Six Years Later
Rachel O'Neil watched from the bleachers as one by onethe members of the senior class crossed the stage to receivetheir diplomas from Dr. Kendris, principal of MirrorLake High School.
Rachel applauded and whooped it up with her friend asJulia's daughter crossed the stage. Julia shifted forward on thebleacher seat and snapped some shots with her digital cameraas Nora accepted her diploma.
"Congratulations, Mom," Rachel said quietly as Julia'slower lip rumpled into a pout.
"I can't believe it." The two women exchanged a quick hug,and then settled back into their spots.
As other graduates were called, Rachel watched Nora makeher way back to her seat, hugging classmates along the way.Such a good kid. A memory from years ago flashed acrossRachel's mind: overhearing Nora asking Lauren if she wantedto be best friends. Would the girls have remained friendsthrough high school? Grown closer or drifted apart? The"what-if" game always taunted her this way.
"Trevor Feron." Amidst applause, it was announced thatTrevor would be heading to the University of Oregon nextyear.
As the tall boy moved in measured steps across the stage,Rachel smoothed back her hair, once the color of caramel,now layered with streaks of gold to blend with the gray. Shehad aged, but so had the students. Although he'd grown a soulpatch since Rachel had been his seventh-grade English teacher,he was still the same unkempt Trev. "Still blinded by thosebangs," Rachel muttered.
Her friend Julia leaned close to add, "It's a wonder he cansee to make it across the stage." Julia Berton knew all of thesecharacters as well as Rachel. It was Julia, parent of a graduate,who had scored these seats in the bleachers for Rachel andDan, who had bowed out at the last minute.
"I can't do it," Dan had told her that morning as he'd staredinto his coffee. "I can't sit there and watch every other kid inthat class graduate just because my daughter should be therewith them. I can't stand to look at the faces of Lauren's classmatesand long for what could have been. What should havebeen."
"That's not why we're going. Don't you want to see Noragraduate? She and Julia are like family."
But Dan had not budged. "You go. They were your students;you taught most of them in junior high. They'll behappy to see you."
Rachel doubted that anyone in Mirror Lake was happy tosee her these days. She knew she had gained a reputation as abulldog mom, voraciously chomping at city and state authoritiesto keep the search for her daughter open and active. Whenparents dared to make eye contact with her, there was pity intheir eyes ... pity and hopelessness and relief that it had nothappened to their daughter. Rachel understood their discomfort.Some kept their distance out of fear that her tragedymight be contagious. Others didn't know what to say to her,the parent of a child of uncertain destiny.
Lauren had been in a class with achievers. On stage now,Brooke Fitkin towered over the administrators. She washeaded for Stanford on a basketball scholarship. Kara Gaineswas off to Southern Oregon University. Jordan Gilroy wasgoing to UVA for swimming. And Erica Glass had earned ajavelin scholarship to a university in Hawaii. "A full ride," asJulia kept saying.
Mirror Lake had one of the top-ranked high schools inOregon—of course it did. It was one of the reasons she andDan had scraped and saved and borrowed money from Dan'sparents to buy a modest house here when they could have affordeda nicer place with property just about anywhere else inthe Portland area. Great schools, plenty of parks and greenspace, responsive police force, low crime rate ... these werefactors that wooed young families to the lake community.Outsiders mocked Mirror Lake residents for their "life in aprotected bubble," but who would not choose a town wherethe "civil war" was between rival football teams instead ofrival gangs?
Seeing these students now, Rachel recognized them all withtheir little quirks. Yes, she cared about these kids, but Dan waswrong about one thing. They were not her kids. They were notLauren. She had not come to any other ceremonies to watchher former students graduate. Sitting here beside Julia, themother of Lauren's best friend of long ago, Rachel knew thatDan had been right the first time. She was not here for thesekids; she was here to represent Lauren, in some sick way.Lauren, who should have graduated from high school today.She couldn't let go of that. She couldn't give up on her oldestchild. This was Lauren's class. What if Lauren's abductor hadlet her continue school somewhere else—in another state?Maybe Lauren was graduating today.
Since the day Lauren started kindergarten, Rachel had picturedthis day. Her bright, artistic daughter had started school ayear before most and would be graduating high school at the ageof seventeen. "I can't hold her back," Rachel had told people. Ateacher herself, Rachel could see that her daughter was ready forschool, hungry to learn, pushing for routine and independence atthe age of four. Rachel and Dan had shared high hopes forLauren. An Ivy League school. A dynamic career. "How high canyou soar?" she and Dan used to ask Lauren when they pushedher on the tree swing. Lauren would kick her legs and lean backto propel herself high in the air as she answered: "Up to thestars!"
