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Sunday afternoon


Emily froze when she opened the door and saw two police officers standing on their front porch. Her heart started to pound.

“Mom?” she asked, before they could even talk. All she could think was that Mom had gotten into an accident and that was why she hadn’t called.

“I’m sorry?” asked the taller officer, taken aback.

“Did something happen to Mom? Is that why you’re here?”

He shared a look with his partner, but neither one answered directly. “Is your father at home?” he asked.

“Dad!” Emily shouted into the house. “Dad, the police are here!”

She turned back around. “Please, uh, come in.”

They crowded into the foyer, and she retreated before them, feeling very small. Even the shorter officer—a lean woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and bags underneath them even though she couldn’t have been more than twenty-five—was about Jared’s height. Like five-nine. The other officer, big, blonde and bulky, was almost as tall as Dad, who came into the picture just then to make her feel even smaller.

He looked down at Emily, and for a second she wondered if she shouldn’t have let them in, but they were the police. What else was she supposed to do? Maybe she should have asked to see badges first or waited for Dad to take care of that.

But then he passed right over her to the officers, a smile starting on his face. They didn’t echo it.

“Officers,” he said, holding out a hand to the man to shake. “I’m Drew Graham.” After the guy had shaken, he held his hand out to the woman. “What’s this about?”

“I’m Officer Villarreal,” she said, “and this is Officer VanWyck. We’re here about your wife. Your sister-in-law reported her missing.”

Dad glanced down at Emily again, and she was afraid he was going to send her to her room. Like she didn’t already know something was wrong. Like she wasn’t crazy-worried. She hugged herself, pressing her fingers hard into her still-healing cut to focus away from the present pain. She hid a wince and forced herself to ease off before she went too far and had to explain the bleeding.

Before Mom left, her greatest fear had been that someone would find out about the cutting and she’d be committed. One of Jared’s friends had been sent away for a mandatory seventy-two hour watch last year after he’d tried to hurt himself. He’d said it was hell, and the whole school wouldn’t shut up about it. In his case, it was his wrists he’d cut, and his intent had been … different. She wasn’t sure the police or her father would get the distinction. She didn’t want to end anything but her pain. Yet if she ever cut too deeply … maybe there wasn’t as much difference as she wanted to believe.

But Dad was saying something to the officers, and she had to focus back in. “I was afraid this would happen,” he said, his voice gone weary and sad like it did when he was disappointed in her. “Aggie was really concerned when Diane didn’t meet her this morning. I told her—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep you standing here. Maybe you want to come in? I can make coffee or something. I’m sure you have to ask your questions.”

“Yes, sir, we do,” the taller officer, VanWyck, said, but Emily thought she saw his shoulders drop just a little bit, his tension easing at the lack of confrontation. It must be tough to be a police officer and never know what you were walking into.

Dad led the officers into the kitchen, hugging Emily to his side along the way, surprising a gasp out of her when his hand pressed against the wound on her shoulder. He either pretended not to notice or really didn’t, and she breathed a sigh of relief. He signaled the officers to seats at the kitchen table, but only VanWyck took him up on it. Officer Villarreal stayed standing, her back up against the wall of the breakfast nook, gaze sweeping the house. She held her hands loosely at her sides, like she might have to go for her gun at any time. Her nails were as bitten down as Emily’s, and she felt a weird kinship. If she were writing a story, Officer Villarreal would be the hero. But this was real life, and she couldn’t get lost in fantasy.

“Emily, why don’t you see if the officers would like anything to drink,” Dad said.

Because she was a girl and lived to serve (not) or because she’d stayed standing, unsure of her welcome? It didn’t matter, both officers declined.

Emily got herself something instead, to give herself a reason to stay in the kitchen, as if worry over her mother wasn’t enough. She grabbed a bottle of soda out of the refrigerator and poured herself a cup as quietly as she could manage, then stayed there leaning against the counter, out of Dad’s eyesight.

