When I was young, Dad would come to me at night when I was in bed and read to me. I don’t know why, but Mom almost never did even if Dad was out at a business dinner or working late. When I asked her to, she’d just say that that was Dad’s thing. That was when I was six or seven. Already she was showing me that not all mothers are very maternal.
Dad loved to read to me. I never gave it much thought at the time, but later, remembering, I realized that he got into the stories as much as I did. I was a little kid, and the stories he read me were written for kids my age but seemed to have wider appeal, too.
I had favorite stories—stories I wanted read over and over. Somehow, they gave me a sense of security; the same things happened to all the characters with every reading; nothing changed. I could count on things happening just as they had when I’d heard them before. Life wasn’t confusing, didn’t have such uncertain outcomes, and didn’t change from happy one day to sad the next in the stories I loved.
One of the books I asked Dad to read over and over was a Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hatches the Egg. I loved the fact that nothing deterred Horton from the duty he’d promised to perform. I found great nobility in that. Horton was laughed at, teased, abused in several awful ways, but it didn’t affect either his resolve or the way he acted.
Something of that book stuck with me, too, because as I grew up, I saw other kids—and adults, too—making promises with no intention of keeping them and quitting when things got difficult. I thought this showed very little character, or none at all. I didn’t want to be that way and tried hard not to be. Promises meant something, as did fighting through adversity. Doing the right thing meant something, something important to me.
Dad loved the book as much as I did. Or it seemed that way to me. Whenever I asked him to read it, he got a big smile, and I wondered if he liked the same things in it that I did.
As I grew older and as I became more aware, I saw this same trait in my dad. Like Horton, Dad persevered. I admired him for that. I tried to be like Horton and realized in doing that I was also copying my dad. I often failed to live up to my expectations for myself. When you’re nine and ten, sometimes you have to lie; sometimes you have to break promises. You just have to. I never saw Dad fail, however. When he told me he’d do something, he did it. Listening to him talk at the dinner table, I found when he said he’d do something for either a business associate or his boss, he always did it. I was proud of him for that. And I learned that he was stronger than I was.
It is all well and good to have a strong focus. But I think there’s a tiny line between resolve and obsession—or compulsion. I think my dad might be tiptoeing on that line.
In the three days since I was in the woods with Chase, it seems to me that Dad is going off the deep end a little. I mean, he’s always had tunnel vision when it comes to the things he’s doing, but now, I think this business of finding Carly may be unhinging him.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to find Carly, too. It’s just that I find it difficult to believe as strongly as he does that she’s alive and well, and that someone just wanted a little girl to raise. In a way, it does make sense, however, that this wasn’t random. Someone chose her, was able to spirit her away from under the nose of a babysitter who was watching over her, and made her disappear without a trace. There were lots of people at the park that day. What I don’t understand is why not a single one of them saw something. But it happened like that, which makes me think that it was planned out—that would be the only way someone would be able to pull off such a kidnapping. Because of that, it doesn’t sound like a spur of the moment kind of thing.
But how could it have been planned? No one knew when Mrs. Banner and Carly were going to the park. Mrs. Banner had been clear about that. She’d read a book to Carly, and then Carly had said she wanted to go on the swings. So, they’d simply picked up and gone to the park.
Carly and Mrs. Banner didn’t go to the park every day. I couldn’t believe someone could or would have been spending that much time at the park, lying in wait just for her. And even if I was wrong about that and a potential kidnapper had waited and waited, or even if they were simply looking for any little girl and not specifically Carly, someone would have recognized them as a regular, someone who was frequently there yet wasn’t tending a child, and as the police had everyone’s identity who was there, they would have eventually questioned them. Which would have meant, if you thought it through, that two people probably would have been involved, because when the police questioned the kidnapper—which they must have done because they’d located everyone who’d been in the park that day and questioned every one of them—someone else would have had to be watching Carly. And if the police had just shown up at the kidnappers’ house unannounced—just going through the list of people in the park that day—they would have either seen Carly or traces of her. At the very least, they should have picked up on how nervous the one being questioned had to have been.
Nothing about this makes any sense to me, and the more I think about it, the less sense it seems to make. I’d always thought that she’d been taken by one of those deviant male nutjobs that want to do things with young children. He could have acted alone, and he could have just been lucky and had an opportunity when everyone was looking somewhere else. I couldn’t figure out how he could take Carly without her making lots of noise, but somehow, he must have. And I could never think about that without feeling both scared and sick. So I turn my mind off whenever I start thinking that way.
