Chapter no 39

A Flicker in the Dark

I wake up to the sound of my phone vibrating on the bedside table, shaking violently across the wood until it tips over the side and clatters to the floor. I open my eyes, groggy, and squint at the alarm clock.

It’s ten p.m.

I try to open my eyes wider but my vision is bleary, my head pounding. I think back to my trip to Daniel’s home—his mother in that dilapidated old shack, the newspaper clipping stuck between the pages of that book. Suddenly, I feel nauseated, and I drag myself from the bed and run into the bathroom, throwing open the toilet seat before heaving into the bowl. Nothing comes up but bile, acid yellow and burning my tongue. A skinny string of spit dangles from the back of my throat, making me gag. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and walk into the bedroom, perching on the edge of the bed. I reach for the glass of water on the table, but I see that it’s on its side, the water dripping from the rim and onto the carpet. My phone must have knocked it over. Instead, I reach down and grab my phone, pressing the side to illuminate the screen.

There are a few missed calls from Aaron, some messages checking in. In an instant, I remember the feeling of his body on top of mine. His hands on my wrists, his lips on my neck. That was a mistake, what we did, but I’ll have to deal with that later. I have to scroll to get through the rest of the missed calls and text messages—mostly, they’re from Shannon, with a few from Daniel thrown in. How do I have this many missed calls? I wonder. It’s only ten o’clock—I’ve been asleep for four hours, tops. Then I notice the date on the screen.

It’s ten p.m. on Friday.

I’ve been asleep for an entire day.

I unlock my phone and look at my text messages, alarm starting to creep in as I skim each one.

Chloe, call me please. This is important. Chloe, where are you?

Chloe, call me NOW.

Shit, I think, rubbing my temples. They’re still throbbing, still screaming at me in protest. Taking two Xanax on an empty stomach was clearly a mistake, but I knew that as I was doing it. All I wanted was to sleep. To forget. After all, I’ve barely slept in a week with Daniel pushed up against me. Clearly, it caught up with me.

I scroll to Shannon’s name and hit Call, holding the phone to my ear as it rings. They’ve obviously discovered my lie. Daniel must have texted her like he said he would, even though I asked him not to. Then, once they realized that I was lying to them both, that I was missing without a valid explanation as to where I had gone and who I was with, panic must have set in. But right now, I don’t really care. I’m not going home to Daniel. I’m still not convinced that I can go to the police, either—Detective Thomas made it clear that I am to stay out of the investigation. But between the newspaper article and the engagement ring, the Angola receipts and my conversation with Daniel’s mother, maybe I can get their attention this time. Maybe I can get them to listen.

Then it hits me: the engagement ring. I had pulled it off my finger in Aaron’s car, thrown it to the floor. I don’t think I ever picked it back up. I look down at my empty hand before twisting around and moving my fingers through the rumpled comforter on the bed. My palm hits something hard and I flip the blanket back—but it’s not the ring. It’s Aaron’s press badge, hidden in the sheets. In a flash, I see myself unbuttoning his shirt, shrugging it off his shoulders. I pick it up, bring it close. I stare at his picture and I let myself wonder, for a minute, if maybe last night wasn’t a mistake. If maybe, in some strange twist of fate, this was how we were meant to find each other.

The phone stops ringing, and when Shannon answers, I can immediately tell that something is wrong. She sniffles.

“Chloe, where the hell are you?”

Her voice is croaky, like she’s been gargling nails.

“Shannon,” I say, sitting up straighter. I stick Aaron’s badge in my pocket. “Is everything okay?”

“No, everything is not okay,” she snaps. A little sob erupts from her throat. “Where are you?”

“I’m … in town. I just needed to clear my head for a little bit. What’s going on?”

Another sob bursts through the speaker—this time, louder—and the noise makes me physically recoil, like it slapped me through the phone. I hold my arm out, listening to the wails on the other side of the line as she tries to string enough words together to form a complete thought.

