A Note from the Author,
Not by Sight,
Abby Cummings floated in the opaque gray fog that separated slumber from wakefulness. The buzz of her alarm clock would soon fill the silence. She would have to open her eyes and face the day she'd been dreading for weeks. Why was it still traumatic after five years? Everyone told her that time heals all wounds. Not hers. And especially not today.
She turned on her side and stole a glance at the clock before clamping her eyes shut again. Four forty-five. She still had thirty minutes. She hugged the same pillow that had faithfully muffled her anguished sobs and despairing cries, and had been pummeled with her blows of helplessness. Not that using her pillow to vent had ever made her feel better. Or stopped the torment of living without closure. But it had afforded her a private place to deal with raw emotion without feeling judged for it.
Her family seldom talked about what had happened anymore. But the past lurked in the shadows, uttering the same relentless litany of questions for which only God had answers. The anniversary always brought it back with bone-chilling clarity.
Abby sighed and sat up, rubbing her eyes and letting her legs dangle over the side of the bed. She turned on the lamp and glanced at the empty toddler bed across the room, still made up with a pink-and-white fitted quilt. She could almost see the tiny figure that once occupied it, cheeks rosy with sleep, a smile twitching the corner of her mouth as a sweet dream danced through her mind.
She ached for those tender moments of cuddling with her sister and singing lullabies. Riley Jo's curls always smelled like baby shampoo and seemed softer than the shared pillow that cradled their heads.
Abby swallowed the sting in her throat and told herself not to cry. She needed to be brave today. Her mother would be more fragile than usual—not that she would admit it to anyone.
Abby slid out of bed and onto the wood floor. She stepped over to her dresser, opened the top drawer, and carefully removed a small white-satin box. She took out the gold heart ring with a tiny diamond she'd received for her tenth birthday and held it in her palm. She pressed the ring to her cheek and closed her eyes, remembering the sound of her father's voice.
"You'll always be my princess," Daddy said, sliding the heart ring on her finger. "Even when you're all grown up and some handsome and brilliant young man convinces you to marry him ..."
The blaring alarm clock stole the sweetness of the moment, and Abby rushed over and turned it off. She let her racing pulse settle down and held the ring to the light once more, blinking back her tears. Finally, she returned the precious keepsake to the satin box and tucked it in the corner of her drawer. Not even happy memories would ease the angst of reliving this painful, life-changing day for a fifth time. She just wanted to get it behind her.
She picked up her khakis and Angel View staff shirt from the overstuffed chair next to her bed and pushed herself toward the bathroom.
It would be a tough day to get through. Working would help. But she wasn't going to pretend it was just another day, even if the rest of her family did.
* * *
Abby hurried along the glass wall at Flutter's Cafe, balancing a tray of empty breakfast dishes on one palm, the sadness in her heart soothed by the magnificent lava-colored sky visible as far as the eye could see. Sunrays fanned out from the golden rim separating earth and sky and turned the blanket of fog on Beaver Lake a glowing shade of pink—
Abby felt a jolt, and then the tray flew from her hand and landed with a deafening crash. Glass shattered. Silverware clanked on the stone floor. Her cheeks flushed as she stared at her mother.
Kate Cummings scanned the broken dishes, a look of realization replacing her blank stare. "That door really whacked you. Let me see." She gently brushed the hair off Abby's forehead and looked for any sign of injury. "You're going to have a bump, honey. But it's not bleeding. How do you feel?"
"My pride hurts a lot worse than my head." Abby felt her cheeks warm as she imagined customers staring. "What about you?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine."
Her mother smoothed her neatly coiffed hair that was almost as gray as it was auburn, then straightened the Angel View owner-manager name tag she had worn ever since Abby could remember.
"Sorry, Mama. You can take it out of my paycheck."
"I'm not going to dock you." Her mother smiled, though her eyes looked tired and sad. "Just be careful."
"The sunrise was awesome, and for a moment I almost forgot ... anyhow, it won't happen again."
Her mother seemed to go a little pale at the reminder. Abby ducked down to pick up the silverware and broken dinnerware.
"Don't fool with that, honey. You'll cut yourself." Mama reached for her arm and pulled her to her feet.
Abby avoided eye contact. It was impossible to hide her feelings, and it seemed obvious that her mother was working hard to contain her own.
Savannah Surette, her ponytail swaying from side to side, hurried over to them. "Here, boss," she said to Mama. "Let me get that. I'll fetch the broom and have this cleaned up in no time."
"Thanks." Her mother glanced over at the bustling dining room and then out the window at the June sunrise that painted the clouds covering the lake. "I'm sure the guests hardly noticed our little mishap—not with a view like that."
"That's fuh shore," Savannah said. "The bayou was pretty, and we had oodles of fog, but we didn't have Angel View Lodge. First time I've ever lived in a place where I could look down on the clouds. Takes my breath away."