I think Dad has done the same thing, in his own way. I think he refuses to focus on the probable, instead deciding to deal with the unlikely because that’s more palatable, more hopeful. He’s been doing that with all his obsessive fervor. As time has passed, however, I think the problem is that this obsession is getting to him. He’s not making any progress with his search, and the frustration is building. He won’t let any doubt creep in, which takes a lot of mental discipline. I don’t know whether he can keep this up forever, but that’s Dad: never quitting, never backing off on something he’s started. He’s trying to hatch that egg.
Yesterday, at breakfast, I asked him a question.
I’d made pancakes and sausage, and he was just picking at his plate, drinking his coffee and staring off into space. Chase was chowing down; I thought he was still trying to make up for lost time, or lost meals. Dad, though...
I tried to pull him out of himself. “Dad,” I asked, “are you fining anything at all? Does anything look promising?”
He looked up at me, seeming to look through me, and said, “Jacob Gundersen is buying extra food for his cat. I’ve got to check that out. Maybe it’s code for food for Carly.”
“Has he spoken about his cat before?” I asked, thinking how unlikely it was that he might be onto something with Mr. Gundersen or his cat.
“Yeah, it just had kittens. But that might be code, too. Maybe he kidnapped several girls and is trying to find homes for them.”
I just looked at him. He was dead serious.
Today, I ask him if we can go into town. I need to replenish the pantry. Chase is decimating it. I might be helping him just a little. His reply? Well, he doesn’t make one. He simply gets up and goes back to his office room.
I think he’s losing it. He’s stopped shaving, too. Dad was always well-groomed before. Now? He doesn’t even change his clothes every day.
I’m not sure how I should react to this. I’d like to yell at him, but I know that wouldn’t be helpful. I know what I should do, even though I’m angry with him for being like this. What he needs—what I should give him—is some support. I’m sure he feels he’s all alone in what he’s doing, and that may be part of the problem. What if I were to try to get involved? I wouldn’t really be able to help, but showing interest in the search and appearing to get into it myself might be what he needs.
I think about that. Dad almost always comes out for lunch around one in the afternoon. Usually he just grabs the sandwich I make him if I’m home and takes it back to his office. I’ll confront him at lunch.
Chase wants to go to Lindsey’s. I think what he really wants is more skinny dipping. He’s not as enthusiastic about basketball as I am, and especially not the way the Musso kids play it. He did like the excitement, the sexiness, the overlay of naughtiness of skinny dipping, though. I know that.
I think he likes to see Trevor naked, too.
So we go. We have plenty of time. Dad won’t come out for his sandwich till we’re back. I’ll be waiting for him when he does, even if I have to leave the lake early. We grab our towels and head out.
I do come back early, leaving Chase to follow; he’s having so much fun he isn’t ready to stop yet. I make a tuna fish sandwich for Dad, just like he likes it: tuna, mayonnaise, dill pickles and onion. I put some chips on the plate, too. He comes out just after one, as expected. Still punctual. He’s hasn’t completely lost it yet.
He looks at me, and if I think it takes him a second to focus, that might just be my imagination. Still, I wait till I’m sure he’s able to listen to me.
“Dad, you’re doing this, looking for Carly, all on your own. I want to help. I can’t use the computer like you can, but maybe I can help some other way. For one, can I have a list of the names and stuff of the people in the park that day? I want to look at it, just to see if it gives me any ideas.”
“Troy, the only way to do this is through the computer. The police used conventional methods and got nowhere.”
“But Dad, I can’t help your way. I don’t know whether I can help any other way, but I want to try just like you’re trying. I want to feel I’m doing something.”
He thinks, then says, “I could let you read emails. It’s hard for me to read them all, to keep up with them.”
“I’d rather try something else,” I reply. “I think you’re doing that as well as it can be done. Are you looking at all the online activities—like is anyone buying toddler clothes or toddler toys or that kind of thing?”
“Yeah. That and emails and anything else I can think of. It takes all day every day to keep up.”
“Well, if I tried to do that, too, you probably wouldn’t trust me and would just do what I was doing all over again, to be sure. So, I think it’s best if you keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll see if I can figure out some other way to work on it. What can it hurt?”
