Javier opens the gate and goes out to the gravel drive, where Boot is industriously sniffing the gravel, nose shoving aside rocks and blowing bits of dust. He circles around the entire drive, then takes off at a dead run down the road. Javier runs after him, and I fall in, gain, and pull even. I silently have to thank my mom for dragging me on all those jogging sessions around Stillhouse Lake. The gravel’s not that easy to run on, but we don’t slow down until Boot does, about halfway from the cabin to the main road. The gravel peters off to mud here, mostly dried. Boot does a figure-eight pattern, snuffling, and then comes back to a spot and sits down. Looks at us with a little bit of pity. Stupid humans.
I’m the one who spots the footprints at the side of the mud right by the trees. I recognize the tread. They’re Keds, and that’s what Connor was wearing.
I sprint off into the forest and hardly hear Javier’s yell for me to Wait, Lanny, because I’m scared. I’m so scared that he’s gone, or worse, that something happened to my brother and he’s wandered back in here and collapsed, or . . .
I see Connor’s face first. He’s looking back toward the cabin, and the afternoon light through the trees falls right on him, and he looks sad and pensive and maybe a little bit guilty. He’s just standing there.
Then he turns and looks at me, and says, “Lanny—”
I’m not listening. I’m skidding to a halt in front of him, grabbing him by the shoulders, and shaking him like I want to shake the idiot out of him. It’s only then that I realize that Connor is crying. Crying.
I stop shaking him, and I gather him in my arms. Even though I’ve always been bigger than he is, I think he’s never felt so small and fragile before.
He just collapses, and I go with him, and we’re both on our knees, holding each other. Rocking back and forth and not saying a word. I don’t know if either of us really can talk. Something’s very wrong here, and I don’t know what it is. I’m afraid to know.
Connor holds out his phone to me. His hands are shaking. Mom always makes sure she disables the Internet features and enables parental controls before she gives them to us, but I’m not super surprised to find he’s hacked his way around that—he must have, because there’s a video playing on the screen. Right as I take the device from him, it ends. “What is this?” I hear Javier arrive behind me, and Boot’s there, whining and wedging himself in under Connor’s arm to lick my brother’s face. I swallow and sit back. Connor’s arms go around the dog instead, as if he needs something to hold on to. “Connor? Do you want me to watch it?”
He nods silently. I hit “Play.”
And when I see what’s on it, the world changes. Forever.
When we land in Wichita, it’s late afternoon, and the sun’s already sinking low. It’s cold, with the icy bite of snow in the air, though the sky’s still clear. I remember this kind of weather, how it meant to lay in a good supply of wood for the fire, and salt for the steps, and make sure the winter tires were good to go. Stepping off that Rivard Luxe jet, I feel like I’m hallucinating, stepping into the wrong decade of my life. The smell of this place makes me dizzy.
My phone buzzes. I’ve had it off for the flight, and it’s just connected to the new roaming network. I check it, and see a text that says 911.
It’s from Lanny.
I also have a voice mail from Javier, but I don’t bother to listen. I stop right on the tarmac, two steps off the plane, and dial my daughter’s number. I feel sick, and I get a surge of false relief when I hear her say, “Hello?”
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” I ask. I hear nothing. “Are you there? Honey? Hello?”
“You bitch,” she says, and then she hangs up on me. Just like that. I think we’ve been disconnected, and then I start thinking worse things. She didn’t sound like herself. She sounded cold. Angry. Different. And she’s never called me that. Never.
Sam slows down as he descends the steps, because he’s seen the look on my face. We lack the closeness we had before we went up that elevator in the Ivory Tower, but he can’t seem to help being concerned. “What is it?” he asks. “The kids?”
I dial again. Lanny picks up but doesn’t say anything. I hear noise, as if the phone’s being handed off, and then Javier’s voice says, “Gwen?”
“Oh, thank God, is everything okay there? I got a text and Lanny—”
“Yeah, look. You need to get back here.” Javier doesn’t sound right, either. I have a sickening idea that he’s got a gun to his head, that they’ve all been taken prisoner, that Melvin Royal is leaning over and listening to every word we’re saying. Is that possible? Yes. Horribly possible.
“Javier, if you’re under duress, just say my name one time.”
“I’m not,” he says. It sounds clipped and angry, but not anxious. “Your kids need some answers. I need some answers. All right? When can you be here?”
“I don’t understand. What happened? God, tell me, is everyone all right?”
“Yes,” he says. I don’t know whether or not to believe him. “Get back here.”
“I—” I have no idea what’s going on. “I will. Tomorrow by noon. I’m nowhere close, it’ll take me some time.” I wonder if Rivard will mind if I hijack his plane on the way back.
“Okay,” he says. He sounds different, most certainly, from the man I left in charge of my kids. As if something’s happened to change his mind about everything.
“Tomorrow,” I promise, and he hangs up without a goodbye. Sam’s standing by me now, frowning. I look up at him as I put the phone away. “Something’s wrong. I need to get back to Javier’s tomorrow.”
“Are the kids all right?”
“I . . . hope so. I don’t think they were being forced to call, nothing like that.” I think hard about calling Connor, seeing if he’d be more willing to talk to me, but I don’t. Something, some gut-level instinct, tells me that isn’t a good idea. Just get this done, and you can get back to them. Stop overthinking.
The crew of the plane has seen us off with professional smiles, but they don’t waste any time. As we’re speaking, the stairway is pulled up behind us, the hatch shut, and now the plane is revving up to taxi off toward a hangar. Sam and I head for the small terminal. We go straight through, and I feel a strong sense, again, of déjà vu. I remember being here, picking up my mother on a flight in to visit her grandkids when they were little. That was before everything changed and life became a surreal, never-ending nightmare.