Authors: Lisa Unger
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Horror, #Suspense
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For Tara Popick
Thank you for a lifetime of friendship, laughter, and love. I can’t imagine what this journey would be without you.
addy was on the phone, talking soft and low, dropping behind them on the path. Nothing new. He was
on the phone—or on the computer. Penny knew that her daddy loved her, but she also knew that he was almost never paying attention. He was “busy, sweetie,” or “with a client,” or “just a minute, honey, Daddy’s talking to someone.” He was a good storyteller, a bear-hugger, always opened his arms to her, lifted her high, or took her into his lap while he worked at his desk. Mommy couldn’t lift her anymore, but Daddy still could. She loved the feel of him, the smell of him. He was never angry, always funny. But
she had to say his name like
one hundred times
before he heard her, even when she was right next to him.
Dad. Dad? Daddy!
Honey, you don’t have to yell.
How could you not hear someone who was right next to you?
If Mommy was out and Daddy was in charge, then she and her brother could: eat whatever they wanted (all you had to do was go into the kitchen and take it; he wouldn’t even notice); play on the iPad
(he would never suggest that they read a book or play a game together); ride their plasma cars up and down the long hallway from the foyer to the living room. And it was only when they got too loud that he might appear in the doorway to his office and say: “Hey, guys? Keep it down, okay?”
He wasn’t even
to talk on his phone on the hike—which was his idea. As far as she was concerned, hikes were just walks that
never seemed to end. A walk with nothing exciting—like ice cream or a movie—at the end of it. It was just so that they could “be in nature”—which was Daddy’s favorite place to be. And Mom wasn’t there, because it was their time to just “be with Dad.”
“Don’t tell Mom, okay?” he’d said, as he fished his phone out of his backpack.
She and her brother had exchanged a look. It made her uncomfortable when he asked her to keep things from her mom, because Mommy had made her promise never to keep secrets. She said: “Anyone who asks you to keep a secret from your mom—a teacher, a friend, a stranger, anyone—is not looking out for you. No good person would ever ask you to do that.”
She knew that her mom was talking about stranger danger and how people weren’t allowed to touch her body (ew!) or “push drugs” at her. Mommy hadn’t said
about Daddy. She very badly wanted to ask: “What if Daddy asks me to keep a secret?” But she had a feeling that wouldn’t be a good idea.
So she and her brother walked ahead on the shady path, leaving Daddy trailing behind talking in a soft voice to someone. She couldn’t hear him and didn’t care anyway. When grown-ups talked to each other it was
boring. She didn’t understand their words, their tones, why—out of nowhere—they got angry at each other, started yelling. Or worse, got suddenly really quiet, not talking at all. Talking to each other in fake voices, then changing back to normal voices for her and her brother. Weird.
do you want me to do?” Daddy said, his voice suddenly growing louder.
When she looked back at him, he glanced up at her quickly, then down at the ground again.
“Come on,” said her brother.
He took her by the hand, and they ran up the path. All around them the trees were thick and tall, the air clean and fresh. There were no horns and sirens, just the sweet songs of birds in the branches. The crunching dirt path beneath her sneakers felt so different than concrete. The ground was wobbly and soft; she had to watch her
step. But the air filled her lungs. She imagined them inflating like balloons, lifting her up into the leaves.
Her friends—Sophia, Grace, Averi—they all hated their older brothers. Brothers who teased and made fun, who scared them and hit them when their parents weren’t looking, played innocent when their sisters cried. But her brother wasn’t like that. She loved her brother; he helped her build the Lego Hogwarts Castle she got for Christmas, let her sleep in his bed when she was scared during storms. When her mom wasn’t around (which wasn’t often), he was the next best thing. Always there. Always knew what to say, what to do. Not like Daddy, who she also loved. But Daddy didn’t
all the important things—like how she didn’t like jelly, only peanut butter, how you weren’t supposed to turn the lights all the way off at bedtime, just down really low on the dimmer, or that she wanted water only from the refrigerator, not from the faucet in the bathroom.
