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Called Home Chapters 1-3

Chapter 1

Monday evening

Office of Bedrock Force, LLP

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

 

Dahlia Truewind’s hands shook.

 

Her shakiness wasn’t exactly a surprise. After all, if anyone caught her taking pictures of Ms. Markham’s papers, she’d be in a world of trouble. Definitely fired. Probably arrested. And maybe even …

 

She stopped herself before her imagination got away from her. Bedrock Force might be a military contractor, but last time she checked, she was still an American citizen, with rights and protections.

 

A lot of good that had done Mercy.

 

She shook her head.

Stop it, already. Get the pictures and get out of here.

She steadied the phone and waited for the camera app to focus. She captured the images as fast as she could. She couldn’t risk checking to see if they were blurry, or legible, or upside down. Just click, flip to the next sheet in the stack, and click, flip again.

She wished she could make copies, but those would be way harder to sneak out of the building. Anyway, she wasn’t even sure these papers were relevant. But all she could do was take a picture of everything she could find that was in any way related to the protestor camp.

You can jump off that bridge when you come to it, as Mom would say. For now, focus on getting this done.

Her mouth was dry. She worked up enough saliva to swallow then slid the sheets back into their folder, popped the folder into the filing cabinet, and turned the small key to lock it. She’d been in here long enough. It was time to replace the key in its hiding spot under Ms. Markham’s mouse pad and get out of the office before she ran into the cleaning crew.

 

She’d had one close call already with the nighttime cleaners. She couldn’t risk another.

 

She spared a final look to confirm she’d left the office as she’d found it. Close enough.

 

Her eyes fell on the small, rectangular device sitting on the corner of Ms. Markham’s desk. No need for Ms. Markham to squirrel that thing away. The rugged titanium case held a military-grade, encrypted satellite-communications transmission unit. Dahlia was sure it held all the secrets. But it was unbreakable in every sense of the word. And if it disappeared …. A shiver ran along her spine.

 

Forget the sat-comm unit. It’s too risky.

 

She stepped out into the hall then pulled the office door shut behind her and gave it a yank to make sure the lock had engaged.

 

She pocketed her phone and crossed the open workspace she shared with three other people. Her heart hammered in her chest. She passed her own cubicle, slowing just long enough to grab her purse.

 

She stopped at Marcus Swanson’s workstation. Ms. Markham’s Number Two, the deputy manager. She opened the shallow pencil tray under his desk and slid the spare key card to Ms. Markham’s office into the rectangular slot where he kept it. She closed the tray with two fingers, silent and fast.

 

She walked as quickly as she could, forcing herself not to break into a run. She made a beeline for the emergency stairwell. Once the exit door swung closed behind her, she gave up the pretense of looking casual and flat out ran. She didn’t stop or slow her pace until she reached the downtown bus depot.

Chapter 2

Tuesday morning

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church

Walnut Bottom, Pennsylvania

Aroostine Higgins stood, dry-eyed and straight-backed. A single pane of blue glass was the only item in her world. The thin rectangle formed the cuff of the Virgin Mary’s left sleeve in the stained glass panel that hung above the altar of Saint Matthew’s Church, where generations of Jackmans had worshipped from birth to death.

 

Death.

 

She took a shuddering breath and stared harder at the gleaming cerulean glass. The very worst mistake she could make right now would be to allow her gaze to fall from the stained glass image to the heavy, dark box centered beneath the window.

 

Some hazy, self-protective corner of her brain believed that so long as she didn’t look at the coffin, she wouldn’t have to accept that Joe was inside it. By refusing to look at it, she could pretend any body—or no body at all—was inside.

 

After all, the lid was closed. And that burnt and mangled body wasn’t Joe, anyway. It was a husk.

 

Joe was sitting on the bank of the creek behind their house or resting in the long grass in the meadow where they’d said their vows or lingering in his workshop, redolent with the smell of fresh cedar. He wouldn’t hang around a cavernous stone building filled with hushed voices and sad faces.

 

The organist began to play. Aroostine closed her eyes so the melody could wash over her.

 

Big mistake.

 

Instantly, she saw the grainy image that materialized every time she closed her eyes. First on-the-scene footage broadcast by the local ABC affiliate—a twisted, burning truck. Joe trapped in the crumpled passenger side of his buddy Brent’s pickup.

 

Gil Crane, a long-haul driver on his way to Kentucky, had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of a semi tractor-trailer. He’d careened across two lanes of highway and smashed into Joe and Brent.

