I grip her hand tighter. “You have your instincts, Sissy. You are the most intuitive and grounded person I’ve ever known. Trust what your gut is telling you.”
She doesn’t say anything for a long time. With her other hand, she smooths the wrinkles of the duvet with hard, pressing strokes. “We need to figure out where that train takes us, Gene. I won’t let the boys get on until we find out. And I won’t let you get on, either.”
She holds my stare. The firelight flickers in her eyes. They seem uncharacteristically glazed and heavy-lidded. “We don’t have much time,” I say. “Less than two days.”
“I know,” she says, her words slightly slurred, as if dragged down by fatigue. “We’re missing something, aren’t we? An obvious clue, something really blatant.”
Minutes pass in a comfortable quiet. The sound of rain falling on the roof is drumlike and hypnotic, lulling my body into a strange slackening. The window is now reflective, and I catch our mirrored reflections in the glass, burnished-red firelight curling over us. For the first time in days, I see my face. It seems older now, the edges harder. I’m beginning to resemble my father even more.
A numbness settles on me. It doesn’t seem to fit the moment: in light of the paradigm-shattering news, and with the dilemma of whether we should board the train hovering over us, we should be pacing back and forth, our voices agitated and excited. Instead, we’re both slouched on the sofa, drifting away.
“Somehow it all comes down to my father,” I say, trying to awaken myself through conversation. “Find out what happened to him, and we find out where those train tracks lead. He’s the key to all of this.”
I think she’s going to say something in response. But when I turn to her, I see her eyelids have become further weighed down with tiredness, her head drooped to the side. She blinks hard, tries to stifle a yawn. “Hey,” she murmurs, staring at her empty bowl. “What was in that soup?” A wetness gleams in her eyes. She settles deeper into the sofa as if fusing with the leather.
Neither of us speak. The fire crackles and hisses. A heavy weight pushes me down, gently, but with insistence, into the sofa. It’s all I can do to resist that nudging pressure, to keep from crashing. The room starts to darken and swim, gray waves drifting to black puddles. I stare at Sissy’s emptied bowl of soup, and at mine, half-empty, the rims blurring. An alarm begins to ring in me, but it is far-off and muted.
“Gene?” Sissy mumbles softly.
She slides deeper into the sofa, her body slipping across the smooth leather to rest against me. Her soft flesh melds against the contours of my side. We feel like a perfect fit.
“What is it?” I ask.
For a long time, she doesn’t say anything and I think she’s finally drifted away. But then words murmur out, soft as the wings of a butterfly. “Don’t leave me, promise?” And her eyes close at that, her head slipping across the back of the sofa and down against my shoulder. I feel the flesh of her forehead against my neck, smooth and warm, the pulse of her neck against my collarbone.
Her lips part and small breaths puff gently out. She’s asleep now. I touch her face softly, my fingertips tracing her cheekbones, the tawny fur of her eyebrows. I touch her bangs, push them from her forehead.
Firelight flickers about the room like frenzied snakes. They are the color of Ashley June’s hair: a fiery, jealous red, swirling madly. All I can do is close my eyes against this assault of guilt. I caress Sissy’s arm, draped across my chest, back and forth, back and forth. Every stroke feels like a betrayal, a betrayal, a betrayal.
Slumber pulls me down with a swiftness that is a mercy.
I WAKE TO the sound of fat raindrops pelting the windowpane. It is pitch black outside now. The fire has been reduced to glowing embers and the room has turned cold. On the floor, cast aside like shed skin, lies the crumpled duvet.
Sissy is gone.
I place my hand on the still-indented sag in the sofa where she’d fallen asleep. The leather, cold. I stand up, the floorboards creaking in lockstep with my aching bones. The room spins, lurching backward then forward. Stumbling toward the bathroom, my legs kick into the coffee table, upending the earthenware bowls.
Cold water helps. I douse cupped handfuls into my hair, so much that when I raise my head, freezing rivulets course down my neck, chest, back. Alertness—and alarm—knife into me.
“Sissy!” I shout into the dark hallway outside the room, then again, louder, on the street outside. The downpour has driven everyone indoors; the streets are deserted. The ground has turned muddy with the rain, and imprinted in the sludge are large duck-footed boot prints. Too large to belong to the lotus feet of village girls, these must belong to adult men. Elders. At least three of them, by the look of it.
I follow the trail of boot prints. But it vanishes once I hit the cobblestone path. I glance up and down the street.
