The Houston family owned two cars. Jane, as the principal of Hatchetfield High, drove the kids to school while Tom could easily go to the police station downtown for work. It wasn't a long drive - even if the traffic was terrible, Tom could be at work in twenty minutes.
So why was he late?
Police chief Sam Hidgens stared at the clock. In his field of vision stood a desk with a computer and a cardboard box filled with the evidence they gathered in the Deb Harrington case. His usual partner was still missing from the picture.
Sam shook his head. Unbelievable. Usually, Sam was the one running late and Tom had to wait. He could start working, but waited for Sam to get started together; gentleman's rules. It was great Tom waited, because when he got stuck on a theory and Sam wasn't around, it could quickly take over his mind and end up in a tunnel without any escape. When working together, neither Tom nor Sam would get stuck on a conclusion if it was the wrong one.
But they couldn't work when one ran late.
Sam impatiently tapped his fingers and glanced at the clock again - not even two minutes had passed. He groaned? How much longer could this take? Traffic was fine, so where the hell was he?
And when Tom strolled into their office - without haste -, Sam stood up from his desk and shook his head.
"Took you long enough," Sam said. "What happened?"
“The girl’s parents,” Tom responded as he sat down. he pulled the box with evidence closer toward him. “They came to the station. They begged for help when they saw me.”
“What did they say?” Sam wondered. He hadn’t seen the parents when he arrived. If they stayed with the receptionist and he hadn’t referred them to the offices, Sam wouldn't have seen them.
“That she hadn’t run away this time,” Tom explained. “That she usually comes back after a day or two, but she hadn’t been home since Wednesday. They’re very worried.”
Sam frowned. “That’s five days.”
Tom nodded. “They begged me to look into it, to treat it seriously. The father was especially adamant. He believes something bad happened.”
Of course you think the worst when someone you love suddenly isn’t where they were supposed to be. Sam wasn’t too sure. He’d already looked into the girl before Tom showed up. His colleague didn't need to know Sam broke gentlemen rules. It was better than wasting time and staring at Charlotte's picture all day.
“What do you think?” Sam asked. He guessed they weren't going to agree.
“I think he might be right,” Tom said.
“You do?” Sam said incredulously and he raised an eyebrow.
Tom sighed. Every new case started like this. One of them thought something and the other scoffed at the idea and suggested the opposite. But in this case, under these circumstances, Tom wasn’t in the mood for their usual banter.
“We need to look at the possibilities, Sam. We’re police officers. We should go to a crime scene with an open mind, not a conclusion.”
Sam already had a conclusion in mind. Tom hadn’t heard, but it was so easy to guess Sam didn’t have to say anything for Tom to know what his partner thought of the disappearance.
“I agree,” Sam said. “But this time, there’s no crime scene. No footprints, no note. Nothing that points toward foul play, kidnapping, or worse.”
He glanced at the cardboard box - it was practically empty. So he had to look at precedents. Deb Harrington had her habits when she ran away. As of yet, she seemed to follow her usual pattern. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She'd gone without a trace - her trademark.
"It can always be worse," Tom said. Sam threw up his hands in defense.
"I haven't said that. I just pointed out there are no traces."
Sam stood up and looked directly at Tom. This time, he knew he was right and he wouldn’t let Tom convince him otherwise.
“And?” Tom said, hoping something sensible might still come out of Sam’s mouth.
“We’re talking about a rebellious teen with a tendency to run away. This time, she’s staying away a lot longer than usual.” Sam paused for a moment. “You know, maybe she’s trying to send her parents a message. If it became normal to expect her back after two days, maybe staying away for a week is a sure way to worry them and get what she wants.”
“If that is her intent,” Tom added. He leaned against his desk and looked at his colleague with a serious gaze. “But I’d still like to label this disappearance as concerning. Whether she returns or not, we should take it seriously.”