 

She told herself the impact of the collision had probably killed Joe and Brent before the pickup slammed into the bridge support and burst into flames. She hoped it was true.

 

The sound of crying competed with the music. To Aroostine’s left, Joe’s mom Dottie hyperventilated, taking fast, shallow breaths. To her right, her own adoptive mother sobbed loudly, tears streaming freely down her lined face. Her father and Joe’s stood at the two ends of the pew, strong arms wrapped around their wives, whispering soothing words. In the center of the row, Aroostine felt both surrounded and, at the same time, utterly alone.

 

The minister was talking about Joe now. How he’d died as he’d lived—helping others. He’d been in the truck because he was going to give Brent a hand with tightening down some loose floorboards in his new house.

 

‘Why don’t you make some soup?’ Joe’d suggested as he waited for Brent to pick him up. ‘I’ll stop for a loaf of fresh bread. I won’t be long. After dinner, you can beat me at Scrabble, as usual.’

 

They would be the last words he’d said to her. Then he’d flashed his gentle, lopsided smile, planted a kiss on her forehead, and walked out of the house forever.

 

She’d finally turned off the burner under the stockpot at ten o’clock and had taken Rufus out for his last walk of the evening. As she’d stepped outside, the wail of sirens had filled the night air.  They’d come from every direction, fast and loud. And that was when she’d known: Joe was gone.

 

She heard a soft keening. It took a long moment to realize the noise was coming from her. She pressed her knuckles against her mouth, blocked out the pastor’s words, and pushed back against the wave of aching loneliness that crashed over her. She blinked hard then fixed her eyes on the illuminated glass.

 

* * *

 

Aroostine shifted on the cold metal chair and cast a miserable look around the basement social hall. Mourners clomped dutifully down the metal stairs from the church’s narthex in groups of twos and threes, letting out grateful sighs as the air-conditioned interior replaced the humid outside air.

 

She scrunched up her forehead and tried to remember how she’d gotten from the gravesite to the church basement. Her mind was fuzzy. Blank. They had buried him, right?

 

The air was thick. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest was tight. She dug her fingernails into her palms to see if she could feel it. A quick, sharp, jab. She exhaled shakily.

 

Her father extricated himself from a conversation with Joe’s Aunt Lorna and appeared at Aroostine’s elbow.

 

“How’re you holding up, pet?”

 

“I’m okay.” Her voice came out dry, a croak. She half-expected to see a cloud of dust puff out of her mouth with the words.

 

She wondered idly if she was losing her grip on reality. From the sideways look her dad gave her, she wasn’t the only one.

 

“Let’s get you something to eat.”

 

She shook her head.

 

“A drink, then. Iced tea, or some water.”

 

“Dad, no. I don’t want anything. I’m fine.”

 

She was very far from fine, and they both knew it. He clasped a hand on her shoulder. She kept her eyes on the white plastic material that covered the table in front of her.

 

“Aroostine, look at me.”

 

She dragged her eyes away from the tablecloth.

 

“You’re going to get through this.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You will. I promise. The hardest part’s over.”

 

“Burying him’s not the hardest part. Not even close to it.”

 

The hardest part came every morning.

 

Still half-asleep, stirring to wakefulness, she scooted toward Joe’s side of the bed to burrow into his solid back, feel his warm breath on her neck. The cold sheets and empty bed were her daily reminder: Joe was gone and she was alone.

 

“Roo, I’m so sorry. It’ll get better. You’ll see.”

 

He looked as hopeless as she felt. She managed a smile to let him off the hook. He squeezed her shoulder.

 

“Go ahead and fix yourself a plate.” She nodded toward the long table near the door to the kitchen.

 

A row of heavy-duty aluminum serving dishes lined the table. Members of the ladies’ auxiliary were stationed behind the dishes, ladles, tongs, and serving forks and spoons in hand, ready to dish out ziti and sauce, green beans, fried chicken, and the full complement of mayonnaise-based salads.

 

He searched her face for a few seconds then nodded and joined the line of people queuing up for lunch. As he walked away, Dottie and her mother swooped in as if the Higgenses and Jackmans had a prearranged agreement not to leave her alone.

 

“Aren’t you going to eat?” her mother asked, drawing her eyebrows together in a worried vee.

 

“I’m really not hungry.”

 

It would be easier to simply fill a plate with food and use it as a shield to ward off well-meaning questions, but she knew she couldn’t stomach the smell of food. Not now.

