“Okay, the boys are gone. Tell me everything.” My mom squeaks like a fourteen year old girl and steals Lucas’s seat.
“Yeah, fat chance. You couldn’t keep a secret if it chained itself to you.”
Lolita giggles. “Very true.”
My mom gapes at us, feigning offense. “I never told Big Daddy about the car accident. I said it was me.”
“First of all, Please don’t ever call him that in my presence again. Secondly, the only reason you won’t tell him is because he was the one who said I wasn’t ready to start driving in the first place and you took me out to that abandoned parking lot, anyway. It doesn’t count when you’re covering your own behind, mom.”
She waves me off. “Oh come on, at least tell me how you met.”
My sister-in-law smiles and I point at her. “Shut it.”
“Don’t get snappy at me, hermanita. I met my husband in a nice, wholesome office.”
I raise a brow. “Before or after he left you stranded on the side of the interstate.”
“It happened two years ago! Am I never going to live that down?”
My mom shoots me a pointed look. “Where did you meet?”
“A shitty bar. Whew, glad we got that out of the way.”
“Holiday Emerson DeLower, please tell me this isn’t going where I think it is,” my mom says, frowning.
I sigh. Shit. “If you tell Dad, I’m keeping the air fryer I got you for your birthday.”
She laughs. “Sweetheart, my parents used to drop me off at Aunt Linda’s on the way to Woodstock. Don’t act like you were raised in a convent, I’m just shocked is all.”
Not a convent, more like a dictatorship. Dad and Andy meant well, but growing up the only girl and the baby of the family was difficult. I’ll always feel guilty for leaving home, but I don’t regret my choices. I needed to learn my own lessons. Fall so I could pick myself back up.
And I did.
“Yes, well I am a grown woman after all,” I say.
My mom smiles, reaching for my hand. “You could be ninety years old but to me, you’ll always have pigtails and chocolate stained dresses.”
“I told you,” my brother’s wife says, smiling but there’s a hint of sadness in her eyes. I know she thinks about having a little girl as much as I think about the one I lost.
I suddenly feel like a shit daughter. Andy’s right. I need to tell my parents the truth about Winston. But finally being home, having my family back. I’m not sure I want to ruin how perfect it feels.
“I’m glad I’m back home,” I tell her, squeezing her hand. Just then, my phone rings.
I don’t recognize the number, so I send it straight to voicemail, but not even a second passes before it starts ringing again.
“I’ll be right back. It’s probably the school.”
Leaving the kitchen, I answer the call. “Hello?”
“Oh, thank God. Mrs. DeLower?” The frantic voice of a girl on the other end makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand attention.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I was supposed to tutor Dale tonight in the library. He never showed, which I thought was strange, but his car is in the parking lot. I’ve checked everywhere except the bathrooms at this point and the school is about to close for the evening.”
“Okay, calm down, honey. I’m sure he’s alright. Maybe he just went somewhere with a friend and lost track of time?”
“I thought that too, but…”
“What if something’s wrong? I know it sounds silly because I mean, you probably know him better than I do but I can’t get rid of this feeling… H-he loves that car, he’d never abandon it.”
He’d never abandon her. Dale’s a good guy. Kind, considerate. Not to mention, he hasn’t been a second late to any of my classes. I doubt he’d stand up Belle if they had plans. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“Two fifteen. He walked me from class to the writing lab, then… well, you saw… but then he went to a workout with the baseball team. He said he’d meet me in the library at four.”
I check my phone’s clock. 6:30pm. My stomach sinks. “Where are you right now?”
Belle pauses for a moment. “I’m, um, walking home.”
I frown. “In the dark?”
“Dale usually takes me home after I finish tutoring him...”
Usually. They really are a lot closer than I thought. “Belle, I’ll be there as soon as I can. You tell the janitor I said you could wait in the commons, Okay?”
“I hope he’s okay.” The poor girl sounds like she’s on the verge of tears.
“He is, Belle. Don’t go anywhere until I get there.”
“Until you get where? What’s wrong?”
I cut the call and turn to Lucas who has my Dad right behind him. “It’s your brother. Dad, I’m so sorry. We have to go.”
Lucas pales. “What’d he do now?”
I shake my head and reach for his hand. “Nothing. I just got a call from one of my students. She knows Dale and she said she thinks he’s missing. I’ll explain everything in the car, but we have to go meet her at the school.”
Lucas pulls out his phone and dials a number. “Straight to voicemail.”
“Is everything okay, Holli?” My mom asks, frowning when she and Lolita exit the kitchen.
“I’m so sorry, mom. I promise I’ll make it up to you, but we have to leave. It’s an emergency.” I hug my parents and my sister-in-law quickly and Lucas waves to them as I practically drag him out the door.
In the car, he doesn’t hesitate revving the gas and pulling out onto the road. “Your student? What did she say?”
“Just that they had plans to meet so she could tutor him after school, but he never showed. She said he left his car in the parking lot.”
