Authors: Elicia Hyder
I shook my head with mock sadness. "Lying to your girlfriend already? That's not a good sign."
"What was I supposed to tell her? That you're psychic or something?" he asked.
"Then we would both sound crazy," I said.
We finally reached the bustling cafeteria. The smell reminded me of elementary school lunch trays and cartons of milk. He stopped at the vending machine and looked at me. "You hungry?"
"No, but I would love a Diet Coke if you could spot me the change. My purse is still in your car," I said.
"I'm sorry. I meant to grab it for you and I totally forgot. I can run out and get it if you want," he said.
I waved my hand. "I'll just get it when we leave. I don't have the headspace to deal with the phone calls right now anyway."
He fed a dollar bill into the drink machine. "I'm pretty sure a Diet Coke is the least I can do for you."
When he handed me my drink, I watched him buy a bag of Skittles, a Snickers bar, and pack of Nerds. I looked at his toned physique and then cocked my head sideways. "I had you pegged for a health nut or something."
He shrugged. "I'm a candy freak. I just have to run twice as far."
He motioned to an empty table near the door and we sat down. He ripped open the wrapper around the Snickers bar. "It's question time."
I shook my head. "No questions."
He leaned forward. "Sloan, I have to come up with some really brilliant reason why you are on that police report from today. You've got to give me something."
I rested my elbows on the table and propped my chin up in my hands. I studied his face for a moment. "Give me a serious answer as to why you came to my office asking me about Kayleigh."
He thought for a second, biding his time by chewing on a bite of his candy bar. Finally, he pointed at me and squinted his eyes just enough to indicate he was seriously attempting to answer my question. "There was something about the way you said 'he's dead' when you saw that missing person's report on Milstaf. I am always analyzing how people phrase things, their body language, and the inflection in their voice to judge if they are being honest or not. You might as well have been telling me the sun was shining outside. You weren't speculating—you
." He sat back in his seat. "It stuck with me."
After a moment of staring at him and racking my brain for what to say next, I sighed and shook my head. "I don't know how I know these things. I just do."
"Are you ever wrong?"
"Not in twenty-seven years," I answered.
I could almost hear the gears turning in his mind. "Can you tell with everyone? Like, I have a sister. Is she alive or dead?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I would have to see a photograph of her."
He seemed to be making mental notes as I talked. He drummed his fingers on the table. "You also knew we weren't alone in that house. You knew Kayleigh was there."
"No." I shook my head. "I knew
was there. We got lucky that it was Kayleigh."
He thought it over. "How? Is it like hearing a heartbeat?"
"It's more like feeling a pulse," I explained.
That seemed to make sense to him. "Could it have been a rat? Or a dog?"
"No. I only feel humans. Animals must operate on a different system than we do," I said.
"Is that all you can do?" he asked. I glanced up at the ceiling, and he pointed at me again. "You're about to tell me a lie," he said.
"Quit using your interrogation crap on me!"
He laughed. "Tell me the truth. I swear it won't leave this table."
There was a boulder of anxiety forming in the pit of my stomach. He kept staring at me, waiting for an answer I didn't want to give. I opened my mouth and closed it several times before finally being able to form words. "I seem to be able to call people to me, like, subconsciously."
He closed his eyes and turned his ear toward me, like he was certain he had misheard something. "What?"
I thought for a second. "You know when we were in the house and you heard Kayleigh move in the attic?" He nodded. I looked at him seriously. "I had just said her name out loud."
"And you think you made me find her?"
I shook my head. "No. I made her be found."
He just stared at me without even chewing the bite in his mouth. Finally he started laughing. "Ha, you're good. That's pretty funny. You almost had me."
I wasn't laughing.
In slow motion, I could see the humor dripping from his face and fear surfacing underneath. I sank down in my chair, bracing for the blowback.
"You're not joking are you?" he asked a moment later.
I shook my head.
