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Authors: Melissa Pearl

Betwixt, Before, Beyond (9 page)

BOOK: Betwixt, Before, Beyond
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Chapter Seventeen

 

The house is empty when I arrive. I have no choice but to jump...fall through the window and walk to my room. Stopping in the living room, I stand and gaze at the tall pine tree in the back yard. I can see Jody's tiny body falling as she screams my name.

I squeeze my eyes shut and try to switch off the sound, but it doesn't work.

"NICKY!" rings in my brain, loud, clear and deafening.

I cover my ears and run up to my room. Flinging myself onto the bed, I bury my head in my arms and let the sobs take me. They climb up my body, making it wrench and jerk.
I haven't cried this hard...ever.

My loud moans and hiccupy breaths fill the room until there's nothing left.

The silence that follows is depressing, but I can't move away from it. I lay there in numb silence for the rest of the day. I can't sleep, I can't disappear, all I can do is lie there and hear all my friends' nasty words swirl in my head. The only thing to break the rhythm is Jody's scream and the sick thud that followed it.

At four o'clock the front door clicks open. I recognize my mother's clipped steps. I want to go down and see her, but I can't make my body move. An hour later I hear Dad walking in.

"Get up," I whisper. I repeat the words until my brain starts functioning. Slowly I rise from the bed and make my way downstairs.

Mom is pottering in the kitchen, chopping up lettuce, slicing up tomatoes.
Dad's at the refrigerator pulling out a beer.

They walk around each other in silence, not saying a word.

Mom sniffs at a few tears as she chops the onions. I don't know what's really causing them, but Dad doesn't even flinch.

What happened to our family?

 

A memory of the four of us sittin
g around the dining room table — the one we never use now — playing a board game flits through my brain.

Jody was giggling her head off at Dad's funny faces. Mom whacked him on the shoulder to make him stop
then clutched her stomach as another round of giggles took her. I watched them with a huge grin, trying not to laugh at how silly Dad was being. Once he had our two giggle buddies in hysterics he stopped and shot me a knowing wink. Our entertainment was set for the night. We watched with amusement as they both tried to pull themselves together, but after one look at each other, they'd both snort and start all over again. Dad gazed at Mom with adoring eyes.

I look at Dad's eyes now
and they're blank, lifeless...numb, just like mine have been since that awful day.

"I would do anything to change the past, you guys."

They don't hear me...and I guess it doesn't really matter. I can't change the past. I can't change what I did or what happened.

I just have to live with it.

I mean, they will just have to live with it; I can go ahead and die.

Tired of taking in the desolation, I turn and head back to my room. I know I've been wandering aimlessly for the last few years, but I feel more lost than ever as I take a seat in my cold, quiet room. I sit in the armchair by the window and gaze into the darkness.

Time ticks by in slow, painful minutes. My body starts to ache with a coldness I haven't felt before. I wrap my arms around myself and curl into a ball. My head is throbbing again and I wonder if I'm about to return when I hear the doorbell ring.

Jerking from my dark meanderings, I sit up and listen.

I strain to recognize the voices and it's not until they're all stepping into my room that I see the sheriff appear from behind my mother. Her eyes are round with worry as she turns to him.

"So, here it is."

The sheriff nods, placing his hands on his hips and surveying my orderly surroundings. "She certainly has a lot of books."

"Yes." Mom smiles. "She used to love reading. I'd always find her up here with her nose buried in a book."

"Funny, she never struck me as the reading kind."

The guy's barely said two words to me, how would he know?

My father clears his throat. "She hasn't been into books for a couple of years now. High school brought out a different side in her. She's not at home as much anymore."

The sheriff shoots my father a pitiful look.

"Don't look at him that way." I stand up and walk to his side. "So you're the perfect father? You've never made mistakes before!"

I don't know why I'm standing up for Dad, but I despise that look of judgement on Sheriff Hutton's face. He's never lost a child, how would he know what to do?

I jump back before the Sheriff puts his foot through my boots. He goes to my desk and rifles through some pages, reading bits and pieces.

"It's just my homework."

His eyebrows rise as he notices the A- on the top of my latest assignment. I try to snatch it from his hand, but the paper doesn't move. I stare at the paper, concentrating really hard and am reaching for it again when he drops it back to my desk.

"So, where do you think they'll start the search?" Dad looks hopeful as he gazes at the sheriff.

"That's not really why I'm here, Mitchell." Sheriff Hutton turns to face them with a sad expression. "I've been on the phone for a large portion of the day, I've chatted to her friends, I've asked around. The thing is..." He runs his hand through his hair and sighs. "We're not sure if we have the resources and funds for a search with absolutely no starting point...and the chances that Nicole has run away are so high... We've decided not to go ahead."

"What?" My father steps forward, anger and grief playing tango with his expression.

