Cleo stood by the front door of her mom’s house and waited for whoever the cops were sending. Her mom was out there. Alone, cold, probably confused. She’s had an hour’s head start on Cleo. Even on foot, that was plenty of time to get lost in the woods. Maybe lose her footing and fall into the water. The ice could break, it was so thin.
She was crying now, tears hot on her face. She should be out there looking, she should be finding her mom, not waiting here uselessly while her mom was out there, scared and hurt.
With shaking hands, she called Olivia’s number. The phone rang once, then connected.
His name came out in a choked whimper. “Cleo?” Andrew said. “What’s wrong?”
“My mom’s gone,” she said. “I just got to her house and the door’s open and she’s gone.”
“Are the police coming?”
“Are you there now?”
“I’m on my way. Stay there.”
“Cleo, it’ll be okay.”
It was getting dark. “Yeah.”
“I’ll be right there.”
She hung up and started pacing again. The police still weren’t here. Why weren’t they here? Could they please just get here? Didn’t they care that her mom was out there alone?
Her phone rang, and she picked up without looking. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me.”
Edie’s voice was cheerful, a stark contrast to her panic. “My mom’s missing,” Cleo blurted out.
“She was gone when I got here. The police are coming but they’re not here yet.”
“She’s out there and it’s getting dark.”
She could hear traffic around Edie. They must have been driving home from work. “Do you want me to stay on the line with you?” Edie asked.
Cleo did, desperately. But she needed to leave the line open in case they called. She wasn’t sure that her service was good enough to let call waiting work. She told Edie as much and hung up.
Where were the police? How were they possibly not here yet? It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes now, but it felt like forty. She shivered and pulled her coat more tightly around herself. Was her mom wearing a coat? Probably not. She hadn’t been last time she’d wandered outside.
Oh God, Cleo should have done something then. She should have forced the issue, not just taken her mom’s word that she’d call Dr. Degas for help. She wouldn’t do it. Cleo had known she wouldn’t do it, and now her mom was probably dead somewhere in the woods.
The car was still sitting in the driveway, empty. It was clean, almost too clean for something that was theoretically used every day. Was she going to work every day? Did this ever happen at work? What if she’d gotten fired for not showing up and forgotten to tell Cleo? And now she was out wandering the woods and…and…
The sound of a car roaring onto her mother’s road broke Cleo out of her panic spiral. She looked up, expecting the police.
Instead, it was Noah’s truck. He was alone inside as he pulled over and rolled down the window.
“Any word?” he asked.
Cleo blinked. “Um, no,” she said. “Noah, what-”
“Alright, Andrew and Liv are right behind me,” Noah said. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”
His eyes were clear and his tone was all business as he looked at her, waiting for an answer. But it was hard to get the words out as the shock of seeing him mixed into the fear she was already steeped in.
“No,” Cleo admitted. “I talked to her a little over an hour ago and she was at home. But the back door was open and her coat was inside.”
Noah thought for a second. “Okay,” he said. “Listen, Andrew and Liv will be here in a minute. I’m going to go toward the woods by the town line and start looking in there. You stay here. Is anyone coming?”
“Um, the cops.”
“They’re not here yet?”
She shook her head and Noah rolled his eyes. “Typical,” he muttered.
Olivia’s car pulled onto the street just then, pulling up behind Noah. She stopped her car, then she and Andrew got out of the front seat and raced over to Cleo. Andrew got there first and threw his arms around her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
She shook her head again and Andrew gripped her tightly. “We’ll find her,” he said. “I promise.”
“I’m going to go look in the woods on the east side of town,” Noah said.
Cleo nodded. “The dispatcher told me to wait here.”
“Yeah, do that,” Olivia said. “If she comes back here first, you should be here.”
“I’ll start knocking on doors,” Andrew said. “Maybe one of her neighbors saw something.”
He gave her one last squeeze, then let go. The cold air rushed back in between them and the hopelessness Cleo had been feeling returned at full blast.
“I’ll start heading toward the other end of town,” Olivia said. “Maybe I can spot her on the main roads. Let the police know what we’re doing. I’m sure they’ll have people out to search too.”
Noah drove off without another word, peeling out of the mobile home park. Cleo stared as his taillights turned into the fading light. Olivia squeezed her arm, and Cleo turned to her.
“Do you want me to stay with you until the police get here?”
Yes. Yes, she did. So much. But that meant one less person looking for her mom, who was alone and cold. “No,” Cleo said. “No, I’m fine. She’s the one who needs help.”
Olivia looked like she wanted to argue, but instead, she gave Cleo a tight hug. Andrew had already walked off, heading toward the neighbor on the other side of her mother’s trailer. Cleo could see that Olivia was nervous, but she also recognized when her friend was trying to push that aside.
“I’ll be back,” Olivia said.
She slid into her car and drove away, leaving Cleo standing outside her mom’s house.
Noah slowed his truck as he got to the town line. The sun was almost completely set now and as he got out of the car, a sharp wind cut through his leather jacket. He shivered, then looked into the woods with apprehension.
He didn’t know how she would have ended up here, but it seemed likely that if she was in town, but wasn’t on the roads, she would have ended up in the woods. And since he hadn’t seen her on his way over here and Liv had texted to say she wasn’t on the roads on the other side of New Winslow, that was probably what had happened.
His phone buzzed and he pulled it out of his pocket, hoping for good news.
Cops are here. Starting search party.
Good. The more bodies out here looking, the better.
Thx. Heading into woods. Iffy service meet back at cleos
It took a long moment for the text to go through as he looked through his back seat for the flashlight that was always there. As he straightened back up, he noticed a car slowing down beside him. It stopped and the passenger side window rolled down.
“Excuse me,” the driver called.
Noah went back around to the front of the truck. “Yeah?”
“Sorry, I’m looking for a mobile home park somewhere in town. Am I heading in the right direction?”
In the dark car, he could see the driver had a bobbed haircut and a sharp jawline, but nothing else. “Yeah,” he said again, pointing down the road. “Go about two miles that way, then take a left. Little ways down that road you’ll see it.”
“Thanks so much.”
He nodded and the driver took off. Hitting the flashlight a couple of times, Noah got it working.
Fuck, it was cold. Noah had thin gloves and a hat, but it didn’t keep all the cold out as he stepped into the dark woods. There were no set paths here, but it wasn’t like he’d never been in these woods before. So he started walking forward, shining the flashlight through the trees as he went.
“Mrs. Rodriguez?” he called, feeling a little foolish. “Can you hear me?”
Nothing but the sound of his own footsteps crunching on the half-frozen dirt. The bare trees ahead filtered the thin remaining light, the last brown leaves of the season dangling off of them. Noah brushed a fir branch out of his face as he pushed deeper into the woods. His wrist throbbed as he did so, but he ignored it.
That would heal. He needed to focus right now.
It had to be almost zero right now with the wind chill. He knew that Cleo’s mom had some health issues, but would she have thought to grab a coat before she left? Or was she out here in the elements with no protection?
Glancing backward, Noah couldn’t see his truck anymore. Just the dark trees swallowing any sign of the town he’d just left.