"You and Benson are a great addition to our staff."
"You mean for a couple of crazy Cajuns who talk funny?" Savannah laughed. "We do love it here." She looked down at the mess again. "I'll be right back."
Mama put her arm around Abby. "I'm glad you weren't hurt."
"Sorry for the hassle. I'm a little off today." Abby waited, longing for her mother to say something—anything—to acknowledge the anniversary.
"Well, an Angel View sunrise can distract the best of us." Her mother's cheery demeanor belied the heaviness in her voice. She wet her finger and wiped something off Abby's cheek. "It's a good thing that Beaver Lake is beautiful in every season. Mother Nature draws the guests. All we have to do is make them comfortable."
"You sounded like Daddy just then."
"I'm surprised you remember details like that after all this time."
"I do. And I remember the last time I heard his voice was five years ago today."
Mama flinched ever so slightly, and Abby could almost hear the dead bolt slide across the door of her heart. "I'm well aware of what day this is." She seemed to stare at nothing, her eyes watering. "I'm glad you find comfort in remembering. I don't."
"Don't you ever wonder if Daddy and Riley Jo are still alive?"
"I accepted a long time ago that they're not coming back. Maybe one of these days we'll find out what happened so we can put it to rest."
Abby bit her lip. "People still gossip. Why don't you defend Daddy?"
Her mother ran her thumb across the diamond wedding band she still wore. "We've been through this, Abby. My being defensive won't stop the gossip. Or change anyone's mind. Gossip is pure poison, and there are always casualties."
"Well, I refuse to be a casualty." Abby folded her arms across her chest. "I'm the only one in this family who ever defends Daddy."
"And has defending him put a stop to the talk?"
"At least everyone knows where I stand."
Mama tilted Abby's chin and looked her squarely in the eyes. "There's a pain so deep in me, there're no words for it. But I don't feel obligated to discuss my private thoughts with anyone."
"Because you have doubts?"
"Because I don't. Now drop it."
"Yes, ma'am." Abby set her lips in a straight line and turned away.
"It's hard enough getting through each day without them," Mama said. "It doesn't help when my own daughter criticizes me for the way I handle my grief. I can only be what I am. I can't live in the past, even if people in town are still whispering about it. I've put it behind me the best I can."
Well, I haven't. Abby looked back into her mother's pretty face and sad blue eyes, wishing she hadn't brought it up.
Savannah came out of the kitchen, carrying a large plastic bucket, a broom, a mop, and a dustpan. "Benson said to tell y'all that he's making gumbo and cornbread for today's lunch special. That oughta make your taste buds stand up and sing."
"Everything he's made so far has," Mama said. "I'm enjoying adding a little Cajun flair to our Ozark cuisine."
As Abby left the conversation, she glanced out at the tinted fog on the lake, powerless to shake the heavy, ominous, unsettling feeling that she had anticipated would descend on this day. The only thing harder to bear than the unanswered questions was the fact that her mother had stopped asking them.
* * *
Buck Winters sat with a friend at Flutter's Café and observed his granddaughter taking the breakfast order of the folks at table six. Even though Abby was pleasant, he could tell that the smile she wore was strictly professional. She was probably embarrassed and upset about the earlier mishap.
Abby liked to please. And Kate had high expectations of everyone on staff, including her kids. Probably because Kate and Micah had built Angel View Lodge from the ground up and invested so much of themselves. Since Micah's disappearance, it had become almost a monument to his memory.
Buck's gaze followed his granddaughter as she tended to customers. Abby was so much like Kate at sixteen, her hair long and thick and the color of an Irish setter. Deep blue eyes. Fair skin and a natural blush to her cheeks. Cute figure. Sweet from the inside out. It was both a wonder and a blessing that she didn't have a serious boyfriend to complicate her young life. One more year of high school—and then she would be off to college.
"Where'd you go, Buck?" Titus Jackson said. "You seem miles away."
Buck lowered his gaze and peered over the top of his glasses at the retired history professor who reminded him of Sidney Poitier. "Sorry, Titus. I was thinkin' about Abby. Seems like yesterday she wore her hair in pigtails and I carried her on my shoulders down to our favorite fishin' hole." He chuckled. "And I'd hate to guess how many times I put the arms and legs back on that baby doll she just wouldn't part with."
Titus took a sip of coffee. "And now she's lost interest in the doll and the fishing?"
Buck smiled. "At least she's not boy crazy. That's one headache we don't have yet. She hangs out with Jay Rogers, a real nice kid from school, but they're just friends."
"I imagine it's hard on Kate, raising Abby, Hawk, and Jesse without the love and support of a husband."
"It helps havin' her dad livin' with her," Buck said. "I do what I can. But it's hard on those kids growin' up without a dad. I'd give anything to see Micah walk through that door with Riley Jo and put an end to this nightmare. In case you didn't know, it was five years ago today that they disappeared."
