“Hey, you're early,” he said, following me inside.
I dropped my bag on the side table, “yeah, I needed to talk to you.”
“I take it you found something,” he replied, sitting down on the bed, which had been made while we were out.
This really was a classy place.
I pulled the printed articles out of my bag and handed them to him, “you could say that.”
Jason raised an eyebrow and took them from me, scanning through the one about Amy and her brother, nodding. He handed me the paper he had been holding, and I saw that it was a faded flyer with the picture of the two siblings from the article, and a message about when they had gone missing and who to contact with information. Calling the parents instead of visiting them was an option I hadn't considered.
Jason flipped over to the second article, and mirrored my reaction upon first glance. A deep indrawn breath. He looked up at me, and his eyes were wide. I indicated for him to keep reading, so he did, his eyes growing wider as they raced over the pages. I could tell when he got to the quote from his mom, because his hand crumpled the paper a bit, and his head lowered. I gave him a minute to process, waiting silently. I expected something different from what he said next.
“At least they didn't mention you by name.”
I had a hard time keeping the incredulous look off of my face, “yeah, I guess I'm still a minor.”
And there Jason went, rubbed his head again, which I had come to signify as his “getting his shit together” move. He put the pages down on the bed and slumped over.
“Jase,” I said, sitting next to him, but I didn't really have a follow-up to that.
He shook his head, and reached an arm out, hugging me close to him.
“For what?” he muttered, holding me tighter to his side.
“For getting you into this.”
“We talked about this.”
We sat this way in the motel room, neither of us speaking, listening to the sounds of the town outside, for what could have been minutes or hours. I was thinking about the past week, and all the crap I had put my friend through, while he probably thought about his family and all the crap he had put them through because of me. I ended up hugging him back, knowing he knew how glad I was that he was there with me, even if I repeatedly tried to get him to leave. The beside clock ticked loudly. I could feel him breathing next to me, and every once in a while a breath would get shaky, like he was just barely keeping it together.
He loosened his grip and turned his face to mine, looking directly at me from a few inches away. His eyes glanced down at my lips once, and then he kissed me, moving his hands up to hold my head in place, keeping me from pulling back, not that I tried. I kissed him back, without the excuse of massive amounts of tequila. When he let me go, he turned away, looking down at the bedspread again.
I breathed in deeply, yelling at myself silently, but knowing I would do it again in an instant.
“So what's our next step?” he asked, moving away from me on the bed, and I felt the loss of contact like a punch my gut, which had started building up that dull ache again.
“I want to call their parents,” I replied, unable to take my eyes off of his profile, “but first we should get some food.”
He frowned, but stayed silent.
I pulled a hand through my hair, picking up on Jason's habit, and stood, scooping up all the papers on the bed and stuffing them down into the bottom of my bag.
“Come on,” I said, offering him my hand, “let's go grab some burgers.”
He looked up at me, and his eyes were glassy, but he focused on my face, giving me a faint smile as I pulled him off the bed.
“I could really go for a salad.”
A punch in his arm told him how I felt about that joke.
He feigned pain, rubbing his arm, his smile getting wider. We were back to repressing. This time, I wasn't so sure how I felt about that. He grabbed the keycard from my hand and ushered me out the door, into the bright sunlight of late afternoon.
When we got to a nearby burger place, I could feel how different the atmosphere was between us. There was less joking around, but more touching. Jason had a hand on my lower back as we went in and sat down at a booth. He settled across from me and held a hand out, which I took without hesitation. He held my hand loosely in his, smiling at me with that cocky look he always got when he proved me wrong about something. It was usually infuriating, but this time I just shrugged. I was exhausted. So far I had done everything wrong, so I might as well let him take the lead for a little while. I doubted he could make things worse, and if more kissing was involved, well, I would just have to go along with it. I snorted at my thoughts, and shrugged again when he raised his eyebrows.
The look got worse. He never did have much trouble reading my mind. Jerk.
The waiter came by, dressed in a garish outfit with suspenders and so many buttons you could probably use his shirt as a strainer. He was smiling just as widely as everyone else I had met in this overly friendly place, and he told us about a lengthy list of specials that included just about every fried food I could think of, scampering off after we ordered massive amounts of burgers and some sodas to wash it down.
