Erin Lockwood.

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Chapter 2: Promises, Promises.

“Hi... dad... it’s me... again. Just another diary entry from me,” Mia says and fumbles out an awkward laugh. Her phone in her grasp, the foot of it angled towards her mouth. Steadily pacing back and forth in her room, the straps of her school bag secured on her back.

“Today, the entire town will find out that Keila is missing, officially. I have no idea what could have happened...” She halts. “Maybe that’s a lie... maybe I do know, and I just can’t—won’t face it.”

The worry line etched on her forehead, recedes and her face softens, and a nostalgic look blossoms on her face. “You used to always say that bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid.” She chuckles wistfully and tries to mimic his husky voice. ”Fear is inevitable, kiddo. But bravery is a choice, you can overcome it.”

Mia’s face falls into a despairing look. “Sadly, I’m not as brave or as strong as you are. And I wish you were here to convince me otherwise, to advise me and tell me what I should do.” Her voice breaks and the tears burn behind her eyes.

“Dad... please... tell me what I should do... talk to me, please,” she begs and her grip on the phone tightens. Mia glances down at the screen and wakes it with an irritated tap. She watches as the seconds and minutes increase on the ongoing call, and the time she has to get to school, dwindles.

Mia clenches her eyes close for a moment and peels it open, exhaling a heavy sigh. “... Great chat, dad, great chat. As riveting as this was... I have to get to school. First day back and all.” She pauses. “Remember what you said to me: I love you and even in a hundred lifetimes, and a thousand different realities. I will still and I will always love you.” She scoffs and her face curdles into a resentful look.

“I just wish that you would have promised me rather, that you would never leave me instead.” Mia hangs up and looks down to scroll through the mounting list of missed calls, unheard voice mails, and unread text messages. Countless words dropped into the cyber void, forsaken and abandoned, just as she feels.

Mia pockets her phone and marches to the ajar door, flings it open and allows it to slam on the other side to echo her frustration. “Mom, I’m ready to leave,” she announces and makes her way to the staircase, and trots down the wooden steps. She skips the last two and jumps down, emerging into the open floor lounge.

“I’m ready to get this day ov—” She cuts herself off as she views her mother standing beside the back of the long couch, her elbow propped on its narrow head. She straightens, her phone in her other hand lowers from her ear, and she places it’s face on her chest.

Mia examines the rueful expression on her face, and she rolls her eyes. “You have to go again. Don’t you?”

Irene bites down on her lower lip and nods hesitantly. “The job of an event co-ordinator,” she says bitterly and lets out a laborious sigh. “There’s a vendor, out of town, looking to spend big money on his upcoming trade shows, and his hired my expertise to help him.” Trying to stave off the excitement in her voice. “I’ll be gone for two days, then I’m back for a while, until I need to leave again.”

Mia shrugs helplessly. “This is a great opportunity for you, mom, and I’m happy for you. Besides, you know I can take care of myself.” A widespread smile illuminates Irene’s face as she rushes over to her daughter, and envelopes her into a smothering bear hug.

“Of course, you can, because I raised a strong, smart and independent woman.” Irene untangles herself from her and clutches either shoulder. “There’s more than enough food in the fridge and in the pantry, but because I’m such an amazing mother, I’ll send you money for take-outs.”

The thought of ordering pizza for dinner tugs at the corners of Mia’s lips, and Irene snaps her fingers, then points her index finger at the look on her face. “Order as much pizza as you want and...” She trails off to shove her hand in the pocket of her sweatpants, and fishes before she pulls out her car keys and raises her arm to dangle it over Mia’s head.

“You get to use my car while I’m away, only because I don’t want you to miss a second of school. I need to get ready to leave; I’ll order an uber later, but by the time you get back from school today, I’ll be gone.” She reels her in and cups her hands on Mia’s jaw, to dip her head forward and plant a sweet, lingering kiss on the crown of her head. She lifts her head and makes her look into her eyes.

“Be good and stay safe. Go to school, come back. No gallivanting or going out.” Mia snorts and steps away so that her hands fall from her face.

“That would require me to have friends. I don’t, so like always. You needn’t worry, mother.” Mia weaves past her and to the archway that leads out to the front door. And to the car outside that sits parked on the open driveway.