Lucas exhales. “We’ll check it out, but I gotta be honest, Holli. This isn’t the first time my brother’s disappeared. I know you really like him, but we have to be prepared for the fact that this girl might be worried for nothing.”
“No. Belle’s the smartest kid in that school. If she says something’s wrong I believe her.”
He wraps a hand around my thigh to still my bouncing leg. “I just don’t want you to worry until we have something to get worked up over. He’s been hanging out with the baseball team, lately. I wouldn’t be surprised if he blew off schoolwork to go to a party or something.”
“Yes and normally I’d agree with you, except I saw them sucking face this afternoon in the hallway.”
“Also, not new.”
“For Dale maybe, but not Belle. She’s an honors student. Quiet, shy. Besides, you didn’t see the way he was looking at her, not to mention he’s been giving her rides home. I don’t think he would’ve just left her stranded, no matter what the reason.”
Lucas nods, but as the reality of the situation begins to sink in, his frown tightens. “We’ll find him, Holli.”
My hands shake as I unlock the main entrance to Arbury Prep with my key and Belle sits at one of the round tables with her head in her hands.
She glances up, her eyes red rimmed and blood shot. It’s got to be close to eight now. “He hasn’t come back.” Poor Belle’s hands are shaking.
“I know honey.” I turn to a stoic faced Lucas but his eyes soften when he sees how torn up she is.
“Belle, do your parents know where you are?” I ask her.
She shakes her head, blushing furiously. “I told my Dad I was staying at my friend Hazel’s after we hung up. He doesn’t know Dale drops me off and I didn’t want him to make me go home.”
“How long have you been seeing my brother?” Lucas asks her. Not rudely, but I shoot him a glare anyway.
“Oh. He’s not… I mean, we’re not… Dale and I are just friends,” she says, turning a deeper shade of crimson under his scrutiny. “I just want to make sure he’s okay.”
“We’ve already called the police. Since Dale is technically still a minor for a couple more weeks, we can file a missing person’s report but first, I’m going to check the Athletics center,” Lucas says, pulling out his phone.
“I’ll stay with Belle until they get here,” I say, the worried feeling gnawing at my insides.
I’ve been monopolizing all of Lucas’s time with my shit. What if something’s really wrong and is because of me that Lucas wasn’t here. It’s been hours and we’re only just now starting the search. As much shit as I give Andy, I’d be devastated if anything happened to him.
Lucas kisses me on the cheek before leaving again and I try not to let my emotions get the better of me.
A soft hand reaches for mine and I take deep breaths, squeezing it. “He’s going to be fine, Belle.”
“I know you probably think I’m silly,” she says so quietly I almost don’t hear her. “I’m not dumb. I know I shouldn’t like him so much. As soon as school starts and he sees how pretty the other students are, he’s going to forget about me. But I can’t help it, Miss DeLower. Have you ever wanted something so bad in your life, you feel like you can’t breathe?”
“I do. Very much.” I want Lucas. Desperately. But even more than him, not a day goes by that I don’t want Ella back. I know exactly what that’s like.
“It’s just… Dale makes me feel seen. I work with other people all day long and yet, for the past four years, I’ve been so lonely. I mean, Hazel’s great, but she doesn’t understand. She has cheerleading and her boyfriend. Am I kidding myself? You can be honest with me. I can handle it.”
“I’m not going to pretend I know Dale very well at all, Belle. But I wouldn’t necessarily give up hope, either. Not going to lie, I kind of wish I hadn’t seen what I did, earlier, but what I can say is that I’ve only seen that look two other times in my life.” I turn to look at her and smile, hoping it’s reassuring. “When my Dad looks at my mom. And when Lucas looks at me.”
Her bottom lip falls slightly and her pretty amber eyes with the ring of blue around them widen. Then she frowns. “I doubt that.”
“Oh yeah? That’s funny because I know it hasn’t been that long since I was in high school but I don’t think I’ve ever met a seventeen year old boy that’d give up his entire summer for tutoring when he already has As in all of his classes.”
Belle gasps. “He lied to me?”
Shit. I hope I’m not making this worse. “What do you mean?”
“Dale said he was failing English and Calculus and that if he wants to play baseball in the spring, he has to have the credits to boost his GPA— Why are you looking at me like you have no idea what I’m talking about?”
“Because I don’t. Belle, Dale has never been failing my class or any others. In fact, his grade on his interview of you was so good, I asked him to consider joining the school newspaper this morning. He declined, something about the editor being… less than friendly. Not the words he used.”
“Oh my God. I think I might be sick.”
“For what it’s worth, I think his heart was in the right place,” I offer, still hoping I didn’t just make a mistake. I’m the last person to offer relationship advice. Especially in this state, but it’s a distraction and I need it.
“No, I…” her cheeks flush. “Never mind.”
Belle and I look up toward the exit where Lucas runs at us. “The police are outside. Belle was right. Something’s wrong.” He holds up a thin chain with what looks like a little ring with a small gemstone in the center. “This was our mom’s. He never takes this off… I think he left it for me to find.”