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The Beginning After by Kiersten Modglin (18)

Twenty-One

PEIGHTON

Clay drove like a madman through the streets, taking the turns Peighton directed him toward. At some point during their drive, he’d taken her hand, but Peighton couldn’t remember when. She held tightly to what Todd had jokingly called the “oh-shit” handle above her head in the truck, her eyes darting wildly around the town.

She dialed his number for the fifth time in their thirty-minute drive through Pawley’s Corner, leaving him another message. “Kyle, please, please call me back. I just want to hear your voice, son. I need to know that you’re okay.” She put the phone into the cup holder to her left, biting her lip. Where in the world could he be? She touched her free hand to the cool glass of the window, watching the condensation gather around her hand. “Why wouldn’t he be answering our calls?”

“I don’t know,” Clay answered softly.

“He has to know we’re worried sick. He’s all I have left. I can’t lose him.”

Clay rubbed his thumb along the bones of her hands. “I know. We’re going to find him.” Peighton looked at him, noticing how strangely tight his jaw was. He glanced at her, his eyes locking with hers for just a second before reverting to the road. “We’re going to find him,” he repeated.

Her phone rang, causing her to jump. She pulled her hand away from Clay quickly. It was Frank. “Hello?” she asked, her voice full of hope.

“It’s me,” he said. “The police are here. They’re going through Kyle’s stuff. They want to know when you saw him last.”

“It was the morning he came over to the house, when you brought him home.”

“That’s what I told them, but they wanted to hear it from you. You haven’t had any contact with him since?”

“No. I haven’t. I’ve tried calling him a few times, but he hasn’t wanted to talk to me.”

“Okay,” Frank said. “Where are you?”

“We’re out by the old movie theater. Kyle and his friends like to hang out down here sometimes, I thought maybe we’d see someone, but it’s completely abandoned tonight.”

“When are you coming back?”

“Soon.” Peighton sighed. “I’m running out of places to check. I want to run by his friend Jessica’s house next. We’ve checked all the houses of his friends from school other than her, the theater, the grocery store, and the high school. I don’t know where else he’d be.”

“Okay,” Frank said, “keep me posted.”

“I will,” she promised, hanging up the phone. “The police are with Frank,” she told Clay.

He nodded. “They’ll probably try to track his phone. If he’s made any phone calls lately, they may be able to find him pretty easily.”

“Couldn’t you just do that?”

“I don’t have the option of doing that with our relationship as, err, complicated as it is. It’s much simpler to let the other officers do their job.”

She nodded, pointing up ahead. “This road here.” He turned as she instructed, looking down the winding street. “There. The brown house.”

He slowed the truck to a stop in the small, paved driveway. “There’s a light on at the far end of the house. It looks like someone must be home.” She nodded, unable to speak.

She opened the truck’s door, hope and dread both filling her in a familiar way. Please. Please be here, she begged silently. He followed close behind her, though he didn’t dare touch her in fear of Kyle seeing them together. She made her way onto the porch, raising her fist apprehensively. After she had knocked, she stepped back, waiting.

After a few moments, she heard footsteps approaching the door. A pretty, heavyset woman swung open the door, her brown hair as perfectly curled as if she’d just finished it. She smiled kindly at Peighton. “Hello there. Can I help you?”

“We’re looking for Kyle.”

The woman gasped, clutching her hands in front of her. “You must be his mother! Oh, hello, I’m Joslyn DeLong. It’s so nice to meet you. Your son is such a little gentleman. It’s nice to have someone with some manners around here.” She held out her hand for Peighton to shake.

She shook her hand politely. “Could I see him, please?”

“Oh,” Joslyn replied. “I’m sorry, he’s not here right now. He hasn’t been over in a few days.”

“What?” Peighton asked, suddenly unable to catch her breath. “This was our last hope.”

“Is he missing?” Joslyn asked, a genuine look of concern on her face. “Oh, dear. Hang on just a second.” She closed the door slightly before yelling into the house. “Jessica! Get down here!”

Peighton pressed her lips together as the door opened once again. She heard more footsteps descending the small staircase just behind Joslyn. She saw the lime green tights and ripped mini skirt, the dark black gloves and tiny white top. It took everything in her power to keep a straight face as the girl she’d spent so long hating from a distance approached her.

“Yeah?” Jessica asked, staring at her mother.

“Jess, this is Ms. Claiborne, Kyle’s mother. She’s looking for Kyle. Have you heard from him today?”

Jessica’s eyes grew wide, staring at Peighton. “Uh…” she trailed off, obviously trying to come up with an answer.

“Jessica, it’s really important that we find Kyle, okay? We’re really worried about him. The police are looking for him. This is serious. So, if you know where he is…even if he’s asked you to cover for him…please just tell us.”

Her eyes darted from Peighton to her mother and back again.

“Jessica, do what she says. Have you talked to Kyle today?”

“No,” she said finally.

“Do you know where he might be?” Peighton asked again.

“No,” Jessica said softly, staring at her feet.

Clay stepped up, walking past Peighton. She watched Joslyn’s eyes dance across Clay’s broad, muscled shoulders poking through his white t-shirt before darting back to her daughter, her cheeks slightly flushed. “Excuse me, Jessica, hi, I’m Clay Nealson, I’m a police officer. Like Ms. Claiborne said, we’re all really worried about Kyle. Now, it could be that he’s just out with some friends being a teenager, and we all understand that. But, sweetie,” he stared at her until she looked up at him before continuing, “he could be hurt. He could be in trouble. I know he’s your friend and I know you don’t want anything bad to happen to him. He doesn’t even have to know you told us. We just need to find him, okay? We need to find him and make sure that he’s safe. Now, I’ll bet you can help us with that. What do you say?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I really haven’t talked to him today. He was over for a few minutes yesterday, but that was it.”

“Okay, was he with anyone else when he came over?” Clay asked.

“No,” she answered. “He was alone.”

“Did he seem okay? Was he worried, frustrated?”

“He was…mad at his mom. He kept complaining about you and some idiot cop.” She covered her mouth as soon as the words exited. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Clay went on without flinching. “Did he tell you what he was going to do? Did he say anything about running away? Disappearing for a few days? Maybe he just needed to clear his head.”

“No. He didn’t say anything like that.”

“Okay, now, Jessica…Kyle won’t answer any of our phone calls, but I’m betting he would answer yours.” She didn’t answer, twirling the cellphone in her hand mindlessly. “Would you mind giving him a call?”

“I don’t want him to get in trouble.”

“He’s not in trouble,” Peighton spoke up, her voice cracking. “He won’t be in trouble. Please, please just help us find him.”

Jessica nodded finally, typing a passcode into her phone and handing it over to Clay. “There’s his number. I’m not calling, and if he gets mad, I’m saying you forced me to call.”

“Thank you,” Clay and Peighton exclaimed at the same time, huddling over the phone. Clay clicked on his name, putting it on speakerphone.

On the third ring, his voice filled the line. “What’s up, loser?”

“Kyle?” Peighton called, tears soaking her cheeks already.

The line was silent.

“Kyle? Is that you?”

“Mom?” he asked, disgust in his voice.

“Yes, baby, it’s me. It’s Mom. Where are you?” she asked. There was no answer, though she could hear his quiet breaths through the line. “Kyle?” she asked again. Still nothing. “Kyle, please. Please just tell me that you’re safe. Tell me where you are so I can come get you.”

“I’m safe, Mom,” he said quietly, “but don’t come get me.” And with that, the line went dead.