 

“Vicky Palmer made her macaroni and cheese,” Dottie ventured. “She said you always loved it.” She twisted a crumpled, mascara-stained tissue in her right hand.

 

Aroostine looked from her mother’s face, taut with concern, to her mother-in-law’s face, etched with pain, and surrendered.

 

“Sure. Sounds great.”

 

She followed them across the room to the buffet line. She let her mind drift away from the beige room.

 

Up the stairs, out the door, and down the crushed stone path that led from the edge of the parking lot to the woods behind the graveyard. The trees would be full of chittering birds, not yet ready to migrate but starting to make preparations to fly south soon. Late summer wildflowers would be in full, but fading, bloom. The squirrels would …

 

Her mother and Dottie were watching her with twin expectant expressions. They were waiting for an answer of some sort. If only she knew the question.

 

Crap.

 

“Maybe?”

 

Was maybe a reasonable response? She tried to gauge their reactions. Dottie furrowed her forehead. Her mother pursed her lips.

 

Try again.

 

“Um, I mean …”

 

“You have no idea what Dottie said, do you?” her mother said in a gentle voice.

 

“No, I don’t. I’m sorry—I wasn’t listening.”

 

“We know,” Dottie said. “You can’t withdraw into yourself, Aroostine. You’re so young. Maybe you want to go to Pittsburgh for awhile—stay with Sasha and her husband?”

 

“Or back to D.C.,” her mother suggested. “Your friend Rosie from the Department of Justice said she has a guest room with your name on it.”

 

“What? No. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Were they trying to get rid of her?

 

The two older women exchanged a look.

 

“Not for good, honey,” her mother hurried to clarify. “But to get some breathing space. What’s here for you—aside from memories?”

 

She blinked. “I don’t know, my family? My house? I could quit the Office of Tribal Affairs and reopen my practice. This town could use a few more lawyers.”

 

“Of course, we love having you nearby. It’s just … you and Joe were way out there in the country. It’s so isolated. You’ll be lonely.”

 

Aroostine jutted out her jaw. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

 

Her mother sighed. “That’s the problem, Aroostine. You’re too self-sufficient. People need connections. Community.”

 

Dottie bobbed her head in agreement.

 

Aroostine caught her lower lip between her teeth. They had to be kidding. She didn’t want connections. She wanted to be left alone with her shapeless grief. Tears welled up behind her eyes. She returned her plate to the stack at the end of the table.

 

“Excuse me,” she mumbled.

 

She rushed through the swinging metal door into the bright, tiled kitchen. One of the ladies from the auxiliary was reaching into the refrigerator. She twisted around, startled.

 

“Thank you … for everything,” Aroostine called to her as she hurried through the kitchen and out the back door.

 

She kept running, through the playground and basketball court and past the storage shed, until she reached the edge of the woods.  The heels of her low black pumps sank into the soft earth. She slowed to a walk. The leaves of a tall oak tree rustled in the breeze. She turned her face toward the tree, and the wind lifted her hair off her neck.

 

And then, finally, she cried.

Chapter 3

When the wake finally ended, Aroostine convinced her parents to drop her at the end of the long driveway, out by the road. She pretended not to see their worry and sadness as she hopped out of the car.

 

She trudged down the gravel driveway. Rufus was staying with Dottie and Chuck. So she had no dog to take care of. No one to tend to. Nothing to do and nowhere to be.

 

She could go inside, burrow under the marriage quilt that covered the bed she and Joe had shared, and sleep forever. Or stare up at the bedroom ceiling and ignore the world that somehow continued to spin on its axis even though her heart was hollowed out.

 

As the driveway curved to the right and the old farmhouse came into view, she narrowed her eyes. Someone was sitting on her porch. No, two someones.

 

Irritation sparked from somewhere within her cocoon of sadness and she steeled herself for what was to come. A well-meaning friend or neighbor or distant relative of Joe’s who hadn’t been able to come to the funeral service would press a casserole dish and a notecard with reheating instructions into her hands. There would be concerned comments about her listlessness, a suggestion that she go back to work, join a club, start a project. The only thing was, she couldn’t think of anyone in Walnut Bottom who hadn’t already made his or her overture.

 

And her out-of-town friends had already come and gone. Sasha and Leo and the twins had spent the first, long empty weekend with her, filling the dead silence of the house with noise and activity. Rosie and Mitch had driven in for the funeral and were probably halfway back to D.C. by now. Her old boss Sid had sent a fruit basket. Her current boss Grace had turned up at the farmhouse one afternoon with a bottle of brandy and a pep talk. The brandy had left her cotton-mouthed and fuzzy-headed. The pep talk had barely registered.

