Authors: Elicia Hyder
The laughter erupted all over again.
"What's so funny?" someone asked from behind.
"I'm afraid to even turn around," I grumbled.
It was the two guys from the other end of the bar. Between their heads, I caught Nathan watching from across the room. I turned a sultry smile toward the blonde guy, since he seemed to be less creepy than the guy with the offensively white teeth. "Hi there," I purred.
He leaned toward me. "Can we buy you ladies a round?"
Nathan was still watching.
* * *
I woke up the next morning to the sound of the phone ringing. I looked at the caller ID. It was my dad. I pressed the answer button and rubbed my tired eyes. "Hello?"
"Hey, sweetheart. Did I wake you?" he asked.
I yawned. "Yeah. I had a bit of a late night last night. What's up?"
"Mom wanted me to call and tell you that she made biscuits and gravy for breakfast and that you should come over since you missed dinner this week," he said.
I groaned. "What time is it?"
"It's after nine."
"I'll be there soon if I can drag myself out of bed. Don't let breakfast get cold if it takes me a little bit. Go ahead and eat without me," I said.
"OK. Be careful. Love you," he said.
"Love you too, Dad." I disconnected the call and looked at notifications screen on my phone. I had a text message from Nathan that I had missed about an hour before.
Did you make it home OK last night?
I decided to let him wonder and didn't respond.
The smell of sausage billowed out of the front door when I walked into my parents' house. My stomach immediately rumbled. "Oh my gosh, it smells like heaven in here," I said as I walked into the kitchen.
Dad was at the breakfast bar with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Mom was in her housecoat and slippers at the stove. I kissed him on the cheek. "Morning, Daddy."
He looked up from his paper. "Morning, sleepyhead."
Mom turned around with a coffee mug in her hand. "The coffee's fresh." She kissed my cheek as she handed me the empty mug.
I shuffled toward the coffee pot, filled my cup full, and pulled up a seat next to my father. He was reading the obituaries. "Are you looking for a hole in your patient load?" I asked.
"Sloan," he scolded. "That's not funny."
I winked at him. "It's a little funny."
He just grinned.
"How was your week?" I tilted the steaming cup of life-giving caffeine up to my lips.
He turned in his seat toward me. "Not as interesting as yours, I hear," he said. "You've been on the news all week."
"Still?" I asked.
Mom turned around and pointed a spatula at me. "Your Aunt Betty saw the broadcast all the way up in Lexington."
I sipped my coffee. "Really? I can't believe people are still talking about it."
Dad looked curiously over at me. "One reporter said that she heard you say that the girl wasn't dead before anyone even knew she was in the house."
I rolled my eyes. "That's crazy. How would I know that?"
He was eyeing me with blatant skepticism.
I shrugged my shoulders. "There was a lot of commotion. She probably just misheard something."
I could tell my father didn't believe me, but he didn't push the subject. My parents enjoyed their state of voluntary ignorance concerning the oddities that always seemed to follow me. If they didn't bring it up, they knew I wouldn't. And our mutual silence on the matter would allow them to keep on believing there wasn't anything medically or psychologically unsound about their only child.
"The detective who was at the hospital with you and the sheriff, is he the one you told me about the other day?" Mom asked.
I nodded. "That would be him."
A small, teasing, smile played at the corners of her lips. "He's very handsome."
My father perked up. "Are you dating someone?"
I laughed. "No."
My mother turned with her hand on her hip. "Why is that funny?"
I shrugged. "I just haven't met anyone worth dating."
"What's wrong with the detective?" she asked.
"A lot," I said. "And he has a girlfriend. Guess who it is? Shannon Green."
My mother gasped and her mouth fell open. "No!"
I cupped the warm mug with both hands. "Yep."
"The traffic girl?" my dad asked.
"That's the one," I replied.
"What's wrong with the traffic girl?" he asked, confused. "I thought the two of you were friends."
," Mom said. "Till that hussy went and stole Sloan's boyfriend. You don't remember? Sloan cried for a month."
I groaned. "Let's not relive it, Mom."
"Well, sweetie, you can do better," she assured me. "You don't want any guy who would stoop to so low of a standard."
