Authors: S. M. Freedman
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 S.M. Freedman
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
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Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen
You are the coffee in my cream.
I found her amid the drifts of dirty snow, somewhere near the silenced creek. She was cocooned in rough wool blankets, which hid the sharpness of her bones.
I stopped short, watching her.
From my right came the distant scent of horses, a bit of warmth on the bitter wind. The smell was life, and it was a good reminder. It got me moving.
She was watching the jaundiced sky, perhaps searching for birds. But of course, the sky was empty.
“You must be cold.” The words puffed around my face and drifted off into the silence.
She shrugged within her blankets, but her nose was red and weeping. I wanted to tell her to eat, but who was I to tell her to do anything?
“I don’t understand any of this.”
It was the first time she had spoken in days. Or was it weeks? I eased down next to her, and the cold gnawed at my thighs.
“Do you blame me?” I asked her.
She blinked, but didn’t answer. It was answer enough. Rather than jump in to fill the silence that followed, I decided to wait her out.
One small hand made it out of the tangle of blankets. She passed me a grimy piece of paper, crumpled and damp from her hand. I pulled off my gloves and opened it. It was part of a sermon, a page ripped from a book. I scanned the page quickly, anxiety tightening my chest. No need to read it; I could have spoken the words from memory.
war. They rape and pillage our sacred Mother Earth, call their own brothers “enemy” and kill in the name of a God who long ago turned His back.
They are blind to the enemy that walks among them, to the deity hiding inside human skin. They move about our Earth like an infestation of cockroaches, oblivious to the coming extermination!
But the time of Judgment is upon them. The time of Brimstone and Fire. The time of Extinction.
Day Zero approaches, my children. We must walk the straight path, and remain faithful.
With trembling hands, I folded the paper. Then, in a flash of anger, I crumpled it into a tight ball and hurled it toward the trees. It landed on the dirty snow. A dirty page full of dirty teachings.
“Where did you get that?”
She shrugged. “Where do you think?”
There was a long silence.
“I’m old enough for the truth,” she said.
I searched the trees, looking for some sign of life. “I don’t know everything. The others—”
“They’ve told you a lot. And you’re remembering so much now.”
“Inside, then. Where it’s warm.”
“It’s their story, too.”
“No. Just you. I want to hear it out here, in the ashes.”
I swallowed past the barbed wire in my throat. “Will you share the blankets?”
She opened them silently. I tucked us deep within their folds, using my good arm and moving quickly before what little warmth there was could escape.
She waited, keeping her gaze on the trees, while I struggled to find the right words to start. The words that would make her understand.
“I suppose the best place to begin is with Ryanne Jervis,” I said. “A little girl who disappeared from Elkhorn, Nebraska, on the last day of school before summer vacation.”
Suppressing the desire to stroke the hair matted beneath her wool cap, I closed my eyes and let that long-ago Nebraska sun prickle my roughened skin.
She was so clear now, the little girl with the red hair.
“Her mother liked to say Ryanne was a comet pulling a tail of trouble, and she was right. Because Ryanne knew things and saw things others didn’t.”
I felt her body tense beside me and squeezed her gloved hand in acknowledgment.
“She was always passing on information no one wanted to hear. She was awkward, skinny, and pale. Her classmates would have told you she was just plain
.” I pulled the blankets tighter, snuggling her up against my side. I was glad when she didn’t pull away.
“They might have left it at that, unable to explain why they were so uncomfortable when she was around. They sensed she was different, but they didn’t understand how or why.
“Only a few kids could have said more. Like Jimmy Fairchild, who, in kindergarten, bumped her arm in the cloakroom while reaching for his coat. Ryanne had gasped, and then blurted out she was sorry about his dad. She left him there with his coat puddled at his feet.
“His mind had probably returned to that moment again and again, like a tongue to a loose tooth, after his father died of an aneurysm three weeks later. He never spoke to Ryanne again, but every once in a while she caught him looking at her, as though wondering if his dad’s death was somehow her fault.
