother.

“Yes, but she didn’t answer.”

“Maybe she dropped her phone and something broke,” Stephen offered.

For a moment Lori tried to stifle her anger that Stephen wasn’t as upset as she was. What he’d said was possible, but if that had happened, she would have simply borrowed someone else’s phone. She told Stephen this, speaking in a tone that suggested he was a small child himself.

Stephen sighed. “She’ll be home. Then we can ground her. I’m sure there will be a rational explanation for everything.”

“Stephen! She’s not home, she hasn’t called on her phone or anyone else’s, and she knows the rules!”

“Calm down, Lori. I’m coming home now. We can figure out what to do if she hasn’t called or come home by then.”

After disconnecting, Lori called Maureen again, praying she would answer. When the voice mail answered again she hissed, “Maureen Dobson! We don’t know where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing, or when you’ll be home! Call me the second you get this message!”

By nine o’clock that evening, Stephen’s panic was matching Lori’s. Without saying Maureen was technically missing, Lori had finally gotten ahold of Emma's mother and was told Maureen wasn't there and that Emma was with another friend and had mentioned nothing about Maureen joining them. They called the police and tried to report her missing, but the police believed she had run away because she had done that twice already, though only as far as Emma's house. They refused to do anything for twenty-four hours, explaining that Maureen qualified for the waiting period because of her past instances. Lori reluctantly admitted they might be right. She had always called her “my harebrained child.” It was possible she might think running away somewhere other than Emma's would be a good idea.

Lori prayed Maureen had run away. Any other explanation made her heart seize. She was only fourteen. She would discover the world was a mean place and come home with her tail between her legs, apologetic and frightened.

She tried not to think of the possibility that Maureen had been kidnapped or was lying in a ditch somewhere, but the ideas would intrude on her hope like a phone call in the middle of the night. If she were hurt, she would eventually come to and call home. But she knew that if Maureen had been abducted, their chances of seeing her alive again were probably near zero.