The morning Brenna disappeared may have been the longest morning of my life. In retrospect, it’s difficult for me to forgive my initial attitude. When Erin was charging around the house panicking about Brenna not being home, I didn’t take it seriously. I mean, I took it seriously in the context of being irritated that my kid had been disobedient. But at that point it never crossed my mind that something had happened to her. I believed that she’d come stumbling back into the house, hung over or still stoned; careless of how her disappearing act had effected the rest of her family.
That week, I’d been in California for meetings with the IT department of another company we’d acquired. System by system, we were assessing what to keep, what to merge with our own systems, and what to discard. Human resources and some of the other support functions would be eliminated and transferred to the parent company, and it likely made sense to close their data center in California and move everything to our data center in Herndon, Virginia. The discussions were tense. Everyone I met with was worried about losing their jobs, and with good reason.
On the flight home that Wednesday night, I’d written up my plan for the merger and emailed it to my boss. I caught a cab home from Dulles, reading on the way an email from my best friend Jeremiah. He and his wife had just paid off the mortgage on their house in Atlanta, twenty years early. Amazing. Our new place was so expensive that we’d never have it paid off.
There had been a time when Erin would have driven out to the airport with the kids to pick me up from out-of-town trips, but those days had passed. I hadn’t known if it was my fault or hers, but the bottom line was, some time after we’d bought that mausoleum in Fairfax, we’d grown more and more distant. Was it the travel, or the stress she felt dealing with the kids, or just that there was so much room in that house you could get lost in it? Things got worse and worse, and I didn’t think she would ever forgive me for Teagan.
I can’t say I blamed her.
When I got home that night, Erin was curled up in front of the television. She gave me a smile, which was rare enough to be remarkable, and I collapsed on the couch next to her.
“How was the trip?” she asked.
“Good. Though I’m getting a lot of resistance from the folks there. What’s been going on here?”
“Oh, not much. I had lunch with Angela yesterday.”
My favorite person in the world. I didn’t voice the thought. Instead, I just said, “How did that go?”
“Okay. She just got back from Europe. We were just catching up.” Her voice sounded sad, and I felt a twinge of guilt. Erin and Angela had once been inseparable, and I I was part of the wedge which had introduced so much distance between them.
She continued. “Also, Brenna brought home a D on her science test Wednesday. Can you talk to her about that this weekend? She doesn’t listen to a thing I say.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “though I don’t know that she’ll listen to me any more.”
“I’m worried about her, Cole.”
I nodded. “I am too. Especially with that asshole she’s dating.”
“I don’t know. He’s not as bad as I thought at first.” Her voice trailed off, as if she wasn’t sure she agreed with herself.
“He’s too old for her.”
“True. She’s still young. And she thinks she knows everything.”
“I’ll talk to her about it, I promise. But let’s let her get through her birthday, and I’ll catch her Sunday evening. Okay?”
I didn’t get a chance, because on Sunday Brenna was nowhere to be found.
My calm leaked away a little when Erin spoke with Chase on the phone. My composure fell apart when Sam informed us that Brenna had talked about going away.
Where was she thinking of going? It had to be with Chase… it’s not like she could support herself or feed herself. As soon as Sam said those words, I knew what it was. Brenna had planned to run off with Chase. Maybe they were planning to sneak off and pretend she was eighteen and try to get married? Go to Mexico together? Or just some place where the age of consent was ridiculously low?
The first person to talk to was Chase. So why were the cops still sitting around my house?
I leaned forward, unintentionally brushing Erin aside. “I’m going to ask you again, Detective… When are you going to arrest Chase? He’s behind this and you know it.”
Detective Hunt stood up and frowned. “Questioning Mr. Morton will be our next stop, Mr. Roberts. In the meantime I want you to stay here with your phone lines open. If she’s a runaway, the odds are she’ll change her mind within the next few hours. You need to be able to take her call when it comes.” I stood too. Detective Hunt had not made a good impression on me. Disheveled, his suit cheap, his beard unevenly trimmed. Typical government employee, I thought. He gave instructions to two of the officers, then said “I’ll return as soon as I learn anything Mr. and Mrs. Roberts. In the meantime try to stay calm.”
Hunt left, followed by the officers. As soon as they got out the door, Erin turned on Sam. “Sam! Why didn’t you tell me Brenna said that about going away? Are you keeping her secrets? Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice sounded strained, high-pitched like wind blowing through reeds.
Sam recoiled. Shock spread across his still-childlike features. “I didn’t know… I didn’t…” With that, he sobbed and buried his face in his hands.
“Erin,” I said. “It’s not Sam’s fault.”
Erin turned on me. “No, damn it! It’s your fault. She wasn’t running around with twenty-year-olds before you screwed our family up. She wasn’t getting in trouble in school before then. She wasn’t—”
“Stop!” Sam cried out, tears running down his cheeks. “Why do you think she always wanted to be out of the house? Because you two never stop fighting!”
Sam stormed off to his room, slamming the door loud enough we could hear it all the way at the front entrance. Erin said, “I can’t talk to you right now,” then stormed off herself.
I had staggered back to my office, sinking into my desk chair and staring out the window. The need to do something was overpowering. I needed to search for her. But where? I had no idea who most of her friends were these days. I could ask Marion. But first I needed to make a difficult call. I picked up the phone and dialed my parents.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.