“And there was Teresa Hernandez, who made the mistake of taking Ryanne’s butterfly hair clip. Ryanne had stood before the whole class, red-faced but determined, and accused Teresa of stealing it.
“She listed, one by one, all the items Teresa had stolen: Penny Marsh’s sparkle pen, Colin Purdue’s Garbage Pail Kids cards, Jennifer Morrow’s yellow scarf. In the span of five minutes, Teresa became the most hated girl in the school. Well, aside from Ryanne.
“Of course, after that day, Teresa hated Ryanne most of all. She followed her on the way home from school, pulled her hair when no one was looking, and threw Ryanne’s art project in a mud puddle.
“None of her classmates ever tried to be her friend, or stepped forward to help her. Once she was gone, I bet most of them tried to forget her. But I hope her memory haunted them, instead.
“I hope the sound of her lonely weeping stalked her tormentors on the playground. I hope the kids who had spit wads of paper at her head found themselves transfixed by the shadow-space of her empty chair. I hope they saw her face in the dull gleam of their desks, or her tattered pink coat hanging from the unclaimed hook in the cloakroom.”
I paused to catch my breath. I could feel her now; she was right there with me. The little lost girl on whom I had turned my back.
“Of course the years passed, and the world moved on, as it does. But I’d like to believe, to
, she wasn’t so easily forgotten . . .”
Twenty-five years ago, Elkhorn, Nebraska
“Ryanne Elizabeth Jervis. For Christ’s sake, Phil, you know who she is!” Sherry Jervis plucked a cigarette from the crumpled pack in her purse, but her hands were trembling too violently to light it. The sheriff leaned over and did the job for her.
Josh guessed there were times when the new no-smoking regulation in the county sheriff’s office simply did not apply.
“We have to fill out these forms right, Ms. Jervis, or something might get missed. Now, do you have any recent pictures of her?” the sheriff asked.
“Not on me, no.” She plucked a fleck of tobacco off her lip and eyed him through the haze of smoke. “Does that make me a bad mother?”
Sheriff Lagrudo leaned back in his chair—the one that squeaked—and regarded her with weary eyes. “Of course not. But we’ll need to get one from your house as soon as possible. I can have Officer Metcalf go over.” He nodded in Josh’s direction and she shrugged.
“Where can he find a photo?”
“In the top drawer of my dresser. Under my bras,” she said.
Josh felt the heat creep up his neck. He nodded, keeping his gaze averted from the deep
of her exposed cleavage. They waited while she dug through her purse and handed over a key. She smelled so strongly of violets and cigarette smoke it made Josh’s head ache. He pocketed the key and moved toward the door.
The sheriff cleared his throat, catching Josh’s attention, and glanced at the chair in the corner. Josh was so new to the force his belt still creaked when he walked, but he’d already learned enough about his boss to pick up on the silent order. Josh sat.
Sherry Jervis had been six years ahead of Josh in school, and by the time he attended Elkhorn High, the stories about her had become legend. If even half of them were true, the sheriff was wise to keep Josh in the room. Even under the current circumstances.
Sherry got pregnant at eighteen. Although she remained tight-lipped, rumors about the baby’s father had spread like wildfire. The general consensus around town was that the father was either Mayor George Buerle (and did you notice how much Mrs. Buerle started drinking right around that time
) or Thomas Bussini, the high-school science teacher who packed up and moved to California halfway through the school year.
She slouched against the corner of the desk, and her denim skirt rode up alarmingly. The sheriff’s chair squeaked, but Lagrudo managed to stare earnestly at the forms in front of him, pointedly ignoring the bare thigh that thrummed with life so close to him.
Sherry had an effect on men. Josh doubted she meant half of what she did; it was just an innate part of who she was. A perfect example was calling the sheriff “Phil,” rather than addressing him more properly as “Sheriff Lagrudo.” It put them on equal footing, which somehow implied they were potential bed partners.
