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And Then She Was Gone
By ROSALIND NOONAN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Rosalind Noonan
All rights reserved.
Six Years Later
Rachel O'Neil watched from the bleachers as one by one the members of the senior class crossed the stage to receive their diplomas from Dr. Kendris, principal of Mirror Lake High School.
Rachel applauded and whooped it up with her friend as Julia's daughter crossed the stage. Julia shifted forward on the bleacher seat and snapped some shots with her digital camera as Nora accepted her diploma.
"Congratulations, Mom," Rachel said quietly as Julia's lower lip rumpled into a pout.
"I can't believe it." The two women exchanged a quick hug, and then settled back into their spots.
As other graduates were called, Rachel watched Nora make her way back to her seat, hugging classmates along the way. Such a good kid. A memory from years ago flashed across Rachel's mind: overhearing Nora asking Lauren if she wanted to be best friends. Would the girls have remained friends through high school? Grown closer or drifted apart? The "what-if" game always taunted her this way.
"Trevor Feron." Amidst applause, it was announced that Trevor would be heading to the University of Oregon next year.
As the tall boy moved in measured steps across the stage, Rachel smoothed back her hair, once the color of caramel, now layered with streaks of gold to blend with the gray. She had aged, but so had the students. Although he'd grown a soul patch since Rachel had been his seventh-grade English teacher, he was still the same unkempt Trev. "Still blinded by those bangs," Rachel muttered.
Her friend Julia leaned close to add, "It's a wonder he can see to make it across the stage." Julia Berton knew all of these characters as well as Rachel. It was Julia, parent of a graduate, who had scored these seats in the bleachers for Rachel and Dan, who had bowed out at the last minute.
"I can't do it," Dan had told her that morning as he'd stared into his coffee. "I can't sit there and watch every other kid in that class graduate just because my daughter should be there with them. I can't stand to look at the faces of Lauren's classmates and long for what could have been. What should have been."
"That's not why we're going. Don't you want to see Nora graduate? She and Julia are like family."
But Dan had not budged. "You go. They were your students; you taught most of them in junior high. They'll be happy to see you."
Rachel doubted that anyone in Mirror Lake was happy to see her these days. She knew she had gained a reputation as a bulldog mom, voraciously chomping at city and state authorities to keep the search for her daughter open and active. When parents dared to make eye contact with her, there was pity in their eyes ... pity and hopelessness and relief that it had not happened to their daughter. Rachel understood their discomfort. Some kept their distance out of fear that her tragedy might be contagious. Others didn't know what to say to her, the parent of a child of uncertain destiny.
Lauren had been in a class with achievers. On stage now, Brooke Fitkin towered over the administrators. She was headed for Stanford on a basketball scholarship. Kara Gaines was off to Southern Oregon University. Jordan Gilroy was going to UVA for swimming. And Erica Glass had earned a javelin scholarship to a university in Hawaii. "A full ride," as Julia kept saying.
Mirror Lake had one of the top-ranked high schools in Oregon—of course it did. It was one of the reasons she and Dan had scraped and saved and borrowed money from Dan's parents to buy a modest house here when they could have afforded a nicer place with property just about anywhere else in the Portland area. Great schools, plenty of parks and green space, responsive police force, low crime rate ... these were factors that wooed young families to the lake community. Outsiders mocked Mirror Lake residents for their "life in a protected bubble," but who would not choose a town where the "civil war" was between rival football teams instead of rival gangs?
Seeing these students now, Rachel recognized them all with their little quirks. Yes, she cared about these kids, but Dan was wrong about one thing. They were not her kids. They were not Lauren. She had not come to any other ceremonies to watch her former students graduate. Sitting here beside Julia, the mother of Lauren's best friend of long ago, Rachel knew that Dan had been right the first time. She was not here for these kids; she was here to represent Lauren, in some sick way. Lauren, who should have graduated from high school today. She couldn't let go of that. She couldn't give up on her oldest child. This was Lauren's class. What if Lauren's abductor had let her continue school somewhere else—in another state? Maybe Lauren was graduating today.
Since the day Lauren started kindergarten, Rachel had pictured this day. Her bright, artistic daughter had started school a year before most and would be graduating high school at the age of seventeen. "I can't hold her back," Rachel had told people. A teacher herself, Rachel could see that her daughter was ready for school, hungry to learn, pushing for routine and independence at the age of four. Rachel and Dan had shared high hopes for Lauren. An Ivy League school. A dynamic career. "How high can you soar?" she and Dan used to ask Lauren when they pushed her on the tree swing. Lauren would kick her legs and lean back to propel herself high in the air as she answered: "Up to the stars!"