“What are we doing?” she asked her brother. She’d wanted to stay back with Mommy, but Daddy wouldn’t let her.
Come on, kiddo. It’s our time to be together.
“Hiking,” her brother said.
?” she said, leaning on the word.
“Nowhere,” he said. “We’re just walking.”
“I’m tired,” she said. And she
tired suddenly—she wasn’t just saying it so that they could go back to Mom. “My tummy hurts.”
say that sometimes, because that was an automatic “let’s go home” for her mom. Her dad didn’t pay attention; he knew she sometimes was faking because she was bored or uncomfortable.
Just hang in there a little, okay?
“We’ll go back in a minute,” her brother said now. “Look at this.”
It was a log that had fallen and was laying beside the path. “Remember that book:
—or something?” he said.
Oh yeah, that book about how when a log falls down, insects move in and find a home and help the log to decompose. Cool.
Her brother peeled back a wet brown layer of bark to reveal a congregation of tiny black beetles; she leaned in close to watch them
move and shimmer, burrow into these little holes they’d made. She wasn’t a girly girl. She didn’t shriek about bugs the way her friends did. She reached her finger down, and one of them crawled onto her hand.
“He likes me,” she said.
She turned her hand and let the tiny bug scuttle up her wrist and onto the cuff of her long-sleeve tee-shirt. Her favorite shirt, with the owl on it. She wore it all the time even though a hole had worn under the arm and the hem was coming down in the back.
Her brother was inspecting the log. There was already a deep, long hollow, and her brother was crouched down peering inside. While he was looking inside, she heard the birdcall she’d been hearing, this kind of sweet song, with lots of notes. She’d never heard one like it. Birds usually just sounded like they were cheeping to her, especially in the city. But this bird was saying something, something important.
Once when she’d been walking past the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, she saw a man nearby with a monocular pointed up at a tall apartment building.
“What’s he looking at?” she asked her daddy. The man had a table set up with brochures and photographs for sale. Her mommy would have said
I don’t know
and that would have been the end of it, because they would have been running to this thing or that thing and there wouldn’t be time to stop. But Daddy didn’t ever care as much about being on time, so they wandered over.
The man had white hair and a plaid cap and a very nice blue coat. He reminded her of her grandpa, how quiet and careful he was. He talked about the hawks and other wildlife that nested right in New York City.
“Natural beauty is everywhere,” he said. “It finds a place for itself even right here. You just have to know where to look.”
He let her daddy lift her up to the monocular, and the man adjusted the lens until it came into focus and she saw two fuzzy gray baby hawks in their nest, their beaks open, surrounding their mama, who was red with white feathers on her chest and who had
alert, bright eyes. Penny watched, mesmerized, until her daddy said it was time to go. When she moved away from the monocular, she saw only the building again—except now with the small cluster of brown up high on a ledge. She never would have seen it. After that, she started noticing birds in the trees and always tried to listen to their songs. The squirrels that danced across branches in the park. A woodpecker one day. Her daddy even showed her an article about someone who’d woken up to find a wild turkey sitting on his balcony. What the old man with the monocular said, about knowing where to look, it stayed with her. He was right.
Before they’d left for the hike, Daddy had downloaded an app on his iPhone that would help them identify birdcalls. He also had the binoculars. She looked around at the leafy tops of the trees, shielding her eyes against the bright yellow light (was it
this buttery yellow in the city?). She tried to catch a glimpse of the bird that was singing, but she couldn’t. She glanced back down the path—she wanted to show her daddy the log, to use the binoculars. Where
?” she asked her brother, a little whiny.
A single echoing crack came in answer. Then a kind of cry, a fluttering of leaves. She turned to her brother, who she could tell had heard it, too, because he was looking down the path toward where they had left their dad. The light shined on his white blond hair and turned the lenses of his round glasses weirdly golden.