The sheriff cleared his throat. “Okay, Ms. Jervis. Run through this with me again. She would have biked home from school?”
“Right. She always does that. I work the dinner shift at Max’s.”
“And she usually gets home at what time?”
She bounced up and began pacing. “Jesus Christ, didn’t you hear me? I
, Phil. I don’t know. She’s home when I get there.”
“And what time is that, normally?”
“What’s it matter?” Her eyes were red and puffy with tears.
The sheriff waited, pen poised.
“My shift ends at nine, okay?”
“So you usually get home at what? Nine fifteen, nine thirty?”
She stabbed out her cigarette on the sheriff’s Coke can. Josh found himself leaning forward.
“Ms. Jervis?” the sheriff prompted.
“Does this matter, really? My kid is
! Shouldn’t you be out there looking for her instead of questioning me like I’ve done something wrong?”
looking for her, and no one is accusing you of anything. But I do need to know what time you got home.”
“Ten.” She would no longer meet the sheriff’s eyes. Her skin was mottled pink.
Sheriff Lagrudo put down his pen. “Ten last night?”
Her shoulders slumped. “This morning, okay? I got home and everything was locked up like when I left. No lights on, nothing. No dishes in the sink. Her bed wasn’t slept in. Her bike’s gone. Her backpack.” Strands of red hair had come loose and were sticking to the wetness on her cheeks.
“Dammit, you’ve gotta find her! She’s my baby. She’s
all I’ve got
.” She clapped her hands over her eyes and began to wail. Her knees gave out, and she crumpled to the floor.
The sheriff met Josh’s eye and gave him a small nod. Without a sound, Josh stood and left the office.
The Jervis home was located where Chancellor Road formed a T-junction with Skyline Road. The house was small and pale blue with purple trim. It might once have been cheery, but the decade-old paint was peeling, exposing the rust-colored paint underneath like traces of dried blood.
Josh pulled off his sunglasses and dumped them on the seat next to him. The overgrowth surrounding the property shrouded it in permanent shade. The only neighbors were the corpses quietly rotting in Mt. Calvary Cemetery across the street.
The house was two miles south of the school where Ryanne was last seen, perhaps a fifteen-minute trip by bicycle for a girl her size. Officers had been dispatched to walk the route, retracing Ryanne’s trip from school to home.
As the newest member of the force, Josh had been issued a 1978 Ford Fairmont. It rattled and moaned when pushed beyond forty miles an hour, and its shocks were no match for the gaping potholes in the Jervises’ side yard. He cracked his skull on the roof as he bounced to a stop at the edge of the property.
He grabbed his radio and exited the car into the cloud of dust stirred up by his arrival. It stuck to his damp skin as he crossed the yard and climbed the stairs to the rickety porch. The door squealed on its hinges, exposing a dim and cluttered living room. Josh took one last dusty breath of summer and stepped inside.
Past the living room was a dingy, galley-style kitchen, and beyond that a narrow hallway that led to a bathroom and two bedrooms. He paused at the open doorway of what must have been Ryanne’s bedroom. A Care Bears quilt was hanging slightly askew on the twin bed. Pink wallpaper with a rainbow border brightened the room, and a white princess desk was tucked under the only small window, which was barred shut with a wooden stick to prevent anyone from sliding it open from the outside.
With a guilty glance toward the front of the house, Josh stepped across the threshold. There was a ragged, worn-out doll propped against the pillow. The desk held a small pile of children’s library books about space and the solar system, and a pink hairbrush matted with red hair.
Her smell permeated the small space, a heady combination of strawberry ChapStick and Johnson’s shampoo that caused an ache in his chest. The room looked abandoned, like a photograph beginning to curl at the edges with age and neglect. Josh touched the doll’s hair, as though in apology, and left.
The call came over the radio as Josh was exiting Sherry Jervis’s cluttered bedroom. The room was strewn with lacy underthings and the rumpled sheets smelled like violets and sex. He had barely dared to breathe while searching her dresser.
