Authors: Courtney Cook Hopp
“I don’t know,” I choked out. “I don’t know if she was . . . is . . . was . . .”
“How did you know she was out there?” The hesitant tone of his voice was not lost on me, but all energy to deal with it was gone.
“I have no . . . idea.” My mind was spinning down a vortex of exhaustion, slowly slipping from my grasp.
Up went his fingers.
I rolled over, pulling the comforter tight around me, and curled my head in his lap. The overwhelming relief of finally seeing Autumn’s face and the fatigue of unburdening the information took hold, luring my broken body to sleep.
I lingered in a fitful state of darkness. The circuit board in my head fired intermittently, sending inklings of something that lay unresolved. I willed myself to return to the murky recesses of my mind, but light seeped through the slits of my eyes and foiled my attempts to hold tight to unconsciousness.
Heavy with sleep, I pushed my resistant lids open.
My nose was sunk deep in a pillow coated with a familiar smell. I lifted my head high enough to read the red numbers on the clock. Nine twenty-one. Red numbers. Red numbers? As soon as the realization hit that the numbers on my own alarm clock were green, the floodgates opened, unleashing every moment, every disturbing memory of the past twenty-four hours.
The parking lot.
Autumn clinging for dear life as I fought to see through the darkness I’d become trapped in. That is, until Quentin somehow shook me free from the brink of a complete mental collapse.
Determined to stop the instant replay in my head, I sat up, every ache and bruise screaming louder than the memories churning in my head.
But I could see.
My sight was as clear as it ever was. I glanced around Quentin’s meagerly furnished bedroom, his minimalist décor in keeping with the rest of the house. A bare, tall highboy dresser held up the far wall, while a small night table with a clock and lamp sat next to the queen bed. I was tempted to open the closet door to see if there were actual clothes in
side it, but decided to search out the elusive resident of the house. And a phone.
My stomach churned at the thought of calling home. I needed to know, to hear for myself Autumn had been found, and that she was safe, but I was unsure if I had the strength to take on the barrage of questions the call would bring. I had no answers, no explanation for how I knew where Autumn was, and no answers would undoubtedly lead to another ugly fight.
The comforter fell away as I swung my legs out from underneath it, revealing a guy’s over-sized t-shirt hanging on my body. My cheeks burned, unable to remember how or when the shirt replaced the towel I’d been wrapped in. I stood and moved delicately to the partially open door leading from the room. Nudging it open wider, I peered up and down the hallway. There was no sound, no movement, but I didn’t let the quiet fool me.
With one hand balanced on the wall, I walked vigilantly down the hall. My sore legs were like burdensome children, fighting each step, threatening to topple me over. The living room felt even more barren in the harsh light of day, except for the breathtaking view of the Puget Sound that shimmered through the glass of the large picture window.
The dark clouds of the night had lifted, leaving a mild gray day hovering over the water. I stood and stared out at a small sailboat gently listing back and forth, waiting patiently for the wind to fill its sails.
I turned back to the room, unsure of what to do, hesitant to call out and be the only voice echoing off the walls. I slipped carefully across the room and rounded a corner into the kitchen. Bright white counter tiles glistened back at me, devoid of any clutter, including a phone. Maybe he just moved in.
Intending to move back to the living room, I noticed another door with a bolt lock near the back of the kitchen. I shuffled across the cold floor and glanced over my shoulder, expecting Quentin to appear from where ever he was hidden. My heart thumped against my ribs as I tested the knob and pulled the door open, revealing a staircase.
“Quentin?” I called down. The sound of my voice unnatural against the quiet.
“Quentin?” I called again and held my breath so I could hear over the throbbing pulse whooshing through my ears.
Nothing. Only silence.
I felt along the wall for a light switch, but found none. With one last glance over my shoulder, I squeezed through the door and stepped down onto the top stair. A hair-raising squeak reverberated in the stairwell, alerting the entire house that someone was on the move. I waited. Held my breath. Counted backward from thirty.
And still the silence droned on.
Throwing rational thought to the wind, I quickly descended the rest of the stairs, trying to minimize the moans and groans of the old house.
I stepped tentatively into the musty basement, the unfinished walls polished in dust and cobwebs. The chill of the cement floor radiated through my bare feet and up my legs like ivy, releasing a layer of goose bumps across my skin. My eyes dilated wide, the faint lines of a washer and dryer coming into focus on the far wall. And a door.
My feet moved forward without a command from me, every muscle in my body strained tight. I turned the knob. The door pushed open. I stood perfectly still, staring into the black abyss. Politeness told me to leave and return upstairs, but instead, I curled my hand around the door jam, walked my fingers over a light plate, and pushed up the switch.
bare single bulb dangling from the unfinished ceiling revealed a stark row of faces staring back at me. Photos, hanging on a line running the length of the room, displayed slices of humanity secretly captured — the young and the old, the beautiful and the ugly. I slid past each one, their presence compelling, haunting, leaving me yearning to know more. But it was the last one that stopped me cold and stole by breath.
It was me. My face. Perfectly framed between the brush growing up from the ground and a tree bending precariously with the contours of my body. Nothing in my expression registered the looming threat hanging over me. My only expression was peace, contently washed over my face. I tried to recr
eate our walk through the woods to the lighthouse, but no memory shook free of him pointing his camera in my direction and capturing a slice of a moment I couldn’t remember.