He pauses again, then repeats, “What can it hurt?” He looks into my eyes, then nods acceptance and says, “OK, come with me.”
We walk into his office, he carrying his sandwich and a Coke, and he sits down at his computer. There isn’t much paper strewn around. I guess he’s still putting everything on the Cloud, safe from prying eyes.
He taps keys for a while, then the printer hums to life. A minute later, he gets up and retrieves a sheet of paper. “Here’s a list of all the people who were there that day. But Troy, that list is proof of hacking! I’m trusting it to you, but take care. Should a cop ever show up with a warrant, it has to be unavailable to him, no matter how thorough a search he performs. This is serious stuff.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll remember that.” I walk back to the kitchen and find Chase has returned and is making himself a sandwich. I watch him while thinking about what Dad has just said. I resolve to remember it, too.
Chase has regained much of the weight he’d lost before coming here. He’s gotten some sun, too; he’s no longer so pale. He looks great. I could be prejudiced, of course.
“What you got there?” he asks, looking at the paper in my hand.
“It’s a list of the people who were in the park when Carly disappeared.”
“Where in the world did you get that?”
Uh-oh, I think. And then I stop to consider. Two heads are better than one. And maybe four would be even better. “I’ll tell you, but after lunch, let’s go back to Lindsey’s. I want to think about an idea, and I’ll explain it to all you guys at once.”
“Guys,” I say, “I want to tell you something.”
We are sitting behind the barn, our usual spot. Except they’re sitting against it like we do when we’re tired from playing B-ball, and I’m sitting looking at them. Trevor usually fidgets if we sit still for long. But, right now, he isn’t moving.
“This is deadly serious stuff, and there could be some real problems if some of this gets out. I’m trusting you guys not to say anything about this to anyone or even discuss it among yourselves if you could be overheard.”
Trevor’s eyes light up. I have to squelch that. “Trevor,” I say, “are you old and mature enough to keep something that’s really important an absolute secret? If not, I’ll have to ask you to go somewhere else, and the three of us will discuss it alone. I’ll be taking a real chance, trusting you with this. Can I?”
“All right,” he says. I know he’ll say anything not to be left out, but I think he’ll be all right, and I really do want him with us. Strength in numbers and all that. Besides, I’ve thought of a good job for him. Maybe. If it comes to that.
“I mean it. It’s important.” I look at him hard. He squirms.
“OK,” he says.
I glare at him steadily for a moment, still uncertain about him, and he silently lifts his hand and crosses his heart with his index finger and without a sign of a grin on his face, staring back into my eyes. I sigh. That’ll have to do.
So, I tell them. I tell them about Dad trying to track Carly down using the computer, about how some of what he’s doing is illegal—I don’t go into any details about that—and how I think he’s getting mentally worn down by what he’s doing. I tell them I want to help so he doesn’t go off the deep end. I say maybe we can find something to try that the cops and Dad haven’t come up with. I tell them we need to brainstorm this and come up with something that might work to find her.
It takes me a while to say all this, and when I’m done, they all start talking at once. I wasn’t sure they’d say anything. But they all seem to have ideas and questions. I can’t answer the ones about what went on in the park. I realize I don’t know much about that.
“Have they questioned everyone who was in the park that day?” That’s Trevor’s question. He watches a lot of TV shows.
“Of course,” I say, trying not to sound sarcastic. Sounding sarcastic is a great way to stifle further ideas, and I don’t want to do that.
“As far as we know, they did question everyone, and a lot of policemen were involved because there were so many people in the park, but maybe they didn’t get all the answers coordinated and missed something.” Lindsey thinks of that one.
“Can we get to see all the reports?” Chase is thinking more like I am.
We talk about it, hash it over, and the main thing we come up with is: we need to know what happened in the park that day. The way to learn that is to see all the police reports that relate to what went on and then put them together. I might be able to do this. I think my dad will like the fact that someone is helping him, supporting his belief Carly’s still alive. The only problem might be that some of those reports could be among the ones he said he couldn’t get access to, the individual case files. But maybe not, too. He did find the list of potential witnesses. Maybe preliminary questioning just to set the scene would have the same low privacy priority. In any case, there is no reason to wonder about it. All I have to do to find out is ask.