 

There was no one left to call on her.

 

She reached the end of the walkway and squinted at the sun-dappled front porch.

 

Was that Carole Orr?

 

It was possible she was hallucinating. Carole was the tribal judge for the Chinook Tribe, thousands of miles away in Oregon. She couldn’t be sitting in one of the pair of matching rocking chairs Joe had made for her birthday. And yet, there she was. Tall and slim, with the posture of an Egyptian queen. Long silver hair flowing down her back. Chunky silver jewelry. Unmistakably Carole. Someone from the Office of Tribal Affairs must have told her about Joe.

 

Aroostine drew near the porch and flicked her eyes to the other rocking chair. The other person wasn’t sitting in it, but in front of it—in a wheelchair. Another woman. Native. Glossy hair plaited and hanging over one shoulder. She was older than Aroostine but younger than Carole. She’d didn’t know this woman. But she looked like hell. Her unlined face was sallow, blue-black half-circles ringed her red-rimmed eyes. Her lips were chapped and peeling. And when her eyes met Aroostine’s, they crackled with anguish—and something else. Anger.

 

A shock of recognition tore through her. This stranger, whoever she was, looked exactly how she felt.

 

“Carole.”

 

She squared her shoulders and braced for the well-worn words of condolence that were about to come from Carole’s mouth.

 

Instead, she said, “We need your help.”

 

Not ‘I’m so sorry,’ or ‘The good always die young,’ or even ‘He’s in a better place.’

 

“Pardon?”

 

“I said, I need your help. Actually, Janice does.” Carole nodded toward the other woman, who kept her eyes pinned on Aroostine.

 

She fumbled for an answer as she mounted the steps to the porch. “I’m afraid you’ve come a long way for nothing. I’m taking personal leave.  I’m not working.”

 

“I heard.” Carole appraised her dispassionately. “You look terrible.”

 

“Joe died.”

 

“I heard that, too.”

 

“Then what are you doing here?”

 

“Joe’s no longer among the living, but you are. It’s time to live. We need you.”

 

“I can’t help you. I told you, I’m out on leave—I’m not even sure I’m going back.”

 

“What will you to do for the rest of your days, then?”

 

Aroostine shrugged. According to the insurance agent, the settlement money from the trucking company would mean she wouldn’t need to answer to that question for a long while, maybe not ever.

 

“I’m sorry Joe’s gone. He was a good man. I’m glad to have known him. But this—what you’re doing, sleepwalking through life—is wrong.”

 

“Wrong?”

 

“That’s right. You can help us. So you should.”

 

Aroostine glanced at the other woman, this Janice. She sat immobile and unblinking, staring hard at her. “Do you  and your friend want to come in?”

 

“Why don’t we stay out here for a bit? The fresh air’ll do you good. We can take a walk or sit here on your porch.”

 

She thought for a long moment, wondering if she had the nerve to tell Carole Orr to get lost. A weight settled on her shoulders. The answer was no, she didn’t.

 

“Let’s walk, then.”

 

She helped Carole guide Janice’s wheelchair down the cement steps wondering how she’d managed to get up onto the porch in the first place. After they settled the chair on the path, she led her unwanted guests around to the back of the house, to the trail that followed the creek. She and Carole walked in silence. Janice bumped over the uneven ground, also in silence.

 

When they reached the clearing with the two big, smooth boulders that jutted out over the water, Aroostine lowered herself to the one on the right. Carole settled on the other. Janice parked right next to it and engaged her hand brake.

 

“Peaceful,” Carole remarked.

 

“Joe used to call these rocks our luxury waterfront property.” She tucked her knees up close to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees.

 

“Have you talked to him?”

 

Carole’s voice was so low Aroostine almost didn’t hear the question.

 

“To Joe?”

 

“Yes.”

 

She glanced at Janice, who was staring mutely at the shimmering water. Then she shook her head no.

 

She spoke to her dead grandfather regularly. And to her spirit animal. But not Joe—her husband had been White. He didn’t share her traditions. Just as his rituals—the prayers and the shovels full of dirt over the box in the earth—held no meaning for her.

 

Carole went on, “He’s connected to you; the same way you’re connected to the earth, and the sky, and the water. If you look for his spirit, I think you’ll find it.”

 

Aroostine made a small sound that could have meant anything. “Why are you here?”

 

“There’s a missing woman. Barely more than a girl,” Carole explained.