“As I told Aggie,” Dad said, leaning confidentially toward officer VanWyck, who was sitting across from him, poised with a notebook and pen, “Diane and I got into a fight Friday night. It got a little heated, and she left, saying she couldn’t handle things right now. She needed to get herself centered before she could be anything to anyone else. Then she took off. She was supposed to have the kids this weekend, but she left them behind.”

Officer Villarreal shot Emily a look, and her heart sped up an extra few beats. The look was more than just sympathy. There was speculation there, and Emily had no idea what she was thinking. She hoped it wasn’t that this conversation would be better held without her. She was relieved when the officer focused back on her father.

“Heated how?” she asked.

Did Villarreal know about the previous call out to their house? No charges had been filed, so surely there wouldn’t be anything on record. Emily was suddenly afraid for her father. What if the police thought he’d done something more than just drive Mom away?

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” her father said. “It was just words. We were in a public restaurant.”

“Which one?”


Officer VanWyck was taking it all down.

“What time was that?” he asked, looking up from his notepad.

“I don’t know, around six thirty or seven.”

“And when you left?”

“Maybe close to ten.”

“Long dinner.”

“We had a lot to iron out,” Dad said.

“And then?”

“I paid the bill; we went our separate ways.”

“And you haven’t heard from her since?” Officer Villarreal asked. Emily didn’t like the way she was looking at Dad.

“I’ve heard from her!” Emily jumped in. “She texted me and Jared yesterday.”

“Can we see the text?” the officer asked, shrugging away from the wall.

Emily fought her phone out of her pocket, unlocked it, and swiped over to her texts. She opened the conversation with Mom and scrolled up so the cop could see Mom’s text rather than just Emily’s pleas for her to come back. Then she held her phone out to them, screen first.

“May I?” Officer Villarreal asked, already reaching for the phone.

Emily nodded.

She took the phone from Emily’s hand and bent forward with it so that her partner could see as well. Without asking, she scrolled down. Then she scrolled up. She stopped at a certain point, scrolled down again. Stopped.

She and Officer VanWyck shared a look.

“What?” Emily asked.

“Nothing,” she answered unconvincingly. “Can you screenshot and send me this?”

“Sure,” she answered. But there were butterflies with razor wings fluttering through her stomach. What had they seen? Was she doing a good thing or bad sending them the texts?

“Great. Mr. Graham, do you mind if I look around the house while my partner asks you a few more questions?” Officer Villarreal asked, handing Emily’s phone back along with her card.

“What are you hoping to find?” An edge was creeping into Dad’s voice now, like he too sensed there was something the police weren’t telling them. “For that matter, why are you taking this so seriously? My wife isn’t missing. She’s just clearing her head.”

“Sir, are you denying me permission to look around?” Officer Villarreal asked. Wow, biting her nails might indicate nerves, but Emily thought they were made of steel.

Dad looked surprised. “Not at all. Look anywhere you want. I’ll show you around myself.” He started to rise, but the officer motioned him down. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Mr. Graham,” said her partner, capturing his attention, “maybe your daughter would like to go to her room? She doesn’t need to hear all of this.”

Emily tensed. She’d suspected it was coming. Now she had to decide what to do about it. She didn’t want to go, partly because she needed to hear what was being said and partly, as crazy as it was, because she felt Dad needed someone in his corner. It was two against one, and Dad didn’t always make the best impression.

Inspiration struck. “Let me try Mom one more time first. Maybe she just wasn’t in the mood to talk yesterday. Maybe she’s back today and everything’s fine.” Surely, if Mom knew the police were looking for her, and questioning Dad, she’d have to respond.

She didn’t wait for anyone’s approval, but hit the button to dial Mom. The call went straight to voicemail just like yesterday. “Mom,” Emily said, hating the quiver in her voice. “Mom, everyone’s really worried. The police are here looking for you. Please call to say you’re okay.” Even if you don’t love us anymore. She wouldn’t say it in front of everyone, but the thought hit her with a wave of tears. She bit them back and apologized to the rest of them, like it was her fault she hadn’t gotten an answer. Then she went off to her room like they wanted, taking the phone with her in case of a call she knew wouldn’t come.

