--- 3 ---
My editor Jeff tells me to give it up.
"You have no leads." His voice is loud in my cell phone, only its higher frequencies coming through. "Quit being stubborn, Lucy. Find something else."
"There were a few leads," I protest, staring down at my notebook. "Mister Whittaker—he was going to meet with Whit that morning."
"Richard would have called me if he couldn't make it."
"I know that, Mister Whittaker. Why were you going to meet up that morning?"
"Well, that was the day the college was going to hand him its verdict. I'd helped him petition them to let him back in."
"He wanted to share the news with you?"
"The news—and the celebration, seeing as how the answer was yes."
Jeff continues. "Lucy, listen to me, this is—"
"And his mother . . ." Well, that wasn't a lead. That was a brief glimpse of her tearstained face and a slammed door. "Well, not his mother, but the academic advisor—he had a meeting to set up classes, and he wouldn't have—"
"That's all well and good, but—"
"And there was this girl he was going to meet." Pretty and pale, with restless eyes. I found her in the admissions office, where she worked, and convinced her to break with me over tea.
"He told me he was petitioning the school to let him back in, even though he already had transcripts from the University of Chicago."
That surprised me. He'd been going to my school, but it's big enough I just hadn't seen him.
"And he just had so much drive and dedication, so I asked him if he'd like to, sort of—" here she turned pink "—sort of meet me here sometime to talk. He smiled—have you seen him smile?" I nodded. "It's a sad look." It never used to be, but I didn't tell her that. "But he said he'd be delighted. And it sounded like he meant it, but . . ."
I found myself reaching for her hand, this girl I'd only just met, because I knew what Richard Maxwell and his smile could do to a person. "He disappeared under suspicious circumstances," I told her. "You can't hold that against him. He'll have a good excuse when he comes back. A real one."
Hope sparkled in her eyes.
"And I called his sister." That had taken some effort. I'd first phoned Donna Barclay to help me remember his sister's name, so I could look her up. Finally, I found her number.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"This is Lucy Cunningham-Schultz. I'm a reporter for the—"
"I know who you are."
"Oh." How did she know who I was? I barely remembered her; we were in different grades at school.
"Why are you calling me?" Her voice sounded far away suddenly, and shaky.
"It's about your brother Richard."
"Yeah, of course it is."
"Well—well, I just wanted to ask you if he's contacted you recently?"
"He calls me all the time," she shot back, like I'd challenged her to prove something.
"Has he called you today? Or yesterday?"
A pause. "No. I know he's missing; Mom called me."
"Do you know where he might have gone?"
"No idea. He's not answering his cell. Are you looking for him?"
"Well, not exactly . . . I'm just writing a story about what might have happened."
"Oh. I wish you'd—I wish you'd look for him. If I was there, I'd help you. I'm worried."
"Yeah . . . I'm worried, too."
"Yeah, I thought you might be." She sighed. "Just find him for me, okay, Lucy? For both of us. Find him."
"Lucylucylucy!" Jeff screams.
"What?" I blink myself back into the present, where I'm sitting in my car with my notebook unfurled.
"I. Don't. Care. The readers won't either."
"Yes they will! Someone's gone missing from a small town—that's always news."
"Not when the missing person is a criminal."
"He's not a . . . well, he's not a criminal anymore."
"Whatever. The point is, no one cares."
"They should care!"
"Yeah, whatever. You're boring me, Lucy; do you want to bore the readers? Just whip up one of your human interest stories and get back here. I need you for the convenience store thing. There've been two more hold-ups in the area since you left—and they're gradually moving more toward your direction, so you're in a good spot to cover them for us."
"Fine, Jeff. See you later." I hang up the phone and lean my head back. Richard Maxwell is a human interest story. Isn't he?
"Tell me about the night you escaped."
"He pulled up at a rest stop with a service station. He parked on the edge of it, where the two floodlights didn't reach. As soon as he left the car, I started to struggle. The cuffs were tight, but my right thumb—here, see?" He'll hold up his right hand, dotted red where he rubbed it raw against the handcuffs. The thumb sports a deep purple bruise; it might click when he bends it (or might not—but four times out of five, it does). "Sometimes it pops out of joint on its own—ever since I jumped out of Bovril's car and fell on it. So finally--finally I dislocated it on my own and pulled my hand free. Eventually."
"I bet that hurt."
"A little. But there was no time to try and pop it back. I clicked open the glove compartment where he'd tossed my stuff—cell phone included. It had rung several times. Myron kept scoffing at my Vivaldi ringtone. I called 9-1-1, explained the situation. They said the police were on their way and told me to get away from there."
"But you didn't listen?"