 

“Dahlia.” Janice’s voice broke on the name.

 

Aroostine searched her memory, trying to match the name with the Chinook people she’d met during her visit to Oregon. She came up empty. “I don’t think I met her.”

 

“You wouldn’t have. She’s Lakota. Out of South Dakota.”

 

Aroostine flashed her a puzzled look.

 

“She worked for me last year—for my restorative justice program. She’s a smart girl—sorry, young woman. Level-headed. Passionate. Wanted to save the world. She reminds me of a younger version of you.”

 

Aroostine managed a sad smile. “Funny. She sounds like a younger you to me.”

 

“She’s my daughter,” Janice said, turning away from the creek to face Aroostine. “And she wouldn’t run off. Something happened to her. I know it.”

 

Carole dug into her colorful woven shoulder bag and pulled  out a manila folder. She gripped it two-handed. “Nobody knows how many Native women and girls are missing right now. The tribal police, the local police, even your Department of Justice are slow to respond. Or they throw up their hands and say, sorry, we can’t find her. Eventually, if a family’s very lucky, a body will turn up. Could take years. Without hard numbers, I’ve heard estimates as high as a thousand.”

 

“A thousand missing women?”

 

“Could be more. Who really knows? The numbers are underreported. You know we’re considered less-than. A single mother, a drug addict, a wild girl. We’re not worth as much as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed angel from a good family. We’re dirt.”

 

Aroostine bristled.

 

Carole rested the folder in her lap and held up a hand to ward off the protest. “Don’t bother defending the system. Do you think over a thousand white girls would go missing without so much as a peep? There’d be Congressional inquiries, task forces, hour-long television specials. People would be rioting in the streets.”

 

“Surely the Office of Tribal Affairs—”

 

“Oh, they’re working on it—as only your federal government can. They piloted an electronic database for filing the reports. No doubt so the investigators can avoid a trip out to Indian Country. But, of course, only a fraction of tribes actually have the terminals they need to transmit the reports—and the tribes have to pay for the terminals and the access. Nobody can afford that. Not unless they’ve got a casino or an active drilling operation pulling in money.”

 

She nodded. It was a common theme—bureaucratic incompetence and insensitivity compounded problems on the reservations rather than solving them. Her position as Office of Tribal Affairs liaison was an attempt to put a Band-Aid on the gaping wound.

 

“Do you want me to reach out to Grace and Sid? I will, of course—but, to be honest, you have way more pull with Justice and with Tribal Affairs than I do.”

 

“No, you’re right. I have plenty of experience navigating the system. I don’t need someone to guide me through the maze of federal dysfunction. And right now, Dahlia Truewind’s case doesn’t involve the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Main Justice.”

 

“Then … I don’t understand. Why are you here?” Aroostine searched her mind through her fog of fatigue and grief but couldn’t come up with a single thing she could do to help Dahlia’s mother.

Carole pierced her with a long, cool look. “We need a tracker.”

 

* * *

Aroostine reread the slim file on Dahlia Truewind. Again. She slapped the folder shut and dropped it on the table.

 

She glanced into the kitchen. Carole and Janice were putting together a meal she knew she wouldn’t be able to choke down. Janice preheated the oven to reheat one of the casseroles she’d dug out from the mountain of foil-covered dishes stacked tight in the freezer. Carole chopped vegetables she’d gathered from the neglected garden for a salad. They both looked reasonable enough, but they were deluded.

 

She was in no position to hunt down Dahlia.  Her ability to track a deer through the woods qualified her in no way to find a missing person.

 

Not to mention, there was an excellent chance Dahlia didn’t want to be found. She was nineteen years old. Still a teenager, true. But, as far as the State of South Dakota was concerned, an adult. A young adult, who, by all accounts, had a strained relationship with her single mother. She’d broken up with her long-time boyfriend, moved off the reservation, and enrolled in college in Sioux Falls—six hours and several hundred miles away.

 

But, up until a week ago, she’d called her mother, dutifully, every Sunday. After the first missed call, Janice had texted her. No response. By Tuesday, after a series of unanswered telephone calls and unreturned texts, she’d called the college. An administrator told her Dahlia had withdrawn from classes after the second week of the semester—more than a month earlier. She’d moved out of campus housing and had left no forwarding address.

 

She’d been lying to her mother during their weekly chats, prattling on about classes that she wasn’t taking, parties she’d gone to with roommates that didn’t exist. Aroostine suspected the lying had gotten to be too much for her, and she’d decided to make a clean break with her past.