“It’s … Riley…” she says, and immediately, I feel like I’m going to be sick again. I already know what she’s going to say before she has the chance to say it. “She’s … she’s gone.

“What do you mean, ‘she’s gone’?” I ask, although I know what she means. I know it in my gut. I picture Riley at our engagement party, slouched down in our living room, her skinny legs crossed. Her sneakered feet kicking against the leg of the chair. Her phone in one hand, her hair twirling in the other.

I think about Daniel, the way he was staring at her. The words he said to Shannon, words I once thought were reassuring, their meaning now much more sinister.

One day, they’ll just be distant memories.

“I mean, she’s gone.” She takes three little breaths in quick succession. “We woke up this morning, and she wasn’t in her room. She snuck out again, through the window, but she hasn’t come home. It’s been an entire day.”

“Did you call Daniel?” I ask, hoping the tension in my voice doesn’t give anything away. “I mean, when you couldn’t reach me?”

“Yes,” she says, her voice tense now. “He was under the impression that we were together. At your bachelorette party.”

I close my eyes, lower my head.

“There’s obviously something going on with you two. You’ve been lying to us about something. But you know what, Chloe? I don’t have time for it. I just want to know where my daughter is.”

I’m quiet, unsure of where to even begin. Her daughter is in trouble, Riley is in trouble, and I’m pretty sure I know why. But how do I break that

news to her? How do I tell her that Daniel probably has her? That he was probably there, waiting, when she tossed her sheet out her bedroom window and climbed down into the dark? That he knew she would be there because Shannon had told him herself, that night in our home? That he chose last night because was gone, giving him the freedom to roam around as he pleased?

How do I tell her that her daughter is probably dead because of me?

“I’m going to come over,” I say. “I’m going to come over now and explain everything.”

“I’m not home now,” she says. “I’m in the car, driving around. I’m looking for my daughter. But we could use your help.”

“Of course,” I say. “Just tell me where to be.”

I hang up with instructions to drive down every side street within a ten-mile radius of their home. I stand up from the bed and look down, my duffel bag resting by my feet, Daniel’s receipts piled on top of that white envelope. I reach down and push everything back into my bag and grab the handle, flinging it over my shoulder. Then I look back down at my phone, at the texts from Daniel.

Chloe, can you call me, please? Chloe, where are you?

I have a voice mail, and for a second, I consider deleting it. I can’t hear his voice right now. I can’t hear his excuses. But what if he has Riley? What if I can still save her? I press the recording and lift the phone to my ear. His voice seeps into my brain, slippery like oil, filling every corner, every gap. Coating everything.

Hi, Chloe. Listen … I don’t really know what’s going on with you right now. You’re not at your bachelorette party. I just talked to Shannon. I don’t know where you are, but obviously, something is wrong.

The line is quiet for too long. I look down at my phone, to see if the voice mail is over, but the timer is still ticking forward. Finally, he speaks again.

I’m going to be gone by the time you get home. God knows where you are right now. I’ll be gone by tomorrow morning. This is your house. Whatever it is that you’re trying to work through, you shouldn’t feel like you can’t do it from here.

My chest constricts. He’s leaving. He’s running.

I love you, he says. It comes out more like a sigh. More than you know. The recording ends abruptly, and I’m left standing in the middle of the motel room, Daniel’s voice still echoing around me. I’ll be gone by tomorrow morning. I glance at the alarm clock again—it’s ten thirty now.

Maybe he’s still there. Maybe he’s still home. Maybe I can get there before he leaves, figure out where he’s running to, and notify the police.

I walk quickly toward the door, stepping into the parking lot. The sun has already descended below the trees, the glow of the streetlights turning their branches into gnarled shadows. I stop in my tracks, instinctively uneasy of the darkness. The cloak of night. But then I think of Riley. Of Aubrey and Lacey. I think of Lena. I think of the girls, of all the missing girls out there, and I force myself to keep walking toward the truth.

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