“I will. Of course I will,” Sam responded. Yes, he'd take it seriously. He was allowed to have his theories, so long as he and Tom figured out whether that was what actually happened. He added with a smile: “Just tell me I was right when she turns up on Wednesday.”
“I won’t,” Tom said. He tapped his finger on the wood and looked out of the window, a frown on his face. “If we don’t act quick, we won’t find her again.”
Sam finally pinpointed why his colleague looked at this case in a bleaker way than usual. The concern for a missing kid who would turn up anyway - it opened an old wound. One that made Tom more miserably, pessimistic, a little too serious and frowny for Sam’s taste.
Sam leaned forward, clasping his hands together, and he looked at Tom.
“Why are you that concerned?”
Tom turned his head to Sam and shrugged defensively.
“We’re police officers. Why aren’t you more concerned?”
That was the definite proof Sam needed. Tom wasn’t that snappy. Not toward Sam, anyway.
“I am, truly,” Sam said defensively. “But we need to look at precedents. And I wonder… Tom, are you sure you’re good?”
Tom frowned at him. It wasn’t the frown of a man trying to figure out a difficult crime scene. It was the frown of a man who didn’t understand what the other was saying.
“What do you mean?”
“Missing teenager, no signs anywhere…” Sam came a little closer to his colleague. By now, Tom realized Sam was worried about him. He even spoke in a softer tone. “Are you sure you’re okay? Are you sure your behavior has nothing to do with Max?”
Tom’s face hardened. Sam shouldn’t have mentioned Max, but it was hard not to think about it, especially not since they were assigned the missing case of Deb Harrington.
“It doesn’t,” Tom said with a cold voice. He went to sit on his chair.
“Sam.” Tom glared at him and Sam knew he should stay silent. “We’re working on the disappearance of a teenage girl. We did not come to work today to solve a cold case from ’86.”
Sam nodded. He went back to his desk and sat on the chair. When he looked at Tom, he was staring at the computer screen and typed in Deb’s name, to look up the same files Sam had already inspected earlier today.
They should focus on the girl. Yet, Sam’s mind was still with Max.
“Do you miss him?” he eventually asked Tom. He had been typing, but stopped for a second, finished whatever he’d been writing at a slower pace. He placed his hands on the desk, glancing at his keyboard, and then at Sam.
“Every day,” Tom said. “Now, can we try not to think about it so we can figure out a possible motive – if she doesn’t turn up on Wednesday.”
Sam nodded. “Sure.” Though there still was a little tension in the air, it wasn’t that bad. Some tension never hurt anyone, and Sam preferred this tension to the peace and quiet at the office. It kept him sharp. “So, what’s your theory?”
Another officer walked into the office space. Xander Lee looked directly at Tom.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Xander said, “but, Tom, your mother called. She wants you to come over.”
Tom sighed. “Right now?” The workday had only just started and his mother already called him. He barely sat comfortably behind his desk.
This must be serious. If she wanted to talk, she could have just called Tom. But she didn’t – instead, she called the police station to inform them she wanted her son to visit her. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to talk about it on the phone.
Tom knew what the topic would be. He nodded at Xander. “Alright. Thanks for the warning.”
Xander left the room and Tom stood up. Time to jump into the car again and listen to what his mother had to say – if she had something sane to say. Tom feared it wouldn’t be the case.
He turned to Sam. “Do you think you can go on without me?”
Sam nodded. “I'm not going to lose time, Tom. Go to your mother. I'm sure she'll have something to sy.”
“Shut up and get to work already,” Tom said, shaking his head. When he left the room, he slammed the door. Sam really shouldn't have mentioned Max, or made that joke.
But Sam grinned a couple of seconds before he went back to work.
Tom drove to his mother’s apartment. She and Tom’s father have been living there for a while now. While Tom and Jane lived in the home Tom grew up in, Carol and Trent Houston moved into an apartment complex downtown.