 

But Janice, unable or unwilling to accept that Dahlia wanted nothing to do with her, had convinced herself that something had happened to her. The fact that she’d also managed to convince Carole was somewhat surprising. The judge had one of the sharpest legal minds Aroostine had encountered. But, then, deep down, she was a softie.

 

The specifics didn’t matter, Aroostine reminded herself, because she wasn’t going to go looking for Dahlia. She wasn’t a private investigator.  She was a widow. A raw and empty widow. For all Carole’s wisdom and insight, the judge had gotten it wrong this time—Aroostine couldn’t help. Hot tears welled behind her eyes.

 

The timer dinged. The casserole was ready. She pushed the folder aside and went to the kitchen to fill three water glasses.

 

“Sorry, I don’t have anything else to drink.” She placed one of the glasses by Carole’s plate.

Janice took hers in her hand. “Water’s great. Thanks.”

 

Carole filled their plates with Belinda Roland’s chicken and ziti bake. Janice dug in immediately. But Carole toyed with her fork for a moment then dropped it on her plate with a faint ding.

 

She put her forearms on the table and leaned toward Aroostine. “Listen ….”

 

Even though Aroostine had left her appetite on the other side of Joe’s death, she shoveled a forkful of salad into her mouth. She’d eat as much as she needed to avoid discussing Carole’s wild plan.

 

“Mmm?”

 

“Dahlia needs you.”

 

“Mmm hmm,” she mumbled noncommittally around the salad greens.

 

Carole narrowed her eyes. They ate in silence for a few moments.

 

Then she abandoned her fork again. “Where was Joe going when the accident happened?”

 

Aroostine took a long drink of water before answering. “To help a friend nail down some loose floorboards.”

 

“That sounds like Joe.”

 

Anger flared in Aroostine’s belly. “You didn’t really know him that well.”

 

“Maybe not. I knew him well enough to know he helped people in need,” Carole countered in a mild tone.

 

Aroostine breathed in through her nose, out through her nose, repeated it, then answered, “There’s a difference between lending someone a hand with a home improvement project and taking off on a cross-country hunt for a missing woman.”

 

“It’s just a matter of degree.”

 

“A matter of degree?”

 

“Right.”

 

“She could be anywhere. She could be in Canada—or Mexico.”

 

“Could be. She could be in Norway. But she’s probably somewhere in South Dakota. That’s her last known location. And it’s a vast, sparsely populated state. Easy to get lost there.”

 

Aroostine cleared her throat. She glanced sidelong at Janice, who was staring down at her plate.

 

“What if she has a good reason to be lost? Maybe she just wants a fresh start.”

 

“She might. Don’t you think her mother deserves to know that?”

 

“She’s an adult.”

 

Janice snapped her head up. “Look, if you find her and she doesn’t want you to tell me where she is, don’t. Just let me know she’s alive—and not hurt or being held somewhere against her will. Please.” Her chin wobbled, but her voice was strong.

 

Aroostine stabbed at a carrot round.

 

“And what if she’s not alive—or well? What if she’s been murdered? Or went for a hike, broke both ankles, and died of dehydration? What if she’s addicted to drugs, living in an alley?”

 

“Her mother deserves to know that, too. Knowing is always better. Always.” Carole answered right way, sure of herself. Janice said nothing.

 

They lapsed back into silence. The only sound was the faint clink of forks against china.

 

“What about you, Janice? Are you sure you want to know, no matter what?” Aroostine pressed.

 

The woman sipped her water. She placed the glass back on the table with a steady hand then fixed her eyes on Aroostine’s. “I do.”

 

“I’m not saying I’m going to do this. But if I did, you’d have to be really sure you want to know.”

 

“I want to know.” Janice shot out the words as if they were made of steel. Then she raised her hands to cradle her face. “My mother disappeared when I was fourteen. We never found her. I’ll live the rest of my life not knowing what happened to her. I can’t live not knowing what happened to my girl. I can’t.”

 

Aroostine reached across the table and covered the woman’s hand with her own. Carole caught her eye and gave her a knowing look.

 

Aroostine stared back at her and thought as hard as she could, hoping Carole would read the words in her eyes: I can sit with this woman in the depth of her pain because I’m living in a pit of pain of my own. That doesn’t mean I’m going on a cross-country search for her daughter.

 

Carole’s eyes didn’t waver. Aroostine was sure their message was, Wanna bet?

 

But Carole was wrong about this. She was wrong about her.

**********

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