A shiver ran down my spine, the cold of the basement infiltrating my bare arms and legs. I backed up, my foot catching on something. My arm shot to the wall to steady my balance as I glanced down at the corner of a tarp my toes had become ensnared in. I reached down to untangle myself, a glint of gold catching my eye as the tarp shifted out of place. Curious, I lifted the corner and peaked underneath, spying a frame. I lifted it further, until I’d uncovered seven different works of art beautifully framed. Oils and acrylics, just sitting and rotting in the damp basement. I didn’t get it. Why wouldn’t he take the time to hang them up?
I dropped the canvas back in place and turned to inspect the rest of the room. On the opposite side was a light table next to a desk covered in computer monitors and a keyboard. Tacked on the wall above the desk was a map of Seattle and outlying areas dotted with small pins tipped in yellow and red.
I crept closer. The pattern was random, marching in swirls that made no sense. Embedded amongst the red and yellow, were two dots of black hiding, hardly distinguishable in the mess of color. One marked an address at the top of Queen Anne, while the other was pushed directly into my address on Vashon Island. I was taken back, unsure of what to make of it.
I bit down on my lip and slowly reached up and pulled out the pin, a gaping hole now indicating where my house should be. I stared at the hole, confused. Why would he . . .?
My lower lip throbbed, my teeth still painfully embedded in the flesh. Releasing my caught lip, the blood flow began to beat in time with the questions swirling through me. My dad’s voice adding to the chaos,
“Something’s not right about him.”
“What are you doing down here?”
I startled at the sound of Quentin’s dark voice, his statuesque body filling the doorway. How did I not hear him come down the stairs?
“Quentin,” I breathed out, catching my startled breath. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people.”
“This is my house. It’s not considered sneaking.” He stepped into the room holding a drink carrier with four latte cups. His hard eyes scanned the area around his computer. “You’re the one sneaking around.”
“Sorry, um, you’re right,” I acknowledged, knowing I had no excuse. I gave the pin a discrete toss under the desk and moved away from the map, hoping he wouldn’t notice the hole. “I was looking for a phone.”
“There isn’t one down here.”
“So I noticed.” I pointed to the drink carrier he was holding in hopes of a distraction. “Do you always drink four cups of coffee in the morning?”
‘No.” He moved back to the door, waiting for me walk through first. “I didn’t know what you wanted.”
I stopped in the doorframe, the scent of him blending with the bitter bean aroma. “What are my choices?”
“Latte. Chai. Mocha.”
“I’ll take the Chai.”
I circled my fingers around the warm cup he handed me and stepped from the room, unable to reconcile the inconsistent pictures of Quentin in my head.
I scooted up the stairs, self-conscious of my bare legs sticking out of his t-shirt, which suddenly felt much shorter as he trailed a step behind me.
His thoughts weren’t too far from mine. “What happened to your leg?”
I glanced down at my leg as I stepped through the door at the top of the stairs. A trail of bruises twisted down my thigh. “I fell and got kicked.”
“When?” he asked, his warm eyes roaming over my leg.
“At the dance. I fell when, um . . . I saw . . .” I stuttered as his eyes traveled up my body to mine, releasing a wave of heat in my chest. I broke the contact and moved to the other side of the kitchen. “Um, well, it’s nothing. I need to get dressed.”
“Your clothes are in the bathroom.” He closed the door firmly and turned the key bolt above the knob. “They should be dry. I’ll drive you home after you get dressed.”
He slid the key into his pocket, his eyes catching mine before I turned and stepped anxiously from the room. I didn’t understand what warranted being locked in the musty basement, especially since he took such little care with his art.
“My car is parked on the other side, you can just drop me off at the ferry terminal.”
“I told your Dad I would drive you home.”
I whipped around. “You talked to my dad?” I asked incredulously. “When? Why would you do that?”
“I called him last night after you fell asleep. He deserved to know you were alive.” He moved around me, not actually looking at me. “By the way, they found your cousin.”
“Was she in the boat?”
“Yes.” He came to a stop in front of the large picture window, his back highlighted by the light filtering through. “But you knew that already.”
It was an accusation, one I didn’t have a reply to. “Did my dad ask how I knew where she was?”
“About how I ended up here?”
Of course he didn’t. Concern took effort and effort he didn’t expend. I took my frustration out on the easy target in front of me. “Are we going to talk about last night? The guy in the parking lot? My temporary loss of sight? Autumn?” I didn’t bother adding the kiss to the list.
His “no” came out forcefully. “There’s nothing to talk about. You should get dressed.”
I was done. Fed up with his evasiveness. It was obvious he wanted me gone. My feet stomped from the room, my mouth muttering my thoughts out loud. “Coward.”
In two loud strides he caught up to me and grabbed hold my arm, spinning me around to face the indignation etched deep on his face. “What did you call me?”
“Coward. I called you a coward,” I snapped, pulling my arm from his grip, my Chai latte erupting over my hand. I was too mad to back down from the anger his face radiated like a red flag. “Is this how you treat everyone who crosses your threshold?”
“Nobody comes here.”
“Well, it’s no wonder.” Tired of his insolent tone, I pulled myself tall, unable to stop my stream of consciousness from exiting my mouth. “You can pretend like I’m the one losing it, but it’s a lie. We both know it. I. Am. Not. Crazy.”
“What do you want from me? I didn’t ask for this.”
“Then why did you kiss me?”
“I didn’t. You kissed me.”
“Oh, that’s right, your lips didn’t participate.” My voice dripped in sarcasm.