Throughout grammar school, Lauren had been a highflier.Maybe not the most social kid. But Dan and Rachel had vestedso many hopes in their oldest daughter, looking toward thisday. Graduation day ... but not for Lauren.
No, Lauren's day had been little more than a week ago, thesixth anniversary of the day she'd disappeared, when thegrounds of Mirror Lake Junior High had been crowded withpeople, hundreds of them, assembling to honor the six-yearmark of Lauren's disappearance and continue the search forher. Messages like We will find you! and We love you, Lauren!had been attached to hundreds of balloons that the searchershad released to the sky, shouting: "Find Lauren!"
Rachel would never forget the sight of those hot-pink balloons—Lauren's favorite pink—rising into wide-open blue untilthey became small dots. It had been touching that so many peopleshowed up for her, even six years later. They didn't thinkRachel was crazy. They believed she was out there, alive andwaiting to be rescued.
Dan still went looking every morning as he jogged along thepaths that cut through the town's parks and neighborhoods.Every six months the local television stations broadcasted imagesof Lauren: photos from sixth grade and computer renderingsof how she would probably look now.
Squinting over the graduates below, Rachel could see herdown there, crossing the stage, her honey-blond hair streamingout beneath her mortarboard cap. If her hair hadn't beencut in these past six years, there would be flaxen gold spillingover her shoulders and down the back of her royal blue graduationgown.
Rachel could hear the principal calling her name ...
Would she be attending U of O, Dan's alma mater, orBrown? Stanford or Northwestern? Lauren had been an excellentstudent, more interested in reading and learning howthings worked than parties or boys.
How high can you soar?
Rachel pressed her lips together, trying to tamp down theswell of emotion. These days, the only things soaring werelatex balloons. The memory of those fat pink balloons, swayingand rising, made her mouth go sour.
She bit her lower lip and turned to Julia. "It's hard to believeour babies are old enough to graduate from high school."
Julia's eyes glimmered with compassion as she squeezedRachel's hand. "Hard to believe. Time really flies."
And sometimes it drags, second to second, day to day. Timewas a race through molasses when you were waiting for yourdaughter to come home.
At the podium Natalie Miller's name was announced, andRachel held her breath as she watched Russ and Trudy'sgranddaughter cross the stage. The Millers were neighbors,two doors down. The police believed a van that had stopped infront of the Millers' house had been used to abduct Laurenwhen she was walking home from school. One woman sawthe van at the curb, its motor running. A plain white van, butthe man who emerged was wearing a uniform.
As if that made it all okay. Rachel still seethed over the wayour society teaches us to trust a person in a uniform.
"And I saw him carrying a package," the woman, AllieCotter, had insisted. "It was a delivery for the Millers. Just adeliveryman with a package."
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except that, when the Millers arrived home from their oldestson's house in Bend, they were mystified by the brownpaper package that contained no address, no postage, and nomarkings whatsoever. The package had been a cover, a way topark a van on Wildwood Lane and drive away without attractingattention. There was a slightly trampled section of thelawn. A section that might have been torn up by a diggingsquirrel. Had Lauren run to knock on the Millers' door whenshe sensed danger, but then struggled with the abductor on thelawn? And somehow, without anyone seeing, he had managedto get Lauren into his van.
Or at least that was how the theory went. Rachel refused tobelieve that her daughter would get into a stranger's van withouta fight, but there were other factors involved. Maybe he wasn't astranger. And it was too painful to think about the weapons anabductor could use to subdue a girl who fought him.
Beads of sweat were forming on Rachel's forehead, and shehad to remind herself to breathe. Was the gymnasium hotterthan usual? Was she suffering a hot flash at the age of forty-two,or was the heat because of her own voyage to the Inferno,the serpentine layers of hell surrounding Lauren's disappearance?
Julia leaned closer. "You okay?"
Nodding, she swiped the back of one hand over her foreheadand accepted a small bottle of water from Julia's bag.Even tepid water was a relief in this hotbed of community. Ithelped Rachel focus, helped her remember the positive reasonshe had come, to celebrate the graduation of Julia's daughterNora.
She took another calming breath and looked to her left tofind people watching her, staring, contemplating.
When she faced them, they glanced away, uncomfortableand nervous. Were they able to do the math and realize thather daughter should be graduating today, too?
You should be here, honey. Rachel sent the message out theway most people transmitted a prayer to the heavens.Somewhere out there, Lauren was alive and receiving at least aflicker of telepathic activity.
Like the flyers that shouted DON'T STOP BELIEVING! Rachelheld on to the conviction that her daughter was alive. Sure,people thought she was deluded. Living in denial. Let themthink what they wanted.