Throughout grammar school, Lauren had been a highflier. Maybe not the most social kid. But Dan and Rachel had vested so many hopes in their oldest daughter, looking toward this day. Graduation day ... but not for Lauren.
No, Lauren's day had been little more than a week ago, the sixth anniversary of the day she'd disappeared, when the grounds of Mirror Lake Junior High had been crowded with people, hundreds of them, assembling to honor the six-year mark of Lauren's disappearance and continue the search for her. Messages like We will find you! and We love you, Lauren! had been attached to hundreds of balloons that the searchers had released to the sky, shouting: "Find Lauren!"
Rachel would never forget the sight of those hot-pink balloons— Lauren's favorite pink—rising into wide-open blue until they became small dots. It had been touching that so many people showed up for her, even six years later. They didn't think Rachel was crazy. They believed she was out there, alive and waiting to be rescued.
Dan still went looking every morning as he jogged along the paths that cut through the town's parks and neighborhoods. Every six months the local television stations broadcasted images of Lauren: photos from sixth grade and computer renderings of how she would probably look now.
Squinting over the graduates below, Rachel could see her down there, crossing the stage, her honey-blond hair streaming out beneath her mortarboard cap. If her hair hadn't been cut in these past six years, there would be flaxen gold spilling over her shoulders and down the back of her royal blue graduation gown.
Rachel could hear the principal calling her name ...
Would she be attending U of O, Dan's alma mater, or Brown? Stanford or Northwestern? Lauren had been an excellent student, more interested in reading and learning how things worked than parties or boys.
How high can you soar?
Rachel pressed her lips together, trying to tamp down the swell of emotion. These days, the only things soaring were latex balloons. The memory of those fat pink balloons, swaying and rising, made her mouth go sour.
She bit her lower lip and turned to Julia. "It's hard to believe our babies are old enough to graduate from high school."
Julia's eyes glimmered with compassion as she squeezed Rachel's hand. "Hard to believe. Time really flies."
And sometimes it drags, second to second, day to day. Time was a race through molasses when you were waiting for your daughter to come home.
At the podium Natalie Miller's name was announced, and Rachel held her breath as she watched Russ and Trudy's granddaughter cross the stage. The Millers were neighbors, two doors down. The police believed a van that had stopped in front of the Millers' house had been used to abduct Lauren when she was walking home from school. One woman saw the van at the curb, its motor running. A plain white van, but the man who emerged was wearing a uniform.
As if that made it all okay. Rachel still seethed over the way our society teaches us to trust a person in a uniform.
"And I saw him carrying a package," the woman, Allie Cotter, had insisted. "It was a delivery for the Millers. Just a deliveryman with a package."
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except that, when the Millers arrived home from their oldest son's house in Bend, they were mystified by the brown paper package that contained no address, no postage, and no markings whatsoever. The package had been a cover, a way to park a van on Wildwood Lane and drive away without attracting attention. There was a slightly trampled section of the lawn. A section that might have been torn up by a digging squirrel. Had Lauren run to knock on the Millers' door when she sensed danger, but then struggled with the abductor on the lawn? And somehow, without anyone seeing, he had managed to get Lauren into his van.
Or at least that was how the theory went. Rachel refused to believe that her daughter would get into a stranger's van without a fight, but there were other factors involved. Maybe he wasn't a stranger. And it was too painful to think about the weapons an abductor could use to subdue a girl who fought him.
Beads of sweat were forming on Rachel's forehead, and she had to remind herself to breathe. Was the gymnasium hotter than usual? Was she suffering a hot flash at the age of forty-two, or was the heat because of her own voyage to the Inferno, the serpentine layers of hell surrounding Lauren's disappearance?
Julia leaned closer. "You okay?"
Nodding, she swiped the back of one hand over her forehead and accepted a small bottle of water from Julia's bag. Even tepid water was a relief in this hotbed of community. It helped Rachel focus, helped her remember the positive reason she had come, to celebrate the graduation of Julia's daughter Nora.
She took another calming breath and looked to her left to find people watching her, staring, contemplating.
When she faced them, they glanced away, uncomfortable and nervous. Were they able to do the math and realize that her daughter should be graduating today, too?
You should be here, honey. Rachel sent the message out the way most people transmitted a prayer to the heavens. Somewhere out there, Lauren was alive and receiving at least a flicker of telepathic activity.
Like the flyers that shouted DON'T STOP BELIEVING! Rachel held on to the conviction that her daughter was alive. Sure, people thought she was deluded. Living in denial. Let them think what they wanted.