My mother's wide eyes fill with tears and she bites her lower lip.

"I'm sorry, folks."

"What if she didn't run away?"

"Do you honestly think she hasn't?"

My parents both look down and shake their heads.

I can't believe he's doing this. I can't believe he's giving up on me before even trying. The urge to stand up and scream in his face is warring with the urge to curl into a ball and fall asleep forever.

"We'll do what we can, Trudy. I've spoken to the L.A.P.D. already. I've just come to collect a recent picture of her and then I can scan it for them. They'll keep an eye out for her."

My mother wipes at her tears and glances around the room.

"Um... we don't have much that's recent." Guilt is dripping from her words; I can hear it wafting through the air. Regret sucks. "Maybe she has something on her computer or...in her drawers. Just give me a minute."

Dad steps over to my computer and brings the screen to life. He starts looking through my folders to no avail. I'm not too worried, as long as he doesn't open my Facebook page, I should be fine.

I glance over at my mother and see her pick up my diary then rifle through the drawer beneath.

"Mom, don't." I shoot over to her, but not in time.

Her face drops with disbelief and disgust. I forgot I left those prints in there. I mean who even prints photos now anyway?

I think about the day I found the inside of my locker decorated with these party shots. I forced myself to laugh until I managed hysterical giggles, but I remember being quietly humiliated. As soon as everyone walked away I ripped
them out of my locker and buried them in my bag.

I should have just thrown them away.

Stepping up beside Mom, I look over her shoulder and wince. The photos are hardly flattering. They were taken this summer when we went to Drue's cabin for the weekend. Alcohol had flowed and drunken antics had followed. Mom is staring at one of me half-naked, making out with Trent by the water's edge. I want to snatch it from her fingers.

"Stop looking at those...
please."

She flips over to another one where me, Amber and Penny are flipping the bird at the camera thinking we are oh so cool and funny.

My mother closes her eyes and drops the photos back in the drawer.

"Find anything?" The sheriff turns.

Mom slides the drawer closed and shakes her head. "No, nothing."

"I think I've got something."

Dad enlarges the picture on screen. He's found a shot of me staring at the camera. My eyes look void of life and my mouth is set in a tight line. I look annoyed, but at least I'm dressed and not doing any rude gestures.

"That's the best you've got?"

My Dad looks ashamed as he nods at the sheriff's question.

"Okay, well e-mail that to me then and I'll get onto it first thing in the morning." Sheriff Hutton hands Dad his business card.

My father nods then goes about opening his webmail and attaching the photo.

"What was she wearing the last time you saw her?" Sheriff Hutton pulls out his
notebook, his pen is poised to scribble down a description.

Dad glances up from the screen and catches Mom's eye. She shakes her head.

"I didn't see her leave on Tuesday and Mitchell wasn't home."

Dad looks annoyed and turns back to the screen.

"She just called out a goodbye like she always does. I...she’s sixteen! It's not like I need to wave her off every time she leaves the house. I didn't think it was the last time I'd be seeing her." Mom's voice crumples, her last word coming out as a squeak.

The sheriff flicks her a sad smile as he slides his pen and notepad back into his jacket. "I'm sorry you have to face this, Trudy. I really am."

She crosses her arms and nods.

"Please keep us updated."

"I will, but I have to warn you...don't get your hopes up."

Why would he say something like that to them? Can't he see they're already on edge?

"I think you should leave now." My voice is hard.

Sheriff Hutton pats Dad's shoulder and gives it a squeeze before saying goodbye and leaving.

The whoosh of an email sending is the only sound in the room. I gaze at my parents' shell-shocked expressions.

I don't know what to say. I don't know how to make it better.

"I'll go finish dinner." Mom's hands drop to her side and she walks out of the room.

Dad robotically closes down my computer, not just putting it to sleep,
but actually shutting it down.

There is
a finality to the action that leaves a tender bruise right in the middle of my chest.

I'm obviously not the only one giving up.

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

It's eight o'clock by the time I make my way back down to the kitchen. Dad is stacking the dishwasher, while Mom is wrapping the leftovers. There are a lot. I guess I wouldn't be able to eat either.

Mom opens her mouth a couple of times as if to speak, but then can't bring herself to do it.

And so the painful silence reigns.

Dad is just loading the last of the cutlery when the doorbell rings again.

Mom looks at Dad with a questioning frown. He shrugs and shuts the dish drawer.

I stay with Mom while he goes to answer the door.

"Hi." Dad sounds confused.

Is it the sheriff again? What other depressing news does he have? I walk towards the door and freeze.

"Hey Mr. Tepper. Do you mind if I come in?"

I recognize Dale's voice and shrink back against the wall. He walks meekly into the kitchen and gives my mom a soft smile.