“What was that?” she asked. He shook his head to say he didn’t know.
“Dad?” he called out. The birds had gone quiet. Louder: “
When there was no answer, her brother said they should go back for him, so they did.
They walked back down the path, her brother taking the lead. She felt wobbly, a quiver in her stomach, tears threatening. She couldn’t even say why she was scared. What had they heard after all? Maybe nothing. They turned the corner to see the path empty. The rocky dirt surface was edged by trees that sloped down toward the river valley. “It’s not that steep,” her father had said. “But you could still fall a good ways and hurt yourself. So be careful.”
She was the first to hear the low moaning.
“Daddy!” she cried. “Daaaddd
“Kids!” his voice was low and far away. He said something else, but she couldn’t hear what. They moved toward the sound, her brother edging toward the side of the path, looking down.
“Stay back,” her brother said. She pressed herself up against the trunk of a tree, feeling the rough bark through her shirt. Her father was still calling to them. It sounded like he was saying
Get out of here! Run!
But that couldn’t be right.
“I see him,” her brother said. “He must have fallen. Dad, what happened?”
Then another one of those strange echoing cracks. Her brother froze stiff, then grabbed his leg and started screaming, fell to the ground. It was a terrible sound, high-pitched and filled with fear. It connected to something deep and primal within her, and sheer terror rocketed through her, a lightning bolt. She heard herself shrieking, too, a sound that came from her and didn’t.
A black flower of blood bloomed on her brother’s thigh. He’d gone a frightening white, couldn’t stop screaming. It was a siren, loud and long, deafening. She wanted to cover her ears, to tell him to stop. Her father was yelling down below. Her name. Her brother’s name. Then a command as clear as day: Run!
She went to the edge of the path and saw her father lying among the trees, sloping downwards, arm looped around a slender birch trunk as if he was holding on, leg bent strangely. And then she saw the other man. Dressed in jeans and a flannel work shirt, heavy boots. He wore a baseball cap, the brim shadowing his face. In his arms he had a gun, long and black.
She froze, watching him. Her brother’s screaming had quieted; he was now whimpering behind her. Her father was yelling still. But she couldn’t move; she was so afraid, so confused, that her body just couldn’t move.
She heard something, a chiming. A little tinkle of bells. The phone. Her father’s phone was ringing. She turned and saw it down the path, screen bright, vibrating on the dirt path. It broke the spell,
and she ran for it. She was fast. She was the fastest girl in her third-grade class, always pulling effortlessly ahead of everyone else on the soccer field at relay races in PE. Coach said she was a rocket. But she wasn’t fast enough today.
Another man, whom she hadn’t seen, was coming up the path from the opposite direction. He got there first, crushing the phone beneath his hard black boot as she dove for it, skinning her knees, the dirt kicking up so that she could taste it in her mouth.
He looked down at her, his expression unreadable.
“Don’t bother running,” he said. He sounded almost sad for her. “He’s got you now.”
But she did run. Her daddy had always told her if a stranger tried to take her that she was supposed to run and scream at the top of her lungs and fight with everything she had.
Don’t ever let them take you
, he warned.
No matter what.
she used to ask
The conversation frightened and excited her, like a scary movie.
What happens if they take me?
said her father grimly. And the way he said it meant that the conversation was over.
She used to lie in bed at night sometimes, thinking of how she would get away from a bad guy that tried to take her away from her family. In those imaginings, she was always strong and brave, fiercely fighting and punching like the kids in
(which she was way too young to watch but did with her brother on those nights when Mommy was working and Daddy was in charge).
It was nothing like this. She couldn’t
; fear was a black hole sucking every part of her into its vortex. Her brother was now yelling, too, telling her to run. And she did. She got up from the ground and she ran past the strange-looking man, leaving her brother and her father behind. She was going for help. She had to be fast, faster than she’d ever been. Not just for herself, but for her daddy and her brother.