Lauren was out there somewhere; Rachel knew that. She could feel it. And one of these days, she was going to come back to them.CHAPTER 2
Sis's foot twisted in the loose soil, and the pain that shot up her leg sucked her breath away. She braced herself against the hoe and used it to edge back, out of the dirt and against the fence, where she collapsed with a sigh.
She closed her eyes and let the tears flow down her cheeks. Kevin would be mad if he found her crying, but he was off at the Portland Saturday Market right now, and the tears came automatically when she wrenched her bad leg. Bad because Kevin had made it that way. Even after all these years, six years of minding him most of the time, he still let her have it when he thought she was disobeying him.
She shifted her leg, and winced. It still hurt, but she couldn't let it slow her down. Kevin would be mad if he came home to an untended garden. Silly girl.
She swiped at her cheeks and took a breath. No use in crying. Besides, it wasn't so bad, out here in the sun. Using the hoe as a cane, she propped herself up, back on her feet. Testing the tool against the moist earth, she imagined herself pushing off the stick and bouncing over the fence like one of those pole vault guys.
Just thinking of it made her smile. She would bounce over the fence and just keep bouncing from one green hill to another, bouncing into the deep blue sky.
She had hopped the fence once, jumping from a nearby tree. It had been one of those hot summer days when the sun pounded down mercilessly from a clear sky, and all she had been able to think of was the cool gurgle of the little stream a few yards from their compound. The spring that ran over the rocks at the bottom of the hill had just enough water to cover your body in the summer. When Kevin had found her down by the creek, he had been real quiet as she had explained that she wasn't breaking any rules. She hadn't been running away, just cooling off. Later, back behind the fence, he had beat her hard and chopped down the poor little beech tree.
The sun was hot on her head, and she wished she could slip into the river right now and wash her hair. "Not until Kevin gets back," Sis said aloud. Sometimes, you needed to remind yourself of the rules. She was limping because she'd broken the rules.
"You should know better," Kevin had hissed. "I haven't had to lay a hand on you for a long time. I thought you stopped trying to git away."
Because of Mac ...
She couldn't leave her daughter behind, and even if they could have gotten away, who would take in a teen mother and her baby? She couldn't risk it. It was her job to protect her baby.
As pain flared in her ankle again, she could still see him, the metal wrench silhouetted over his head as he'd swung it up. And then down on her bad leg.
The wound that was never allowed to heal.
"That's so you'll remember the rules," he had told her. It seemed like he'd told her that a thousand times.
Kevin was a stickler for the rules. With a hack of the hoe, she flashed on the first time she had broken the rules, that day in the beach house when he had pushed her out to the edge of the jetty.
Her knees still trembled when she thought of the icy shock of the stun gun and the long finger of boulders jutting out into the ocean.
Sharp, slippery rocks. But Kevin didn't care. She'd been eleven years old, and he had pushed her out on those rocks.
The jetty was a long mound of boulders, some of them the size of coffins, many of them pointy and unforgiving. They were lined up at the edge of that beach, as if a giant had stacked his rock collection at the water's edge. "How did these get here?" The magnitude of the rock pile, with seawater splashing over the jagged stones, had momentarily eclipsed the knowledge that he was mean and angry and hurtful, that she shouldn't ask him any questions because she didn't trust his answers anyway.
"That's the Army Corps of Engineers for ya. They come in here and build a wall of rocks on the beach and spend millions of dollars doing it." He loved to show off that way, when he knew something.
He was mad at her for telling him to mind his business and keep his hands off her. She had tried to slap him away when he'd followed her into the shower and put his hands on her private parts. She wrenched away, slashing at him with her fingernails, and he threatened her with the razor, telling her he could do much worse.
He'd been waiting for her outside the shower with a stupid flowered dress for her to put on, along with a gray hoodie. And no panties. That was his way of making her feel uncomfortable and naked. She really wanted her underwear back, but she was too embarrassed to ask him for it. Without a word he had stuffed her into the back of the van and driven to the beach. The short ride told her that the house he'd locked her up in must have been close.
When the van door opened at the beach, he greeted her with a cool smile. His hand held the stun gun, a black object that reminded her of Dad's electric razor. Only the stun gun held a cold, electric sizzle that made a person curl up and die inside. She knew, because he'd used it on her in the Millers' yard.
He held it up to her, an angry squint in his eyes.
"N-no!" She scooted back on the van's rough carpet.
"Then get out of the van, or I'll zap you good."
Excerpted from And Then She Was Gone by ROSALIND NOONAN. Copyright © 2014 Rosalind Noonan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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