His stomach cramped at the first burst of static over the radio, and he paused to listen. One of the officers was calling it in, her voice crackling with urgency. They had found the girl’s bike.
The bike had been spotted some twenty feet off North Main Street. It was half-hidden in the scrub bordering Papillion Creek, a small stream that cut between the gravel lot of Enfield’s Tree Services and the train tracks to the north.
Officers had cordoned off the area and were clustered around the yellow tape, antsy and eager to take action—any kind of action. Josh stood off to the side, trying not to transfer the sweat from his palms onto the photo of Ryanne Jervis.
“What’s the deal?” the sheriff asked, placing his duffel bag on the ground at his feet.
Officer Lahoya stepped forward. “Pink bike, child’s size, white basket with a pink flower. Matches the description Ms. Jervis gave us. There’s a Care Bear on the ground about five feet away.” The officer swallowed hard. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, boss.”
The sheriff pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing. “Officer Metcalf, you find that photo?”
“Right here, boss.” Josh handed it over.
Holding out the photo, Sheriff Lagrudo said, “Okay, people. Listen up! We’re looking for Ryanne Jervis, age seven. She’s three feet ten inches tall and weighs about fifty pounds. Her mom’s not sure what she’s wearing, but she has a pink My Little Pony backpack.”
The other officers pressed forward to get a look. It was a glossy eight-by-ten school photo. Ryanne perched awkwardly on a stool, her hands clutched in her lap. Red hair flamed in a cloud around her pale face. Her denim dress was several sizes too big and had a red strawberry on the breast pocket. Scabbed, bony knees poked out from the hem of her dress, and dirty lace socks circled her ankles above scuffed, black patent-leather shoes. Most notable were her eyes, which seemed to take up half her face. They were Coke-bottle green and rimmed with dark circles. She looked like a girl who didn’t get much sleep.
“Detective Smythe,” Lagrudo continued, “canvass the businesses along North Main; check if anyone remembers seeing her after school. Start with Enfield’s and move north.
“Sergeant Grant, get ahold of the school administration. I want to talk to her teacher, and as many of the faculty as possible. I want to know everything that was going on with Ryanne, and if anyone suspicious has been hanging around the school.
“Officers Lahoya and Perkins, I want a grid search done of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Sergeant Nicholson, head back to the office. Issue a ‘be on the lookout’ to the surrounding counties. Contact the police in the neighboring states. I want everyone on red alert.
“All right, let’s stay in contact; I want to hear any news
. Got it?” They all nodded.
The sheriff picked up his duffel bag and turned to Josh. “Come with me, rookie. We’re going to have a look at that bike, and then we’re going to cover every square inch of the area around it.” He lifted the tape and stepped underneath, and Josh followed.
The bike was on its side, the rear tire sticking out of the scrub. The sheriff pulled a Nikon out of his bag and took some shots, explaining what he was doing as he went. Josh listened with solemn intensity.
Once the sheriff was satisfied, they slapped on gloves and pulled the bike out of the tangled vegetation. They wrapped the bike in a large plastic sheet for transport back to the office.
There was a dirt-covered teddy bear facedown on the hardpack, half a dozen feet from the bike. Sheriff Lagrudo took several shots and then slid the bear into an evidence bag.
When both pieces of evidence were stowed in his Ford Econoline, they split up and began a grid search of the brush surrounding Papillion Creek.
It was Josh who spotted it. “Boss!”
“You all right there, officer?” the sheriff called from somewhere upstream.
“You’d . . . you’d better come see this.”
He listened to the rustle of the sheriff’s progress through the brush, unable to move.
“What is it?” Sheriff Lagrudo’s voice had a hitch in it. Josh couldn’t find his at all, so instead he pointed toward the water.
The sheriff slid down the embankment, and with shaking legs, Josh followed.
A My Little Pony backpack was caught in the shrubbery at the creek’s edge, bobbing gently in the current. It might once have been pink; it was hard to tell. Now it was streaked and splattered with red, like a Rorschach made with blood.