Titus ran his finger around the rim of his cup. "I didn't know y'all when they went missing, but it's easy to see the painful effects of it. Mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"Did the sheriff ever have a lead in the case?"
Buck shook his head. "Micah and Riley Jo just seemed to vanish. Micah's truck was still parked in the driveway. Kate was the only family member around that afternoon. I'd taken Jesse to a movie, and Hawk was workin' at the lumber company. Abby'd spent the night with a friend but called to check in that morning. I was sittin' in the kitchen at the time. Micah answered, and they had a right cute exchange. Before they hung up, Micah said he'd see her at dinner. Sure sounded to me like he planned to be home."
"So Kate was the last person to see Micah and Riley Jo?"
"As far as we know. Micah came into the office and told Kate he was takin' Riley Jo fishin'. Kate was busy and didn't see them leave. None of the guests did either, which I found kinda odd. Sheriff's deputies searched the path to the lake and combed the woods around it. Never found any sign of them."
"Has anyone else disappeared?"
"Nope. I suppose you've heard the rumors."
Titus shrugged. "I've heard a few oddballs say Bigfoot got them—or aliens. And I've heard others say Micah ran off with another woman and took Riley Jo with him. I'd rather know what you think."
"Thanks for that. Speculation's been hurtful. Truth is, Kate and Micah had been fussin' at each other for a couple weeks over a business issue they disagreed on. The sheriff had to consider the possibility that Micah left her. Never rang true with me. But you never really know what's goin' on inside a person either."
"Any idea why he'd take his youngest daughter with him?"
Buck wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. "All I can figure is Riley Jo was the only one of his kids young enough to forget the past. She'd be able to adapt to his new life. But even if he wanted out of the marriage, I can't see Micah bein' cruel enough to take Kate's baby girl away from her."
"So this is what the rumor mill's been feeding off of all this time?"
"No. Kate and me and the sheriff are the only ones who know they were havin' a squabble." Buck stroked his mustache. "Gossip started flyin' after a couple town busybodies thought they might've spotted Micah and Riley Jo at the corner of Main and Cleveland, gettin' into a car with some blonde woman. Of course, neither of them can describe the car or the woman. And, at the busiest intersection in town, no one else saw them. But as time went on, the story got enhanced. I'm sure some folks believe it."CHAPTER 2
Kate went out the front entrance of Angel View Lodge, the morning sun high and the fog now dissipated. She walked across the road and spotted her son Jesse on the porch of their two-story log house, his red wagon parked at the bottom of the steps and filled with plastic jugs.
"Hi, Mama!" Jesse bounded down the steps and ran toward her. "Hawk and I loaded the wagon with nectar for the hummingbirds."
Jesse came to an abrupt stop and threw his arms around her waist. "Thanks for trusting me with this. I won't let you down."
"I never thought you would." Kate brushed his fine dark hair out of his eyes, noting that the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks seemed to have multiplied from exposure to the sun. "I have every confidence in you, or I wouldn't have put you in charge of the hummingbirds for the summer. It's a big job. And I wouldn't let just anyone do it. You know how I love them."
"Me, too. I'll make sure they never run out of nectar. I promise!" Jesse's eyes were round and animated, the color of the summer sky.
"I'm proud of you for the effort you're putting into this."
Jesse puffed out his skinny chest, as if to show off the word staff embroidered above the pocket of his bright blue Angel View Lodge T-shirt. "I Googled so much stuff about the ruby-throated hummingbird, I should be able to answer any questions the guests ask me. I'm the go-to guy, right?"
"Absolutely." Kate smiled. Micah would be so proud of him. It broke her heart that Jesse could hardly remember his father.
"I'd better get going. I have a ton of feeders to fill." Jesse hugged her waist again and ran toward the wagon. "See you later, Mama."
"I love you," she called.
"Love you, too! Bye!"
Kate watched as Jesse took the wagon by the handle and headed for the hummingbird garden, looking oh-so-grown-up and responsible. Had she contributed to that, or was he just a great kid all on his own? She worried whether Micah and Riley Jo's disappearance would cause any long-term effects in Jessie, who had been just five when they went missing. Half his life, he'd been living with that loss and a mother consumed with grief.
Kate heard the screen door slam and glanced up. Hawk stood on the porch, slipping his arms into the straps of his backpack.
Kate walked up the steps. "Thanks for helping your brother. He is beyond excited."
"Doesn't take much to float his boat," Hawk Cummings said.
"Why the sarcasm? A word of encouragement from his big brother would go a long way."
"I did encourage him. I just think you're making too much of it."
Kate eyed her oldest son. "You sound jealous."
"It's nothing like that, Mama. But y'all are acting like Jesse's the only one who does anything around here."
Excerpted from NOT by SIGHT by Kathy Herman. Copyright © 2013 Kathy Herman. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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