Linda was alone.
The girl stood against the tree, the rope hugging her tightly. She couldn’t even wriggle her wrist from under the rope to see what time it was.
The sun had been setting when this started. It had to be past midnight now. It was dark, too dark.
And Linda was still alone. She was shaking, wondered why she had ever agreed to this game. Was she that desperate to have some human contact, to maybe make a new friend? The answer had been ‘yes’, but it may just be ‘never again’.
“Hello?” she shouted. “This isn’t funny anymore.”
The girl looked right into the entrance of the caves. She was facing that direction on purpose. It was all good when the sun still shone, but now only the moon and stars lit up the forest, everything had become spooky and the ominous caves were the spookiest of them all.
She shook her head. With these thoughts, she only scared herself. They wouldn’t help her at all.
But they did do their job and Linda hadn’t wanted them to. She became utterly terrified.
“Tom!” she called out. “Jane! This isn’t funny anymore!”
But they were nowhere to be seen. Figures.
They said they’d be back. They said it was all part of a game. Though Jane, perfect Jane, was still a little hesitant, she did not stop Tom nor did she say just how wrong this was. Tom tied her to the tree, but Jane was watching and did not interfere. Now, they both had gone home, forgetting or purposely leaving her in the forest.
Alone, with all the scary noises, coming from around her as well as the caves.
This wasn’t a nice game.
She tried to fight with the rope, but it just wouldn’t budge. It frightened her even more.
“Help!” she shouted. She would be lucky if anyone found her and freed her. At this hour, it was more likely some kind of wild animal would find her first. “Help me! Help!”
She shouted and shouted until she only saw black and only heard her own screams.
Linda sat upright in her bed, panting.
Where the fuck did that memory come from? And why did her brain think it was a good idea to make her relive that horrible experience?
It had accomplished its goal. Linda was disoriented, frightened by the nightmare, reflexively reaching out and touching her husband’s arm. His touch calmed her down already and she slowly caught her breath. She knew she had to take her time to calm down.
On the other hand, she wanted to go back to sleep so she won’t be a grumpy asshole in the morning.
Gerald stirred. Great, now she’s woken him up, too.
“Linda?” he asked, still sleepy. Of course he was.
Then again, Linda was glad that he had woken up.
“Tell me everything will be okay,” she told him. It wasn’t even a question - she couldn’t bear asking and him responding negatively. Luckily, Gerald was a good man. He shifted and placed his calm hand on her shoulder.
“Everything will be okay.”
Linda nodded, and though she did not believe it, it calmed her.
The following morning, Lex decided she could not stay inside for a full day anymore. That half an hour outside yesterday, with Ethan, showed her just how much she missed being outside, being on her own. Away from Hannah. She loved her sister, and she loved helping her, but she had reached a point where looking after Hannah was draining her energy and she needed to take a step back.
The only reason she didn’t go out was that her mom was away. She said it was work, but when Lex saw the poster pile, she knew how Jane felt. If it was about Hannah, though, Jane had found a reliable caretaker who shouldn’t have to be a caretaker.
So when Lex decided she was going to spend some hours outside, she didn’t run her plans past her mother first. She just got dressed, told Hannah that mom was going to take care of her, and then walked to the kitchen to grab some snacks.
Jane didn’t say a word when Lex took those snacks from the cabinet. Lex didn’t know if Jane was so in thought or if she didn’t say anything and honestly, she couldn’t care. But when she walked to the front door, she caught her mother’s attention.
“Lex!” she said and she stood up. Lex turned to her mother. “Lex, where are you going?”
“Out,” was the short answer.
“No, you’re not,” Jane said. “You’re staying right here.”
“I’m going out, mom,” Lex said defiantly. No matter what she was going to try and sell, Lex was going out. “I’m not skipping town, I’m not going anywhere I shouldn’t be. I’m just going out, taking a walk.”
But that did not convince Jane. She shook her head and looked at her with a worried frown.
“You need to stay here,” Jane said. “Hannah needs you.”
“And why is that, huh?” Lex said. She hadn’t wanted to bring it up, but if Jane insisted, she wasn’t going to leave the opportunity. “Because you’re too busy with your missing son to look at the daughter who needs you the most.”
“Don’t you dare,” Jane said in a semi-threatening tone. Lex did not stop, though. She had noticed the one pile of posters had turned into five piles all about three feet high. How many posters does one person need, especially when there are two of these posters in each street in Hatchetfield already.
The poster thing was seriously going out of hand. Had she seen the wall where Alice had hung as many missing posters about Deb as she could? Had she taken inspiration from this? Because that was what it looked like. There must be enough posters to cover all of town hall, inside and out.
“Dad barely comes home anymore,” Lex said. “I haven’t seen him for more than a minute the past few days. And because you’re putting up too many of those damn posters, of course I’m the one who takes care of Hannah. I comfort her, I feed her, I help her, because her mother doesn’t want to.”
Jane took it personally. Lex hadn’t necessarily meant it, but she did feel like she was being used so her mother could focus on Tim. She was allowed to look for her son and be worried and raise awareness, but in the process, she neglected her other kids, which was not okay.
“Lex—” Jane said, but Lex couldn’t stop. Not while she was riled up, on a roll, and not willing to stop.