Door closed, she forced her thoughts away from the dark path they wanted to take involving her razor and relief that was only temporary. The shame and self-loathing were more lasting. And if anyone came to check on her the consequences would be huge. To distract herself, she sat on her bed and scrolled through her texts, trying to figure out what the police had been so interested in. She froze when she found it.


Aaliyah pulled in right beside the police car and looked at Jared, her eyes wide. “Do you want me to come in?” she asked. “In case … I don’t even know what.”

Jared felt like he’d taken a hurdle to the chest. Fear flashed through him that the police were there about the hacking, but that was ridiculous. No way he’d have been found out so quickly. And if Mom had seen and suspected and reported him, then that meant she was okay. Nothing to worry about.

Jared just shook his head, his mouth too dry to even answer Aaliyah. He bolted out of the car, yanking his keys out of his backpack on the way, but when he got to his front door, the knob turned in his hand. His first thought was that someone was going to get in trouble for leaving the door unlocked. But then, with the police there, he guessed it didn’t matter.

He burst into the entryway and came nearly face to face with a policewoman on the other side of the door. She pulled it out of his hand and looked past him at Aaliyah’s car, which was still sitting there in the driveway. He knew Aaliyah would decide for herself whether or not he needed backup. His head shake wouldn’t discourage her if she didn’t want to be discouraged, but as he looked back, she started to pull out. The officer watched for a second, as though memorizing the car, and then closed the door before turning to Jared.

“You must be the son,” she said.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Is Mom all right?”

She studied him as he studied her. “That does seem to be the question,” she said. “Why don’t you come in?”

“I’m in,” he said. “Just tell me.”

“Jared,” Dad called from the kitchen. “We’re in here.”

Clearly, “we” weren’t all there, since Jared and the police officer were standing in the foyer. He couldn’t see into the kitchen with the half wall in place and Dad, he was guessing, sitting beyond it at the eat-in table.

“Why do you think something has happened to your mom?” the officer asked.

It was a valid question. He didn’t know what she made of his hesitation.

“Well, police don’t usually come around for nothing, do they? What happened?”

He started to go around her, toward Dad. If she wouldn’t tell him, surely his father would. The officer stepped into his path. “If you answer my question, I’ll answer yours.”

“I just told you. You’re here. That must mean something. And I only left Dad and Emily a few hours ago, so I figure they’re all right.”

“When did you last see your mother?”

Jared shook his head. “That’s another question, and you haven’t answered mine.”

He took another step. The officer was going to have to get out of his way or lay her hands on him. He didn’t think she was going to do that, and she didn’t. She backed out of his way and let him continue on to his Dad, who was sitting at the kitchen table with another officer, a guy this time, like they were having coffee, only neither of them had anything in front of them.

“Dad, what’s going on?” he asked.

His father didn’t look at either of the cops, only at Jared. “Your aunt reported your mother missing. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about? Dad, there are police in our house.”

The other cop had followed Jared into the kitchen, and now her partner asked her, “Did you find anything?”

“Nothing certain,” she said.

“Nothing certain?” Jared repeated. “What does that mean?”

“I’ll show you. I’d like to get your take on it.”

She started in the direction of the garage, and her partner rose to follow her. Jared’s heart seized. The garage. Where he’d heard the strange noises that had woken him up Friday night. What had she found?

Since he was already standing, he followed along after them, and sensed his father doing the same. He wondered where Emily was, and hoped she was with a friend and had missed all of this. She was already worried. The police showing up would blow that into full-on hysteria. He got that. He felt a little hysteria coming on himself. Or at least light-headedness, like all the air had been sucked out of the house.