It wasn’t far away, but it was still annoying she had called Tom away from work. This time of year was always hard on her, and the news of the missing girl must have made an impact on her mental health. When she heard about the girl, her mind would immediately go back to Max.
When Tom was sixteen years old and Max only thirteen, he disappeared without a trace. The police looked everywhere, but they never found him. No body, no trace of him, no indication he ran away. They looked everywhere to see if he wasn’t living anywhere else under a different name. Max Houston vanished in early October, and his mother never recovered.
Neither did Tom. Where he did something useful with his grief, his mother turned to the paranormal. She saw Max in everything – even places where Tom doubted her sanity.
Tom entered the apartment with the spare key he’d received. He was always welcome to visit – maybe he should come over more often. He did knock on the door, to announce his arrival, to be polite.
Tom’s mother sat at the dining table, staring out of the window. From the fourth floor, they did not have a spectacular view of the street and Hatchetfield itself, but it was a view. His mother liked it enough.
“Mom?” Tom said. Carol turned her head.
“Hi, Tom,” she said with a melancholic smile. Tom walked towards her and looked into the small space.
“He’s out,” Carol said. “Said he had something to do.”
Tom nodded. Trent may be retired, but he still loved to be out and about. Tom sat down at the table and placed his hands on it, looking at his mother.
“What did you want to talk about?” Tom wondered. “I’m busy at the moment.” The missing case wasn’t going to solve itself.
“I know,” Carol answered, before telling her story. “I walked through the forest. I saw spirits.”
“Did you?” Tom said. He no longer feigned interest – they both knew spirits did not interest him, but Carol still talked as if he were.
“A couple,” Carol said. “All vague and formless, but one did have a big head. He pointed to the ground and then I found this.”
She opened her hand. In her palm lay a piece of plastic that Tom immediately recognized. Carol dropped the wrapper on the table and Tom dragged it closer to him.
There was no doubt. This was an opened, empty yellow Bonkers wrapper. The sight of it made him remember how it tasted. But those bars had been discontinued in the 1990s, and this wrapper was somehow still in pristine condition. Like someone had held on to it for decades, not touching or crumpling it, only to lose it in the woods, where – if it had been there for a while – it would have definitely been stepped on a couple of times, and the bright yellow would have faded.
Strange. Just as strange as Deb's disappearance.
“It’s all coming back, Tom. Everything is coming back.” Carol’s voice was unstable. “Max disappeared thirty-three years ago, and now this girl vanishes, too. History repeats itself.”
She spoke with such authority, Tom was almost inclined to believe her. But this wasn’t the time to listen to superstition. The girl was out there, somewhere. She would see her parents again.
“I’m gonna find her, mom,” Tom said, pushing the yellow wrapper back to her. “She’ll be home before you know it. You’ll hear about it on the news.”
Carol shook her head. “History repeats itself. You won’t find her.”
Tom sighed. If this was all she made him come here for, this was the end of the visit. She passed on the wisdom she wanted him to have. Now it was his turn to do something useful with it. He glanced at the wrapper. That was a mystery for another day.
“I’m gonna make you some tea, okay?” Tom said. “Then I’m going back to work.”
Henry Hidgens was nervous.
He paced up and down his room. It wasn’t big, but it was enough. It was a standard room in the Hatchetfield nursing home. Normally he was perfectly at ease in his environment and thrived on the visits of his son and daughter-in-law, Sam and Charlotte. They came every week or so with their daughter. And when they weren't there, his multiple crafting projects kept his mind sharp.
Not even the thought of their visits or his projects could calm his nerves today.
He looked outside. His window looked over the beautiful garden. In his reflection, he could see his weary face and and the scar that covered half his left cheek and reached over to his mangled, twisted, broken ear, a remnant of childhood trauma that never truly healed. Yet, he was looking past his reflection - something else was on his mind. Something more important than how he looked.
As Hidgens gazed out the window, only one phrase escaped his lips, without stopping.
“It’ll happen again.”