I nodded and rolled my eyes. "I know." I looked at Dad, desperate to change the subject. "Tell me about your week."
He thought for a moment. "Well, it doesn't compare with finding a missing little girl, but I did find another missing Alzheimer's patient of mine serenading people on the elevator with
Your Mama Don't Dance and Your Daddy Don't Rock and Roll
I almost spat out my coffee. "That's pitiful!"
He nodded. "And pretty humorous. Especially when she got me to sing it with her on our ride back up." He smiled. "I think God has to allow us a little laughter because it's such an awful disease."
I sighed. "Your job is never boring, is it?"
He shook his head. "Never."
I looked over at Mom. "Speaking of missing people, weren't you friends with that Bryson woman whose daughter disappeared a few years ago?"
She thought for a moment. "I worked with her at the hospital, but she ended up quitting. She was really devastated after her daughter went missing."
"They never found out what happened to her?" I asked.
She shook her head. "No. The Brysons spent all their savings on private investigators and everything. I don't suppose anything ever turned up. I can't imagine something happening and not knowing whether your child is alive or dead. It's turned their whole family upside down, I think."
"That's so sad," I said.
"What brought that up?" Dad asked.
"Someone at work mentioned the case. They thought I might have heard of it," I said. "No real reason."
"I know it made me want to hold on to you a little tighter," Mom said to me. "And you were off at college. I was just sick over it."
I shuddered and stood up from my seat. "Dad, can I use your computer?" I asked. "I need to check my email."
"Sure, it's turned on in my office." He motioned toward the steps that led to the second floor.
"Make it fast," Mom called after me. "Breakfast will be ready in two minutes."
Dad's office always reminded me of something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The shelves were covered with medical books, papers were neatly arranged on the desk, and the brown shutters were always halfway open because he liked to see the birds outside his window. I sat down at his computer and clicked on the Internet icon. I wasn't sure what I hoped to accomplish, but I typed "Leslie Bryson Asheville Disappearance" into the search bar and clicked on the first article.
For the longest time, I just sat and stared at her picture. I was pretty sure she and I had shared a class—maybe art or Spanish. Finally, I skimmed the article. Her family had offered a huge reward for her return, but the police never found anything. I looked at the photo of her mother holding a "Bring Leslie Home" sign. I thought of my own mother and nearly burst into tears.
"Sloan, the biscuits are done!" Mom called from the bottom of the stairs.
I closed the browser window and stood up. "Coming!"
* * *
When I pulled up in front of my house, there was a family waiting on my porch. I parked and got out of my car and recognized them immediately when the little girl ran down my steps toward me. Kayleigh Neeland looked like a completely different child wearing a pink dress, sparkly shoes, and carrying her Sleeping Beauty doll by the hand.
I teared up as I dropped my keys on the sidewalk and knelt down to her level. She threw her little arms around my neck.
"What a wonderful surprise!" I squealed as I hugged her. After a moment, I pulled back to see the bruising had almost completely faded, and the stitches had been removed from her forehead. "You look so pretty, Kayleigh."
She swayed back and forth, the thick tulle under her skirt giving off a light swooshing sound as she batted her eyelashes. "Do you like my dress? My Nana made it for me."
I had to wipe tears from my eyes. "I love it. You look like a princess!" I kissed her tiny cheek.
Her grandparents made their way down the steps to meet me. I stood up and Kayleigh clung to my leg. Her Nana reached out to hug me. "Ms. Jordan, I can't thank you enough for what you did for my grandbaby."
I ran my fingers through Kayleigh's blonde curls. "I'm so thankful for a happy ending."
"So are we," the woman's husband added. He pointed to the door. "We rang the bell, but no one answered. Kayleigh wouldn't let us leave so we waited for a few minutes to see if you came home."
I laughed. "I'm so glad you did!"
Kayleigh tugged on the leg of my sweatpants. "Miss Sloan, I got you a present." She looked up at her grandmother. "Give it to her, Nana."
Her grandmother held out a small box and a folded sheet of pink construction paper.
I knelt down next to Kayleigh again and opened the paper to a crayon drawing inside. I smiled at her. "Did you make me a card too?"