He shifted uneasily in his seat. "How do you do it?"
"No idea," I said. "I just have this sense about other people. Like, I already know them before I meet them and somehow they are drawn to me like magnets."
"And no one knows you can do this? That you can make people magically appear by talking about them?" His eyes were wide with disbelief.
"Well, my best friend knows and now you know," I said.
He swallowed a bite. "Your parents?"
I shook my head. "Oh no. My dad's a doctor and my mother is a nurse. I'm pretty sure they would have me committed."
"Huh," he mumbled. He finished off his candy bar and chewed in silence for what felt like an eternity. At that moment, I wished I had the ability to read minds as well.
"Are you going to freak out?" I asked.
His eyes settled on me again. "No," he said. "I'm not going to freak out. This is nuts though."
He grabbed his Skittles and Nerds and tucked them into his jacket pocket. "We should probably head back to the emergency room. I know you want to check on the girl before I take you home. And we've got to deal with the media sooner or later."
"What are you going to put in your report?" I cringed as I waited for his answer.
He pressed his eyes closed. "That I knew this thing would be a media nightmare, so I thought it would be smart to bring PR along."
I turned toward him and frowned, putting my hand on my hip. "You didn't need to know my secret to come up with that explanation."
He smiled and gave me a mischievous wink. "I know."
I punched him in the shoulder.
Nathan had already briefed Sheriff Davis about my presence at the scene, and the sheriff was in the lobby with the media when we returned to that side of the hospital. He had assumed I already had a speech prepared for him for the ten o'clock news. I didn't, but I faked it pretty well as I went over his notes with him. When he finished detailing the events for the broadcast, the female reporter I had seen at the house on Clarksdale, raised her hand with a question.
When she was acknowledged, she looked at me. I looked down at my ragged outfit as several news cameras panned in my direction. "Sloan Jordan was at the scene today and was videoed carrying Kayleigh Neeland from the house. What was Ms. Jordan's involvement with this case?"
The sheriff was a little surprised by the question, but he handled it like a true politician. "Ms. Jordan, as you know, is the county's publicist, and she was there for the sake of the media when our officers needed help with the frightened child. That was Ms. Jordan's only involvement."
It was after dark when Nathan finally pulled up to the curb in front of my house. To my surprise, he turned off the engine and walked with me to the door. I put my keys in the lock and turned the handle. "Do you want to come in? I've got coffee… and Jack Daniels," I added with an exhausted laugh.
He smiled. "No. I'd better get home. I can't thank you enough for today, Sloan."
I shook my head. "Stop thanking me. She's safe and that's all that matters."
"I can change out of your shirt if you'll give me just a minute," I offered.
He tugged on the hem. "Just keep it for a while. I'll get it back from you soon."
His smooth voice gave me chills.
He lingered for a moment. I wondered if he was thinking of changing his mind about my invitation inside. Finally, he turned back toward my steps. "I'll see you at work," he said.
I SLEPT IN the next morning and called out of work for the day. When I finally talked myself into getting out of bed, I returned all of the missed calls from my mother, my dad, and Adrianne. My parents wanted to check on me after being put through such a traumatic ordeal. Adrianne wanted to know what the hell I was thinking appearing on the news in a black hoodie and no makeup.
I was still wearing the hoodie when my doorbell rang just before noon. I had taken a shower before bed, but couldn't help myself when I thought of how nice it would be to fall asleep to the smell of that shirt. I cursed the decision when I opened the door to Nathan standing there holding a to-go bag from Tupelo Honey.
He looked me up and down and smiled. I died a little on the inside.
I leaned against the door. "What are you doing here?"
He stepped inside and laughed. "I guess I didn't come by to get my shirt back."
I rolled my eyes and closed the door behind him.
"I went by your office, but you weren't there. Your boss said you had taken a comp day, so I decided to bring you lunch. She suggested goat cheese grits." He held up the plastic bag.