“Everyone in Hatchetfield already knows what Tim looks like!” Lex said. “Going online and spreading the message is way more effective than what you’re doing all day.” She shook her heady angrily. “The moment I want to take a break when you can check on Hannah, I’m not allowed to go.”
“I need to be sure you’re safe,” Jane said as she walked closer to her daughter. Lex let her, but if Jane would try to hug it out, she would back away and right out of the front door.
“So you lock us up and hope Tim walks back through the door?” Lex was ready to cross a line, to say something that she was thinking, that some other people had to be thinking as well. “When I go out, at least I’m coming back. Tim may never come back. For all we know, he is dead.”
Jane looked at her daughter, shocked. She couldn’t bring out a single word. The thought alone stopped her in her tracks. She hadn’t wanted to consider it before. Lex, however, had done nothing but think about the possibility, and yes, while that was horrible and she almost started crying again, it had to be the truth, if they really couldn’t find anything.
Not wanting to continue the conversation, Lex turned around and walked through the front door. Jane did not stop her.
Before the shift started at the police station, Sam called everyone together in the main hall. Every officer who could be present was there. Tom, who had shown up on time and wanted to get on with it, was now waiting with Xander and the other officers in the main hall. Not even two minutes later, Sam climbed on a chair to address those who made it.
“We will take the investigation of the missing children to the next level,” Sam announced. “This investigation now has the highest priority. From today onwards, we will triple our efforts to find these children. All available officers should work on this case. We start with searching the general areas where the children went missing. We will go door to door and ask everyone if they have seen anything that could be useful to the case. If we systematically search the city, we will find something.”
Sam paused, looking at the officers. They nodded, agreed verbally, some even clapped. Still, there were some officers who grumbled about wanting to go back to work, or who may think that yes, the children were important, but not more important than the other work that needed to be done. These were few and far between, though.
“Officers who remain at the station need to look through missing cases that happened the last fifty years. If we have a repeat offender, any research from the past can be helpful to find whoever is doing this. If any child goes missing for more than twenty-four hours, we need to know.”
He paused again and let the officers react to the plans he laid before them. Tom merely nodded.
“Let’s do this,” Sam said and he stepped from the chair. While the officers walked out of the main hall, Tom remained to the side. He was ready to go but waited. He was certain that Sam would want to talk to him. He was worried, and Tom was trying to show that he wasn’t going to do stupid things anymore.
At least, not until something or someone stood in the way of justice. Then, it’d be justified.
As expected, Sam walked up to his partner. Tom nodded at him.
“Nice speech,” Tom said.
“Thanks. We need to put a stop to this madness.” Sam looked directly at Tom. “What are you going to do?”
The question wasn’t really a question. Tom knew what Sam would like him to do, and he wasn’t too mad about it.
“I’m staying in,” Tom said. “Looking through the cases.”
Sam nodded. “Good decision.”
Together, the men walked out of the room. Sam walked to the police car whereas Tom went to the archives. It was like a dream, if such a dream could exist - he was allowed to look through missing person cases of the last fifty years, to figure out a possible motive, or to see if any other perpetrators have used the same methods. He was allowed to grab one of those boxes, open it and look through its contents.
And Tom knew where to start.
Ethan was still reeling from the letter he read yesterday. Even now, holding the letter in his hand, this didn’t feel real. No way Tim Houston, little Tim Houston, Lex’s little brother, was his father. No way.
But it was his father’s handwriting. The words on the page and the message it held were written in a style that was distinctly his. It made things all the more confusing in a world that had become more and more confusing with every passing second.
That letter was the reason why he came out of bed and went to his mother, who was getting ready to go to her next client.
“Mom?” he asked. “How did you and dad meet?”
Harriet always left ten minutes early. Ethan knew she had the time to briefly answer his question before she went to work.
“We met in the hospital,” Harriet responded. “He was there for a broken leg, and I… was in a very bad mood. But he seemed lonely and looked like he needed someone to talk to, so I walked up to him.”
And Harriet smiled. The memory worked on her nostalgia, bringing her back to a simpler moment in her life. Ethan himself even smiled briefly, before remembering she may be talking about Tim.
“And what was he like back then?” Ethan wondered out loud.
Harriet shrugged, packing her bag.
“He was like any boy, I guess. Even so, he felt… different.” She paused for a while. “Different from the guys at school, anyway. He was good, never failed to make someone smile. He had a strange sense of humor. You never knew if you could take him seriously with some of the stuff he used to say. It was always fun.”
It was hard to imagine. Ethan didn’t want to think about it - it had tainted his worldview, turned it upside down, destroyed the status quo. However much he wanted to scream about it, nobody was going to understand. Even worse, if his mother knew, she’d probably send him back to that horrible asylum.
“Are you okay?”
His mother brought him back to reality. He blinked a couple of times, looking at her semi-worried gaze, and then he nodded.
Harriet nodded once. She grabbed her bag and her coat.
“I need to go now. But if you want to talk about your dad, you’re always welcome to ask.”
“Okay,” Ethan answered and Harriet walked through the door, on her way to work. Ethan was left behind in the house with his own thoughts, his confusion, and the letter that started it all.