Chase isn’t jabbering away like Lindsey and Trevor are. To them this is an interesting puzzle. Chase knows Carly, and this affects him a little more. He is serious, thinking about it, putting his full mind to it. When the other two stop talking for a moment, he says, “There might be other reports, too, that would help us see the entire picture of what happened. Like, I remember you told me they had your dad fill out a timeline of what he did that day—starting in the morning, everything he did, in sequence. Your mom did, too. Maybe Mrs. Banner made one. We could coordinate that information with what other people in the park saw. Can we get hold of those individual, personal timeline reports?”
“I’ll find out,” I tell him. I like the way he’s thinking about this. I’ve always liked that he’s as smart as he is—we’re pretty much a pair as far as that goes. I think it’s something that makes us a good match.
Lindsey says, “I just thought of something. I was supposing that I wanted to kidnap a toddler; I tried to put myself inside the head of someone like that, and, you know, figure out what I’d do in that situation after kidnapping a kid. What I came up with was that I couldn’t stick around the place where I’d kidnapped the kid. There’d be too much publicity, and I’d have a child I hadn’t had before, and people who knew me would wonder why I did, and with all that publicity, someone would be sure to figure it out. So I knew what I’d have to do: I’d move. I’d take the kid someplace else.
“So see, maybe we could find out if anyone in the park that day had moved soon after that day.”
“Hey, I think we could if we used that list,” Chase says, lighting up. “It has addresses on it of all the people in the park, the only ones who could have taken her. We can find out how many of them still are in Kinnessa and how many have moved.”
Lindsey’s excited. “Yeah, and then we could try to find out where the ones that moved went and maybe even check them out if they didn’t get too far away from Kinnessa.”
I’m excited too. “That’s a great idea!” I say. “That should be something we could do, the first part at least, and I don’t know if the cops have thought of that or not. You guys may be onto something.”
Then something else occurs to me. “Hey, you know, we need to write some of this stuff down. Can you get a pad of paper and a pen?”
She does, and I write down the ideas we’ve had. I like the idea of writing out a detailed account of just what happened when in the park, what bits have been verified by more than one witness, and what was only seen by one. And I like Lindsey’s idea a lot, along with Chase’s follow up. I really think we have somewhere to start, and a plan that actually might lead us somewhere.
Walking home that evening after spending the day with Lindsey and Trevor, Chase is uncharacteristically quiet. I glance at him to see if some of his depression might be affecting him again, but no, he’s standing up straight and walking along with me without lagging behind, and he doesn’t look vague or moody at all. He’s simply wrapped up in his own thoughts. His silence gives me the opportunity to think, and I spend a little time doing that.
I’m feeling something, something I haven’t felt for a while, and it takes me a moment to figure out what it is. But it comes to me. I’m feeling relaxed, and I’m in a good mood—the kind of good mood I used to have before Carly went missing and Mom left and Dad withdrew from me. Before we moved out here.
I was always a happy kid. I had a sense of well-being, something I haven’t felt for a long time. Now, I feel that again. I feel good both physically and mentally—much better than I have recently. I realize, right now, I am more aware of myself and my surroundings. I have been noticing the landscape around me: the woods on one side, the fields on the other, the rutted road, Chase walking easily beside me, everything. It seems like I’ve had tunnel vision recently, not seeing much of what’s there to see, not connecting with it. I have a quick thought: Dad’s doing the same thing, but even more so than I’ve been. I wonder, briefly, why? Why have I changed? What has caused it?
But I know. Instinctively, I know. I can feel the answer to why. It is because I’m doing something. About Carly. About my life. I’d been sitting on the sidelines, letting all this stuff happen to me, letting it cast a pall over me. Maybe I’d even been a little depressed like Chase has been. But then I’d had my awakening in the clearing in the woods, and that had been a beginning. Then Chase had arrived, and he’d got rid of his demons and was functioning again, and I’d had a part in that. I’d told off Detective Martinez and got him to stay out of my house, even to leave our porch, and not backed down when he’d gone ballistic on me. Now I am organizing something to help Carly. I really am doing something. I am working on helping Dad. I am getting my friends involved. I’m no longer just passing the time feeling sorry for myself, regretting being here, hating the house, the move. I’m now making things happen. Because of that, I have hope that something good will emerge, something will happen because I am going after it.
All that has affected my mood. I’m not letting the world just bounce me around like Lindsey does on the basketball court. Nope. The world isn’t dictating how things will be for me any longer. I’m doing something.