I laughed and accepted it. "Thanks. Come sit down." I walked back to my spot on the couch and pulled my fleece blanket up over my bare legs.
He sat on the loveseat caddy-cornered to the couch and laid a thick file folder on the coffee table. I looked at it and then back at him. My eyes widened and I shook my head. "Oh no," I said. "I'm not doing anymore police work. Do you hear me? I am not going to be your secret, silent partner helping you crack cold-cases and solve murder mysteries."
He laughed and flipped the folder open. "It's not that, I promise."
I relaxed a little and pulled the plastic bowl of steaming grits out of the bag. He had also gotten me some type of sandwich.
Nathan passed me a worn 8x10 photograph of a football player and a cheerleader. The number fifty-four was printed on his jersey and drawn on the girl's cheek in blue paint and glitter. The football player with the tousled blonde hair and crooked smile was a younger, less stern version of Nathan. The girl on his arm held a bouquet of red roses and had a blue ribbon tied in her long, dark hair. She was strikingly beautiful.
She was also dead.
I tapped my finger on the picture and looked up at him. "Who is this girl?"
"My little sister, Ashley."
I deflated a little. "How did she die?"
He took a deep breath and leaned his elbows on his knees. He cast his gaze to the carpet. He had been forewarned about my ability, but that hadn't lessened the shock of it.
After a moment, he sat back against the seat. "She went missing two weeks after this photo was taken after a different football game." He looked at the picture for a moment before tucking it back into the folder. "I didn't know until just now that she was really dead."
Gasping with shock and trying to swallow wasn't a good combination. I sucked a spoonful of grits down my throat then coughed and sprayed them all over my lap. I yanked a napkin out of the paper bag, wiped my mouth, and put the food on the coffee table. I dropped onto my knees in front of him and covered his hands with my own. "I'm sorry, Nathan. I really had no idea. I just assumed—"
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. "It's OK. I've believed she was dead for a very long time now. But they never found her body."
I gulped and slowly retreated back onto the sofa. "Is this why you went into police work?"
He forced a smile, but it was full of pain. "I was planning to be an engineer."
"What happened to her?"
He laid his head back and stared at the ceiling. "She was a junior in high school when she disappeared. I was a senior and the captain of the football team. Ashley was a cheerleader. She was supposed to ride with me to a party after a game we won, but our coach took an extra-long time during the end of the game meeting. I couldn't find her when we broke out. I just assumed she had ridden with some of her friends, but she never showed up at the party. The last time anyone saw her, she was putting her gym bag in the back seat of my car in the parking lot."
"So, instead of becoming an engineer, you became a cop," I said.
He nodded. "When I got out of high school, I did my two years at the community college studying criminal justice and enrolled in the police academy."
"So you could protect people?"
He shook his head. "No. So I could find the person who took my sister."
I hugged my knees to my chest and tugged the blanket down over my feet. "And nothing ever turned up?"
He sat forward again and reached for the folder. "Not on my sister's case." He pulled out more photographs. "There have been eleven disappearances very similar to hers in the past thirteen years. All of them happened in different cities between Asheville and Raleigh."
I sat up and looked at the faces of the girls smiling up from their pictures.
I looked up at him. "You think they are related?"
He shrugged. "If not, it's a pretty big coincidence."
My skin began to crawl. I really hated the word 'coincidence'. "Why are you telling me all of this?" I asked.
He leaned toward me. "Because you can help me."
"No offense, Nathan, I realize this is your sister we are talking about, but you just promised me that you're not trying to pull me into criminal investigation," I reminded him.
"I know, I lied to get you to listen to me," he admitted. "Sloan, what if this is a serial killer?"
I pushed the photos back toward him. "Then I really don't want anything at all to do with it!"
"Can you just tell me if they are alive or dead?" He picked up the photos and moved to the seat next to me before fanning them out on the coffee table. "That's all I'm asking for."