***

An hour and forty-five minutes later. The auditorium of Braidwood High sits at full capacity. All faculty members sit in the front rows of the middle and left sections. The last throng of pupils neatly slip into the back, filling the last open seats. Mild nattering buzz across the hall. Many curious and slightly concerned, that impromptu assembly took the register period’s stead.

Mia is able to rest her forearm on the arm of the one side of her seat. Her eyes homed in on the vacant stage and a lonely microphone that is positioned, front and centre.

Several moments later, principal Adkin strides out from one of the wings and makes his way out to stand right in front of the microphone, overlooking the entire student body and staff.

“Good morning, Braidwood High and welcome to your first day back. And to the seniors who will, hopefully, never experience it again after this year.” The remark earns him a few scattered laughs, then, principal Akin adopts a gravely formal tone.

“I have summoned you here this morning, to relay awful news and implore your aid in this troubling time.” And he looks solemnly at his audience. “Towards the end of summer break. One of our own has gone missing. Keila Venus.”

A surge of shocked gasps rips through the atmosphere, and there is a burst of panicked rumbles. Mia’s hand whitens around the edge of the armchair.

“Settle down, please. Settle down,” he urges, but to no avail, his plead falls on deaf ears, and the clamouring amplifies.

Principal Adkins raises a silencing hand. “Quiet down, all of you,” he reprimands with his volume raised. “This is a serious matter and I need you all to listen very carefully.”

The clamouring thins into a frigid silence.

Principal Adkins nods and clears his throat. “Keila has gone missing, but with combined efforts of the town and its people, and the resources of the BPD. She will be found. We have already sent emails to your parents, to notify and to warn.” His head on a swivel as his eyes rove through the opaque faces of the masses. “A schedule has been attached with it, for all town-wide search parties, canvases through the woods in search of Keila. And I believe the first one starts today, after school.”

He pauses and lets out a sorrowful breath. “This school may be an institution of education, but we are more than a student body. We are a family and we must do everything that we can, to make our family whole again. So, if you know anything about her whereabouts, her disappearance. Report it, there is a special hotline connected to the BPD that you can call. You can even inform one of the teachers if you’re not comfortable, and my door is always open.”

Principal Adkin’s gaze hovers above the multitudes, and Mia sucks in a sharp breath as it appears as if his eyes have landed directly on her. “Even if you had nothing to do with her disappearance, but you know something, even if it’s a small clue that can lead to her discovery. You are as guilty as whoever is responsible for her absence if you keep silent.” Mia’s heart sinks to her stomach and she drops her gaze to her lap.

Subsequently, Adkins dismisses everyone and the students dazedly rise to their feet. Disorderly, they all disgorge out of the auditorium to the exits that connect to the rest of the school building.

Not long after, Mia sits at the back of the classroom, enduring a literature lesson that she would normally enjoy. But today, she cannot stand it. Her playbook open on a random page and her folded arms rest at the verge of the desk.

Mia’s eyes furrow at the curious sounds that beckon for her attention beside her. She sneaks a glimpse of three girls whispering feverishly with one another. The one girl in front twists her torso until she can address the two girls that sit together behind her. She showcases them her screen, and points to it with a wild look of panic that flares in her gaze. A picture of Keila, with a lengthy-typed post, tagged beneath it.

“Right, class. I know we are forced to start the year in such a horrid note, but as they say. The show must go on,” Miss Jeffery says sullenly and inhales a deep breath. “So, let’s start by resuming where we left off in the previous term. By discussing Shakespeare’s use of the technique of elision, in which certain key events take place offstage in Macbeth. Why do you think he uses this technique?”

Several hands sprout and Miss Jeffery elects one volunteer. Suddenly, a vibration buzzes in her over-sized denim jacket. Her hand passes over the car keys as she pulls out her phone and checks the new message.

Unknown number: Hi Mia. This is Angie. Keila’s mom. I hope you are well, and I wanted to extend an invitation for tomorrow evening at my house at 4pm. I know you have not been over in a long time, and I wish it were under better circumstances. But I’m afraid. It isn’t. I know this is quite a late notice, but it is urgent. I hope to see you tomorrow.

Much Love,
Angie Venus.

Mia lowers the screen absentmindedly and drops it, face-down, unto the desk. And a shuddering breath escapes her lips. She glances down at the playbook and accepts that she will be thrown out of focus for the rest of the day.

Her mind off orbit.

***

The following day creeps on Mia. Unprepared and unwilling.