The female cop opened the door to the garage and motioned her partner through, then held up her hand for Jared and his father to stay behind, but she left the door open. Jared pressed into the entryway, Dad at his back.

He let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding when she showed her partner to a hole in the drywall to the side of the door at about head height.

“That’s where Dad punched the wall a few weeks ago,” he said, before they could make anything else of it. “That’s nothing.”

The female officer turned her gaze on his father, “Is that true, sir? Why did you punch the wall?”

“What does that have to do with my wife?”

“You tell me.”

Jared watched his father, willing him to hold it together. He could not lose it with the officers like he did with Mom, like he did sometimes with him.

He looked around for something to distract or diffuse the situation, and stopped on the car. There was a new dent in the hood, as though something had landed on it. Or maybe bounced off. Surely Dad hadn’t gone from hitting the wall to hitting the car. He’d bust his wrist.

But he couldn’t say any of that.

He glanced away quickly before anyone could follow the direction of his gaze and get suspicious, assuming the officer hadn’t seen the dent. And really he didn’t know how she could miss it.

“It has nothing to do with her,” Dad was saying, his voice tight as though the effort to contain himself had locked his jaw. “Look, I’m really sorry that Diane is missing, but she chose this path. If I thought something had happened to her, I’d be the first person out looking. She’s the mother of my kids, and I still love her, despite everything. That’s why I took her to dinner on Friday night, to try to work things out.”

Jared watched his father. Was that true? Could things even be worked out after … everything? Was there enough therapy in the world? Or anger management classes? Or—

“But you haven’t shown me any evidence that anything is wrong,” his father went on, “and you’re upsetting my kids. They have enough to deal with already without you putting new worries into their heads. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Jared sucked in a breath. He was no expert, but he didn’t think that was going to leave the police with the best impression.

Still, his father started to move out of the doorway to the garage, and motioned Jared out of the way as well. He held the door for the officers, showing them with an outstretched arm the way out.

The female officer—he still hadn’t gotten her name … either of their names—sighed heavily and shook her head. “You’re not helping yourself, sir. This would look a lot better if you were cooperative.” Just as Jared thought.

“I’ve been cooperative. I let you search the house. I let you question me. And now we’re done,” his dad responded. To his credit, he kept any anger in check.

But he followed the officers to the front door, as though afraid they’d get lost on the way. Jared watched it all, his heart feeling like it was twisted up into knots.

The male officer pulled two cards out of his pocket as Dad yanked the door open to show them out. He handed one to each of them. “If you hear from Mrs. Graham, or if there’s anything you need to get off your chests, call us.” He gave Dad an intense look, filled with significance, then shifted his gaze to Jared. “Any time.”

He felt Dad’s gaze on him as well, but didn’t look back at either of them. What did they think he might know? A noise that he couldn’t identify? As far as Dad knew he’d been asleep. And anyway, he wasn’t sure what he’d heard. Certainly not sure enough to open his mouth and risk his father being carted away in handcuffs.

He jumped when the door closed hard behind the officers, and he was left there with Dad. Finally, he glanced up, afraid of what he’d see, but more afraid not to see something coming so that he could prepare.

Dad ran his hand hard down his face, stretching his skin. It almost seemed to stay drooped, like Dad was exhausted down to the cellular level. Maybe Mom’s disappearance was weighing on him more than he let on. Was it possible he really was worried and was only pretending to stay strong for them?

“I need a drink,” he said. “Jared, do you want to order that pizza I promised your sister? I’d mentioned going out, but I don’t think any of us is up to that right now.”

That was it? They weren’t going to talk about this? They were going to pretend everything was normal?

He was half-relieved. He’d been braced for worse—Dad to rant and rave or punch something again. But … Mom was missing. They should be calling all her friends or out looking for her or … something. Denial wasn’t going to help anyone. But did he dare push it?

“I’ll go see what she wants,” Jared said, even though Emily always wanted the same thing—plain cheese. He needed the time to think.

Dad just nodded and headed for the liquor cabinet above the refrigerator.