She nodded with a bright smile.
It was a picture of two figures holding hands. "Is this you?" I asked, pointing to the smaller figure in a pink dress who had one blue eye and one green eye.
She nodded furiously again. She pointed to the other figure. "And that's you!"
I looked at it sideways. "Do I have wings?" I asked, laughing.
"Yes! 'Cause you're an angel and angels have wings!" she said.
I had to sit all the way down on my backside. She fell into my lap, and I tried desperately to choke back huge, bear-sized sobs. I hugged her around the shoulders.
She pried the small box from my hands. "Here, I'll open it for you!"
After a moment of fighting with the tape and ripping the pink wrapping paper, she wrenched open the box displaying a small, silver angel pin. She thrust it toward my face. "It's an angel, just like you!"
I covered my face with my hand and tried to regain my composure. "I love it," I cried.
"Now, you can wear it and think of me!" She blinked her bright blue and green eyes up at me.
I kissed the top of her head. "I will wear it every single day," I wept. I hugged her tight again. "Thank you so much."
Her grandfather offered me a hand up. Once I was on my feet, I straightened my outfit and hugged both of them again. "Thank you for coming to see me," I said. "You've made my whole year."
"The gratitude is all ours. You gave us our whole world back," he said.
I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and looked down at Kayleigh again. "I hope you'll come back to see me again soon."
Her eyes widened. "Oh, I'll try. But I go back to kindergarten, Nana says, in a few days, so I might get kinda busy."
More tears spilled onto my cheeks. "You'll be great."
"I know," she said with more confidence than I had ever had.
When they were gone, I sank to the steps of my front porch. Holding my angel pin in one hand and my cell phone in the other, I typed out a message to Nathan.
Bring your folder. I'll be home all day.
My phone buzzed before I made it to the front door.
I'll come by and pick you up.
"WHERE ARE WE going?" I asked as I buckled my seatbelt. "And don't you dare say the jail."
Nathan pulled away from the curb. "My place."
Normally an answer like that would take my breath in a good way. This time, I choked on the air. "Is Shannon going to be there?"
"She's at her house. I don't live with Shannon." He looked over at me, his eyes dancing under the brim of his ball cap as he tried not to laugh. "She didn't tell me she knew you. I wonder why?"
"Because if I had a mortal enemy, it would be Shannon Green."
He burst out laughing. "What? Come on."
"We used to be friends. Really close friends, actually. We were on the cheerleading squad together and the soccer team. Then, one day after cheerleading practice I went to the field house to look for our coach, and I found her making out with my boyfriend, Jason Ward, in the locker room." I shook my head and watched the building pass outside of my window. "I've hated her ever since."
He chuckled and stared up ahead. "She's not too crazy about you either."
I leaned against the window. "I'll bet not. I convinced our whole school she had syphilis."
He cackled again. "Seriously?"
I nodded. "Yep."
He shook his head. "You're evil."
"She deserved it. You don't do that to a friend." I looked back out the window. "I can't believe you're dating her."
He grinned over his shoulder. "Is that why you agreed to help me?"
I thought about it. "Not entirely, but that's definitely part of it."
"Why else then?" he asked.
I held out the card Kayleigh had made for me. I hadn't been able to leave it at home when he picked me up. "Kayleigh Neeland and her grandparents came by my house today, and she brought me this. She called me an angel. The thought crossed my mind, what if I hadn't agreed to help you and that little girl died alone in that attic? I wouldn't have been able to live with myself."
I took a deep breath. "Adrianne said to me recently, 'what's the point of being what you are if you can't use it to help people?' She was right. So, I should, at least, try." My eyes glazed over, staring out the windshield. "All of those girls are dead, Nathan."
Nathan just nodded and kept driving.
Just outside of the city, in a smaller suburb called Arden, Nathan lived in a third floor apartment. I followed him inside and bit down on my lips to keep from laughing. The white walls of the room were bare, save for a large nail by the door. The few pieces of furniture—a futon couch and a recliner—were centered around the largest flat screen television I had ever seen. The only decor consisted of the black devices attached to the TV, a ridiculous collection of DVDs, and a family portrait that was leaning against the wall.