The gruelling hours of meaningless school ensue. The monotonous routine of subject-to-subject affair is in play. This time, Mia clings to every hour, dreading as the time goes by, the more it nears to the inevitability of what comes after.

She could choose not to visit. To reject the invitation and conjure a credible excuse on why she could not come over.

That option would imply the worst.

And not only is it cowardly, but shameful to all extents.

Deep down, they all feared what this meant. To the rest of the town, Erin’s disappearance begun the same. Vanishing, without a trace.

And now, so has Keila.

When the last bell of the day blares a shrilly, see-you-tomorrow. Mia flows with the tides of departing students, eagerly streaming out of the main building.

Shortly, Mia is on the road, both hands on the wheel. Her mind in the passenger seat and her instinct dictating her actions as she drives to a place, a home that she has not visited in seven years. But the path is so familiar that it feels like it was only yesterday.

Ten minutes later, Mia rolls into Keila’s neighbourhood and the panic sets in. The pinpricks of anxiety pierce her with tormenting questions.

What is she going to ask you? What will you say to her?

What is so urgent that she needs to speak to you directly? Besides her daughter missing. Why does she think you might know something about it?

What does she know?

Did Keila mention something about what happened to Erin before she disappeared?

Is she suspicious of you?

What does she know?

Mia lets out a tortured groan. “Shut up. Just. Shut up,” she seethes. Trying to quieten her deafening thoughts that writhe within.

She knows nothing. Everyone knows nothing.

She reassures her mind, to grant herself even a slither of calm.

To an extent it is true. No-one could fathom the truth of what happened to Erin.

Mia only hoped that the terror of their past did not return to haunt them, and plague them with a reminder of what they did. Of what she had to do.

Soon after she approaches the Venus house, Mia parks behind a towering black jeep that dwarfs her mother’s vehicle. She kills the engine and extracts the key from the ignition. Mia pops the car door open and closes it, and arms the car with a press of a button. Mia steps out onto the sidewalk and strolls down. Promptly, she notices two other cars parked opposite the Venus’s entryway of the open driveway, that leads up to the double-door garage.

Mia meanders to the left and respectfully follows on the pebble path, avoiding the manicured grass, and ambles ahead. She reaches the front wooden porch and slowly ascends the few short steps.

Paralysed, she stands before the door, unable to do anything that will alert them of her presence.

“Fear is inevitable, but bravery is a choice,” she recites to herself and inhales a ready breath. “And I can overcome it.” Mia lifts her hand and quickly knocks three loud thuds before she can change her mind.

A few seconds later, the beige door opens and reveals Mrs Venus behind it. Mia looks back at her puffy eyes and she pampers on a charming grin. The pastel pink jersey she wears compliments the light tone of her complexion.

“Mia,” she breathes. “I’m so glad you came.”

Mia offers her a wobbly smile and Mrs Venus widens the door, and steps to the side with her other arm outstretched towards the interior. “Please, come in.” Mia shoves her hands into her pockets and traipses inside. Mrs Venus closes the door behind her, spins, and briskly walks ahead so she can lead Mia to the living room.

“Just up here, all the others are already here.”

Mia frowns as she follows from behind, “... others.”

Mrs Venus leads her down the expansive corridor. The floor is an old-fashioned parquet with a blend of deep browns. The banister ahead was a twirl of a branch, tamed by a carpenter’s hand. They drift past the wall of framed pictures: portraits of family snapshots, but most were of Keila and as they pass. Mia views the photographed Keila grow from: baby pictures to a happy toddler, quirky preteen and the rest were recent single shots. Various pictures of her, holding up trophies, awards and certificates, all for unique achievements.

Mrs Venus pauses in the center of the passageway, large archways on either side of her, mirroring each other. One leads into the separate dining room and the adjacent room is the lounge. Mia carefully treads forward and stands beside Mrs Venus, exposed to all who already await inside.

The words slip before she can catch them. “You have got to be kidding me,” she grumbles. The cracks to her calm resurface.

In the living room that connects to the kitchen. Aries Black sits on a single armchair, laterally from where she stands, slanted forward with his elbows on his thighs. Akin Ballo and Opal Chiang share the white, classic round-arm sofa, but both awkwardly sit on either end. Far from each other.

In the center of the semi-circle shaped room, is a glass coffee table with a plate of neatly piled, home-baked cookies that waft a welcoming aroma, that juxtapose the artic and hostile atmosphere amid them all.

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