Jared took off down the hall to his sister’s room and tapped on the door.

“Who is it?” Emily asked.


“Are they gone?”


“Okay,” she said, “come in.”

He did, and found Emily sitting on her bed, her phone in her hand, tissues scattered around on her comforter, tear tracks down her face. It was so sad his brick heart felt like it would break. He sat down on the edge of her bed, making sure to avoid the snotty tissues.

“You all right?” he asked.

She gave him a look full of scorn. “Are you?”

“Okay, dumb question. But Emily, the police are on it. They’ll find Mom. And anyway, she’s missing by choice, right?” Now who was in denial? Maybe it was instinctive when trying to protect someone, and Emily looked so fragile right then. Jared reached out to take the hand that wasn’t clutching her used tissues.

“I don’t think so,” Emily said so quietly Jared had to lean in to hear.

“What?” Not because he hadn’t heard, but because he couldn’t process. He had all kind of doubts he couldn’t name, but his sister shouldn’t have to shoulder any of them. Imagine her being the first to drop the pretense that everything was alright.

Emily took her hand back from Jared and did something with her phone before handing it over to him. It was open to her text conversation with Mom. “Look through this. Tell me if you see anything odd.”

Jared took the phone, scrolled up and up, reading messages. It was a lot of routine stuff. How was your day? Can’t wait to see you. Miss you.

“No,” he admitted. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”

“Look at how Mom says ‘I love you.’”

But he knew already. Mom always wrote it with the <3 sign so that it formed a heart, reading I ♡ U.

Wait a minute.

He scrolled down again, to the last message they’d gotten from Mom. Yesterday. The one that told them she was okay.

I love you.

All written out.

Oh, holy hell. He looked at Emily in horror. He couldn’t protect her from this. She’d seen it first.

But what did it mean?

Emily nodded. “Mom didn’t write that,” she said, voice still quiet, and eerily calm, as though she’d gone numb or was retreating into shock.

“You don’t know that,” he said. “She could have been doing voice to text. Or she could have been driving and had someone type it for her. It could be anything.”

Emily had tears in her eyes again. “You really believe that?”

“I have to,” he said honestly. “Don’t you?”

Emily hurled herself at him, sobbing. He caught her and pulled her into his lap, holding her like he used to when they were little and she fell on the playground or someone had been mean to her. She hadn’t gone through her growth spurt yet, so it wasn’t all that different. She cried so hard she shook, and he held her and stroked her hair and pretended not to notice she was soaking his shirt. He hoped just with tears, but the tissues said it might be otherwise.

He realized he was whispering, “Shhh, shhh,” like that was at all comforting, but he couldn’t seem to stop until he laid his cheek down on the top of her head and just let her be, trying to keep back tears of his own.

She pulled away after a bit to grab a wad of tissues and wipe at her face. She blew her nose so hard he made a crappy little joke from when they were kids.

“Wow, did you blow your brains right out?”

She gave a hysterical half-laugh at that. “What brains?”

“Exactly,” he said, but with a smile so she’d know he didn’t mean it.

Emily gave a tremulous smile back, but it didn’t last long.

“Jared,” she said, looking up at him through red, puffy eyes, “don’t ever leave me, okay? I mean ever.”

Now wasn’t the time to point out that someday in the not-too-distant future he’d be going off to college and a place of his own. It wasn’t what she meant.

“I won’t,” he promised, his heart squeezing.

She started to gather up all the tissues on her bed.

“Dad wants to know what kind of pizza you want,” he added lamely.

Emily’s gaze flicked up at him.

“Cheese, right?” he said when she didn’t answer beyond that.

“Like I can think about food right now.”

“I know, but Dad seems to want—” How did he say this? To pretend everything is normal. “Dad, I think, wants everything to be as normal as possible. He’s sure Mom will come back when she’s ready.”

“I hope so,” Emily said, “but—”

Yeah, but. Those buts were going to kill them.

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