"Hi Mrs. Tepper."

"Hi." She wipes her hands on a towel and moves around the counter to shake Dale's hand.

"Dale Finningan," he reminds her.

"That's right. You live just around the corner, don't you?"

"Yeah, you helped us find the house."

"I remember." She forces cheeriness into her voice.

"What can we do for you, Dale?" Dad pulls out a stool and offers Dale a seat.

Dale slides into the chair and looks around the kitchen.

I should let him know I'm here, but I can't. Words are stuck in my throat, clogging my airways, making it hard to breathe. What's he here to say?

"I..." He licks his lips and picks at the counter top. "I've been worried about Nicole. Do you guys have any more news?"

My parents look at each other, trying to have one of those wordless conversations, but I think they're a bit rusty.

Wait, no I see it.

They just had one!

Dad turns to Dale and with a broken voice admits, "We don't know what's happened to her."

"Have you heard from her?" The hope in Mom's voice is hard to miss.

Dale shakes his head with a sad smile.

"You know you're the only one of her friends who's come to see if she's here. Are you two in some kind of relationship?"

I can sense my mother's struggle to ask. After what she discovered in the top drawer of my bedside table, I can understand why.

"No, ma'am." That smirk I l
ove jumps onto his face. "No...uhh...she's not really into guys like me. I'm a little too outspoken and thoughtless for her tastes."

I move from my position in the doorway, my heart melting at his quiet words.

"So you're not friends?"

"I really want to be, but I guess I need to control my tongue first."

My parents look at each other in confusion.

"I'm just really sorry if I ever said anything to hurt her and I'll regret it forever if I don't get to see her again and tell her that."

I blink rapidly as tears blur my vision.

My father's brow dips with concern. "Are you suggesting she ran away because you two had a fight?"

"No, sir." Dale sits up straight. "In fact," he pauses and takes a breath, "I'm wondering if she didn't run away at all."

"Why? Why are you saying that?"

I wince at the sharpness in my mother's voice.

It's impressive that Dale isn't shying away.

"I don't know, Mrs. Tepper, it's just a feeling...or a wondering. Has anyone considered the fact that she might not have skipped town?"

"The sheriff thinks she has." Mom's shoulders bunch with agitation.

"But is he right? I mean it's all just conjecture, isn't it?"

For some reason this is stressing my mother out more than the idea of me running away. Grabbing up the dishcloth, she squeezes it in her hands. "So what does that make her? If she hasn't run away, where is she?"

Dale and I both see where this is going and I desperately want to intervene.

"I'm not sure; I'm just suggesting that maybe someone should start searching for her."

Dad places a tender hand on Mom's back and gives it a small rub. "I've sent a picture of her to the Sheriff. He's sending it to the L.A.P.D. for us."

Dale looks annoyed. "Are they going to do more? Aren't they going
to search the area? Pull together a party of people? I'll help." He rises from the stool.

"Son, we have to admit that Nicole running away is the most likely answer to this."

"But it's not the only one." He rubs his face. "Mr. Tepper I think you should be going back to the sheriff and insisting he starts searching for her."

"We have this under control, Dale." Dad's voice is calm, but I can hear a small edge creeping into it.

"Sir, I don't think you do. She didn't run away."

"Dale." My mother slaps the counter. "Stop. We are doing what we can and I want you to go."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Tepper, I didn't mean to upset you, I just..."

"Leave, please." Her voice breaks and wobbles as she turns away from him.

Dale repeats his apology one more time.

"Goodbye, Dale." Dad shoots him a pointed look and Dale has no rebuttal.

With a soft sigh, he shoves his hands in his pockets and walks to the door. He turns to scan the room one last time, his eyes alight with a hope that is swiftly dying. Dipping his head, he silently walks from the room.

 

His hand is on the doorknob when I reach him.

"Thank you," I whisper in his ear.

He goes statue still as his face washes with relief.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I said that stuff to you," he whispers.

"I know...but I guess I can kind of be an irritating bitch."

"You're not." Dale turns to me. "I wish I could turn back time and erase that whole conversation. It's just my nose was throbbing and I was annoyed about Adam and I was so humiliated that Trent decked me in front of you."

A laugh bursts from my lips before I can stop it.

With gentle fingers I touch his swollen nose.

"Oh that feels good." He closes his eyes. "Nice and cold."

My heart skips a beat as he raises his hand and places it on top of mine. He hovers above it making sure not to fall straight through my fingers. His eyes open and he gives me a long, steady gaze.

"Want to come home with me?"

I listen for sounds of my parents' conversation. It's getting heated, but that's not why I want to say yes.

I let go of his nose and reach for his hand. He senses what I'm doing and spreads his fingers.

"Let's go."

With a soft smile, he opens the door and we walk into the cool night air.

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