“So why do you want to talk to their parents?” Jason asked above the chatter of the restaurant and the soft rock playing over the loudspeakers.
He played with my fingers while I explained, “I want to ask them about her brother. Maybe see how he was right before they disappeared.”
“Like, was he pale, tired, suddenly eating every piece of meat in their fridge?”
“Yeah, like that.”
Jason nodded, “okay, but we should really think of a cover story in case they ask us how we knew their kids.”
I closed my eyes briefly, wondering again why I hadn't thought of that before I interrogated the woman at the college. Maybe because of the pale, tired, and killing a guy thing. Just one more thing to add to my “too late now” list. That list was getting damn long.
Our drinks arrived and we sipped on them, both of us content to hold hands and be assaulted by the mellow music of Counting Crows, like we were just two normal teens, out for a date during summer break. It was kinda nice, actually. If none of this had happened, we'd have never gotten to this – whatever – stage in our relationship, so there was a shred of silver lining on this black cloud of my life.
Our food came, and we separated digits to eat, Jason digging into his with his usual vengeance, and me at a more sedate pace, taking my burgers apart and making sure all traces of anything non-meat related were off of them before taking a bite. I ate two patties and was full again, the ache almost, but not quite, gone, so I knew I had a little more time before it started becoming a huge distraction again. The last day had been like floating on a cloud, pain-wise. It had been like having a crick in my neck all day, and then suddenly realizing it was completely gone. I was not looking forward to it coming back. Jason seemed happy about me eating the same number of burgers as him, leaning back in his booth with a content smile on his face, that only faltered for a second, when the music changed to a Celine Dion song.
“I miss my car radio,” he said, sipping his soda.
“I kind of do too, right now,” I replied with a grin as Celine crooned about taking chances.
I refused to equate the song to my relationship with Jason, chalking it up to being music deprived after days of driving in a silent car, with just our voices and the wind whipping past the open windows to keep us company. At least if the car did start breaking down, it would give us new and interesting sounds to focus on.
The waiter came back, offering us an assortment of stupidly named desserts, which we turned down, Jason a bit more reluctantly, and dropped the check on our table, whisking his buttons away to take orders at a nearby table full of screaming kids and a harried looking mother. I dropped enough cash to cover the meal and a decent tip, and sucked down the remains of our drinks.
Jason got out of his side of the booth first, waiting for me to get up, and putting his hand right back on my lower back as we left. All of the reasons this was a bad idea flew right out of my head with the feel of him at my back. The weight of the past week was getting lighter, even though I had no logical reason for this. I would chalk it up to hormones and just be happy. When we got to the car, I turned and grabbed his arm, reaching my head up to give him a quick kiss. His eyes were sparkling and his grin was wide as he opened my door for me and waited for me to get settled before closing it behind me. He got into the passenger seat, still smiling, and sat back as I started the engine and backed out of the space. At least we could be happy for a little while, before everything inevitably crashed down around our heads.
I decided to call the Brennans from a pay phone, not wanting any phone calls coming from our motel room, in case it came up later for some reason. I was still trying to play everything safe, hoping it would tip the scales in our favor if it ever came to that. I called information and got a choice of two listings for the last name Brennan. The second one matched the address I had written down on the pink message paper, and it was for a Ryan and Angela Brennan. I wrote down the phone number the operator recited to me underneath the address and hung up. I was tempted to have her connect me, but we hadn't come up with a cover story yet.
We sat in the car near the payphone, bouncing cover stories off of each other, finally deciding on Jason's idea of a missing relative who disappeared from a nearby town about that same time. We couldn't bet that Amy's parents wouldn't have looked at all the missing persons cases for the same time period that they could get information on, but we figured that a year later, their memory of any names might be fuzzy. If all else failed, I would tell them that the police hadn't considered it a missing person, but maybe a runaway instead, throwing in some anger at the cops not finding any leads, maybe using that to get to them emotionally. I felt dirty using their grief against them, but not dirty enough to not make the call.
My stomach clenched with nervousness as the phone rang twice, and then a woman's voice answered.
“Hello?” she said, and I tried to remember the entire cover story, as well as all of the questions I needed answers to.