“Sissy!” I yell. Only the splatter of rain on cobblestone and thatched roofs answers my cry. I run toward the village square, through a murky gray. Usually the hub of activity, it is now emptied of movement, noise, even color, all vibrancy washed away. The cottage windows are shuttered like eyes shut tight.
“Sissy!” I shout again, now cupping my mouth. “Sissy!”
A door to one of the cottages swings open. A figure steps out, stands under a small awning. It’s Epap. His shirt, as if hurriedly put on, is unbuttoned halfway down. “What’s happened?” he says with a brooding glare. “Where’s Sissy?”
“She’s missing! Help me find her!”
It’s hard to read his expression. In the shadows he studies me, unwilling to step into the rain.
He shakes his head, once, twice, blinking slowly. He slinks back into the cottage, a retreat that betrays the grudge he’s still harboring against Sissy. I turn around, furious and disappointed in him. I’d hoped for more.
But then he’s flying out the door, putting on a hoodie, his feet splashing urgently through puddles of mud. He’s flung the hood over his head by the time he reaches me.
“Tell me what’s happened,” he demands. His eyes are stirring with concern.
“She pissed off the elders. And now they’ve taken her somewhere.”
His eyes swing to mine, searching for truth. “That’s crazy. Why would you think something like that?”
“They spiked the soup, knocked her out. I didn’t drink as much so—Look! Are you just going to ask me questions or are you going to help me find her? I think she’s in serious trouble.”
“Overreact much?” he snaps back, shaking his head. “They’ve been nothing but good to us. Why don’t you just relax and quit with the paranoia already?” One side of his mouth droops down. “What, you think just because Sissy’s not with you, it must necessarily mean she’s been abducted? It couldn’t be because, oh, I don’t know, because she simply doesn’t want to be with you?” He flings his arms into the rain, snorts. “You got me out into this lousy weather for this?”
I don’t have time to explain or for drama. I pivot around, considering which direction to take off.
Epap grabs my elbow. I turn, about to yank my arm away. But the look in his eyes stops me. “Wait,” he says. He exhales with deep frustration. “You really think something’s wrong?”
“How do you know this?”
“Epap, are you with me or not? I’m not going to waste time explaining.”
Something in him relents. “Let’s go find her,” he says.
And when I take off, he’s right there beside me, our legs spinning in tandem, mud splashing like tiny explosions at our feet.
* * *
But the empty streets and darkened cottages yield nothing. “Where is everyone?” Epap says, panting hard next to me when we stop. He leans against a cottage wall, doubled over and grabbing at his knees.
“C’mon,” I say, also trying to catch my breath. “Let’s keep looking.”
He nods, pushing off the wall. “Hold on,” he says and flicks his chin to our right.
A village girl, hooded, scurries out of a cottage. She surveys the empty street, then starts waddling toward us as fast as her lotus feet can manage.
Epap and I glance at one another, then hurry over to the girl. She stops, waits for us to reach her, nervously scans the street. As she grabs my arm and leads us into a narrow alleyway, her sleeve catches on mine, and is pushed up her arm. Four branding marks on the inside of her forearm. She pulls down her hood from her head. It’s the girl with freckles.
“It’s too late,” she whispers. “Go back to your cottages.”
“Where is she?” I demand. “Where have they taken her?”
“It’s over. You have nothing to gain by looking for her. But a lot to lose. For your own good—and hers—go back.”
“Is she okay? Has she been hurt?” Epap says, stepping forward.
“She’ll be returned in due time.”
I grab the girl’s arm, gently but firmly. She’s skinny and beneath the slight layer of flesh, her bone is hard and rigid. Intelligence swims in her eyes. “You came out here to help us,” I say. “So help us. Where is she?”
She hesitates. Then she whispers: “It’s already too late. But go to the clinic. You know where it is, yes?”
“The clinic?” Epap says. “I know where it is but why on earth do we have to go there?”
She pulls her arm away. “You’re too late.” She waddles away, disappearing into the same cottage from which she’d emerged earlier.
Epap’s face is scrunched together in confusion and growing panic. “The clinic?” He turns to me. “Gene, what’s going on?”
I don’t answer even though an awful suspicion spills into me. I take off, running harder than I have all night.
* * *
We’re completely winded by the time we reach the clinic but we waste little time. Epap bursts through the clinic door, leading with his shoulder. He sees something: his back stiffens like a puppet whose strings are suddenly jerked upward.