"At first I did. I stumbled out of the car and got to the edge of the forest nearby, so I could watch for Myron. Then I called my sister."
She will hesitate before asking this question. "Why her?"
"She's the one who cares the most. She started crying. I told her the police were on the way. She was worried that Myron would find me hiding; she told me I should go farther from the rest stop, but I was so weak from hunger that I wanted to stay put."
"But you didn't."
"Rae's the one who gave me the idea—inadvertently. She said she wished she was with me, said Myron would hesitate if there were witnesses. That's what got me thinking."
--- 4 ---
I'm on my way back to Chicago, back roads. Eventually I'll find a motel or something, and tomorrow I'll get to investigating the convenience store hold-ups. I didn't get a human interest story in Odyssey. Whenever I tried to think of one, my mind kept going back to the brief note I'd written about Richard. Missing. And what that could mean—what Jellyfish might have done to him.
I feel guilty for the way I've thought of Richard in the last few years. See, I never think about him alive. That is to say, when I think about him, I think about Heaven. I think about what it might be like to see him there, where we'd just be two children of God, all sin and shame stripped away. We'd pass barriers of age and history and recognize one another as brother and sister. There wouldn't be any more complications or strains. We wouldn't keep remembering things we'd rather forget.
But to think that he might be . . . gone . . . already? I didn't mean it that way, I say in prayer. Whether or not he's found you already, Lord . . . don't let him die. Please, please, please. I have to tell him what he taught me. Please keep him safe.
My phone rings. I pull over, because the road is so dark and windy here, and answer.
"This is Rachael Woodworth. Richard is okay."
Thank you!! "What?! How do you know?"
"He called me. He says he's . . . near a town called Grambledon. At a rest stop. Some guy named Myron kidnapped him, but he escaped. The police are heading there. I just thought you should know."
I thank her, and then thank her again, and then thank God again and again and again. My hands are shaking when I hang up. He may be okay now, but the police haven't reached him yet. Jellyfish could still find him!
I pull up my GPS and look up Grambledon. A nervous laugh escapes my lips. I'm just north of it now—and just south of a rest stop. I ease my car back onto the road.
He will set the cup of pens back on the table and stare down at his hands. "There was a big part of me that realized how stupid it was." He'll have his embarrassed smile on again, and she will find this distracting. "It's just—there was a bigger part of me that didn't care."
"So you walked right into the convenience store. What did Jellyfish do when he saw you?"
His grin will turn devious, no less distracting. "He hollered my name."
"What did you do?"
"I said, ‘Hiya, Myron.' The only other people there were the cashier and this guy checking out magazines--but that was enough witnesses to hold him back."
"Wade Bishop and Harlan Keith." She won't need to refer to her notes anymore.
"As we later found out. Both of them stared at me when I stumbled in, clutching my thumb. The cashier—Wade—told me I needed a doctor. Keith was eyeing the cuffs around my left wrist. Wade asked if he could get me anything; I said some water would be nice. He told me to help myself, so I joined Myron by the drink refrigerators. He was loading up on caffeine; he hadn't slept since kidnapping me. He had his jaw clenched so tight I could hear his teeth grinding. I held up my hand--it was kind of bleeding from scraping against the cuffs--and I showed him my thumb. I pointed out the irony that it was only since my fall off the cliff that my hand's been so pliable—it's only because of him."
"Were you scared?"
"I was too delirious to be scared. But I knew he didn't want to go to jail again, so he wouldn't risk witnesses. I didn't bother keeping my voice down when I told him the police were on their way. That's when Keith flipped out."
"What did he do?"
"He yelled at me: 'What'd you say?' I started to assure him it was nothing to do with him, but all of a sudden he's got a gun in his hand, aimed at the cashier. He said he wanted to wait until me and Myron were gone, but if the cops were coming, he didn't have the time. He demanded the money."
"What did the cashier do then?"
"Oh, he started forking the money over, but took as long as he could—maybe waiting for the cops. Then Myron said, ‘Hey, you know, we could leave. You do your thing; we'll just leave.' He tried to grab my arm but I slipped away and put an aisle between us. Keith turned his gun on us then. ‘Not yet,' he said. While his back was turned, Wade grabbed a club from somewhere and swung it at Keith—but Keith danced away. On his second swing, Wade smacked the gun out of his hand. Keith and Myron both leapt for it."
"Who got to it first?"
Here, he will shift his weight. He's replayed the scene over and over in his mind, wondering whose finger was on the trigger. He still isn't sure who did it, and he can't say whether it was intentional. "They were struggling for it . . . I like to think it was an accident."
"That they shot Wade?"
He'll nod, uncomfortable with the memory. He has seen many things he wishes he had not, but that was the first time he'd seen anyone shot.