“Is this Mrs. Brennan?”
“Yes,” the voice replied, still in polite tones, probably even friendly to telemarketers.
“My name is, um, Allison,” crap, why did I always forget the made up names, “and I was hoping I could talk to you about something kind of important.”
“Yes?” she asked, and suddenly her voice was less than friendly.
Friendly to telemarketers, but sick of phone calls from reporters about her missing kids was my bet.
“You see, my cousin, Kim,” seriously, I would have to write down a list of fake names for future use, “she went missing about a year ago, and the police have done nothing to find her, and I was really hoping you could help me.”
The woman was silent for a moment. I could hear her breathing on the other end of the phone, and when she next spoke, her voice was shaky.
“Help you how?”
“Um,” god, I was really feeling like a jerk now, and I glanced over at Jason, who was standing nearby, listening to my half of the conversation.
He gave me an encouraging nod.
“Um, well, she disappeared from Sioux Falls about the same time as your children.”
“I'm sorry,” she said, her voice still shaky, but full of compassion.
“So, um, right before she went missing she was acting kind of weird.”
“Weird how?” now she sounded intrigued.
Maybe this would pay off after all.
“Like, she was kind of tired and withdrawn, and, well, she was a vegetarian for years, but right before-”
“She started eating lots of meat.” She cut me off.
The woman sighed, her breath sounding loud over the phone line.
“Amy, my daughter, she was always a little withdrawn, but David, he... he was so friendly.”
I waited for her to continue. I looked up and Jason was still watching me, concentrating on my end of the conversation, probably trying to fill in the missing parts.
“He would only eat steaks for about a week before he disappeared.”
Well, that was it. David was like me, and Amy was, what? Searching for him? Also trying to find a cure, most likely. I wondered where suicidal Horace fit into the equation.
“He got really quiet, and pale. We told the cops about it, and they decided he was a runaway, like your cousin.”
She sounded angry and frustrated now. She had probably been fighting the cops every step of the way, trying to convince them that the David she knew was not someone who would just run away from his family. I had a feeling that Amy being missing hadn't helped their case any. Maybe if he had been younger they would have tried harder. Who knew.
“Yeah, my cousin was the same way. Did he tell you anything before he went missing, like maybe something had happened to him?”
“No,” she replied, firmly, “and I really don't think that I can help you, Allison. I'm sorry.”
“It's okay,” I said, my resolve just about gone.
I was dredging up bad memories for a woman who probably thought both her kids were dead. They weren't, but I couldn't tell her that without some kind of explanation, and I didn't have a good one at the moment. Maybe if I found Amy, I could convince her to contact them, reassure them that she, at least, was still okay.
“I'm so sorry for bothering you, Mrs. Brennan,” I said, “if I find out anything about my cousin, I'll be sure to get in touch with you.”
“Thank you, Allison. I'm sorry you've had to go through this too. I really hope-”
She cut off with a sob.
“I really hope her parents are okay. My husband and I have gotten some counseling and it's helped a bit.”
“I'll see what I can do. Maybe I can help.”
I meant that, but not in the way she thought. I wanted to help this woman get her family back. I wanted to help Jason get his family back. I desperately wanted to see my dad again.
“Goodbye,” she said, and the line clicked off.
I hung up and held my hand over the phone for a moment. I needed to find Amy. That was the next step. I had a name and her location as of a week ago. I had no idea where to go from there.
I jumped as Jason's arms enfolded me, jerking me out of my thoughts. I laid my head on his shoulder, and he ran his hand through my short hair, the brown strands falling down into my face.
“Let's go back to the motel,” he said, “we can talk about it there.”
I smiled at him, and followed him back to the car, not protesting when he got behind the wheel for the short drive back. I was so tired.
I had formulated a sketchy plan by the time we were back inside our chilly motel room. Jason headed off to the bathroom, and I took my shoes off, pulling the covers back on the bed and lying down. The plan could wait until after a nap. I felt like I had been running on fumes for the entire afternoon, trying to solve a puzzle that was missing half the pieces. My head was starting to hurt. I buried myself in the blanket and closed my eyes, trying to quiet my thoughts.