Lauren was out there somewhere; Rachel knew that. Shecould feel it. And one of these days, she was going to comeback to them.CHAPTER 2
Sis's foot twisted in the loose soil, and the pain that shot upher leg sucked her breath away. She braced herself againstthe hoe and used it to edge back, out of the dirt and against thefence, where she collapsed with a sigh.
She closed her eyes and let the tears flow down her cheeks.Kevin would be mad if he found her crying, but he was off atthe Portland Saturday Market right now, and the tears cameautomatically when she wrenched her bad leg. Bad becauseKevin had made it that way. Even after all these years, sixyears of minding him most of the time, he still let her have itwhen he thought she was disobeying him.
She shifted her leg, and winced. It still hurt, but she couldn'tlet it slow her down. Kevin would be mad if he came home toan untended garden. Silly girl.
She swiped at her cheeks and took a breath. No use in crying.Besides, it wasn't so bad, out here in the sun. Using thehoe as a cane, she propped herself up, back on her feet. Testingthe tool against the moist earth, she imagined herself pushingoff the stick and bouncing over the fence like one of those polevault guys.
Just thinking of it made her smile. She would bounce overthe fence and just keep bouncing from one green hill to another,bouncing into the deep blue sky.
She had hopped the fence once, jumping from a nearby tree.It had been one of those hot summer days when the sunpounded down mercilessly from a clear sky, and all she hadbeen able to think of was the cool gurgle of the little stream afew yards from their compound. The spring that ran over therocks at the bottom of the hill had just enough water to coveryour body in the summer. When Kevin had found her down bythe creek, he had been real quiet as she had explained that shewasn't breaking any rules. She hadn't been running away, justcooling off. Later, back behind the fence, he had beat her hardand chopped down the poor little beech tree.
The sun was hot on her head, and she wished she could slipinto the river right now and wash her hair. "Not until Kevingets back," Sis said aloud. Sometimes, you needed to remindyourself of the rules. She was limping because she'd broken therules.
"You should know better," Kevin had hissed. "I haven't hadto lay a hand on you for a long time. I thought you stoppedtrying to git away."
Because of Mac ...
She couldn't leave her daughter behind, and even if theycould have gotten away, who would take in a teen mother andher baby? She couldn't risk it. It was her job to protect herbaby.
As pain flared in her ankle again, she could still see him, themetal wrench silhouetted over his head as he'd swung it up.And then down on her bad leg.
The wound that was never allowed to heal.
"That's so you'll remember the rules," he had told her. Itseemed like he'd told her that a thousand times.
Kevin was a stickler for the rules. With a hack of the hoe,she flashed on the first time she had broken the rules, that dayin the beach house when he had pushed her out to the edge ofthe jetty.
Her knees still trembled when she thought of the icy shockof the stun gun and the long finger of boulders jutting out intothe ocean.
Sharp, slippery rocks. But Kevin didn't care. She'd beeneleven years old, and he had pushed her out on those rocks.
The jetty was a long mound of boulders, some of them thesize of coffins, many of them pointy and unforgiving. They werelined up at the edge of that beach, as if a giant had stacked hisrock collection at the water's edge. "How did these get here?"The magnitude of the rock pile, with seawater splashing overthe jagged stones, had momentarily eclipsed the knowledge thathe was mean and angry and hurtful, that she shouldn't ask himany questions because she didn't trust his answers anyway.
"That's the Army Corps of Engineers for ya. They come inhere and build a wall of rocks on the beach and spend millionsof dollars doing it." He loved to show off that way, when heknew something.
He was mad at her for telling him to mind his business andkeep his hands off her. She had tried to slap him away when he'dfollowed her into the shower and put his hands on her privateparts. She wrenched away, slashing at him with her fingernails,and he threatened her with the razor, telling her he could domuch worse.
He'd been waiting for her outside the shower with a stupidflowered dress for her to put on, along with a gray hoodie.And no panties. That was his way of making her feel uncomfortableand naked. She really wanted her underwear back,but she was too embarrassed to ask him for it. Without a wordhe had stuffed her into the back of the van and driven to thebeach. The short ride told her that the house he'd locked herup in must have been close.
When the van door opened at the beach, he greeted her witha cool smile. His hand held the stun gun, a black object that remindedher of Dad's electric razor. Only the stun gun held acold, electric sizzle that made a person curl up and die inside.She knew, because he'd used it on her in the Millers' yard.
He held it up to her, an angry squint in his eyes.
"N-no!" She scooted back on the van's rough carpet.
"Then get out of the van, or I'll zap you good."
Excerpted from And Then She Was Gone by ROSALIND NOONAN. Copyright © 2014 Rosalind Noonan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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