The tiny cabin Claire O’Toole’s mother had once used for painting had been shut up for years. Claire was the only one who came here, and even she didn’t return all that often, maybe once every six months or so.
Braced for the torrent of memories that hit her every time she walked inside, she tucked her long curly hair behind her ears and forced open a door warped from weathering too many Montana winters. Before she crossed the threshold, however, she looked behind her, suddenly feeling as if she might not be as alone as she’d thought.
A gentle wind swayed the pine trees. She could hear the rustle as it traveled through the surrounding forest, but she couldn’t actually see movement. She couldn’t see anything at all, except for what fell inside the beam of her flashlight. There were no city lights up here, no glassy lake to reflect the moon’s glow as there was closer to town, nothing but thick forest carpeted with pine needles, cloaked with darkness and topped with a canopy of stars.
No one was sneaking up behind her. How silly of her to even check. There were other cabins in these mountains, but only one in the same vicinity. Her parents had owned it as well this studio from when they first married to the summer before she started school. Then they sold the main house so they could move to town. It’d changed hands a few times since. She used to like visiting there, too. She could still remember her mother cooking in that kitchen, the little tree house her stepfather had built in the backyard.
But Isaac Morgan owned it now, so she stayed clear. Avoiding the old home minimized the number of times she and Isaac ran into each other. That he was immersed in filming wildlife all around the world and was gone so often helped, too. Although he lived closest to the studio, she couldn’t imagine any reason he’d be lurking in the trees. They were too busy trying to prove to each other that what they’d had ten years ago had been as easy to leave behind as it should’ve been.
So who else could it be? Her sister, her stepfather and his wife, her best friend and her best friend’s sheriff husband–nearly every one of Pineview’s 1,500 residents—were watching Fourth of July fireworks in the city park across the street from the cemetery. She could hear the distant boom of each explosion, smell the smoke that drifted up against the mountain.
No one had noticed when she slipped away.
Drawing a bolstering breath, she turned back and focused on the dusty interior. Cast-off furniture from her father, her father’s wife and her maternal grandparents crowded the living room. Cobwebs hung from the rafters; rat droppings littered the floor. Pack rats built nests everywhere in this part of the state, even in the engines of cars.
This wasn’t the magical place it’d been when she was a child. The good memories had been conquered and overrun, broken by tragedy, but she returned anyway. She couldn’t ignore its existence and move on, like everybody else. Invariably, the past dragged her back.
As she stepped inside, she paused to listen. She’d expected silence. But she could hear the engine of her old Camaro ticking as it cooled in the overgrown drive. Then a creak, coming from the loft above. When other creaks followed, it almost sounded as if her mother was walking around up there like she used to.
Obviously, Claire’s imagination was kicking into overdrive, reacting to the isolation and the spookiness of coming here after dark.
Or maybe it was her subconscious, trying to get her out before she could come across something that disrupted what little peace of mind she had left. Her mother had been missing for fifteen years and in all that time they’d never found a trace of her. Her sister had broken her back sledding two years later and been confined to a wheelchair. And David, her husband, had died only one year ago in a terrible hunting accident. She couldn’t tolerate another loss.
And yet she kept digging for the truth.
What if she found out her stepfather had killed her mother as so many others believed? Or what if her mother had run off with another man, willingly left them for a new life somewhere else, as the previous sheriff had suggested?
She’d be devastated. Again. But she couldn’t accept either of those possibilities. Her stepfather was a good man; he would never have hurt Alana. Alana was a loving mother; she would never have left her children. That meant someone had kidnapped her, maybe killed her, and would get away with it unless Claire made sure that didn’t happen. Who else would push for justice?
Not Leanne. Claire’s sister battled enough challenges. She didn’t even want to think about the day they lost their mother, let alone follow up on it. And her stepfather-Tug, as his friends called him—had moved in with the woman who eventually became her stepmother six months after Alana went missing. At this late date, he wouldn’t know what to do with Alana even if she could be located.
Only Claire held on. She was all her mother had left, and that made it impossible to give up no matter how many people told her she should. Her mother deserved more than that.
At least obsessing about the mystery that’d plagued her for half her life kept her from dwelling on David, a loss that was far too recent and still too raw.
Another creak almost caused her to lose her nerve. Maybe she should’ve waited until tomorrow, when it was light. But her sister lived right next door to her. Leanne was constantly dropping by, making it hard for Claire to get away without divulging at least something about where she was going and what she was doing—Leanne or one of her many hair clients who paid more attention than Claire wanted. Thanks to her mother’s disappearance, she’d always been watched a little too carefully. Everyone was waiting to see if she’d recover or fall apart. That was the reason she wanted to move away—so she could be anonymous for a change, start over—a desire that’d only grown more marked after David died. Except for two years when their relationship had faltered while he was in college, they’d been together since they were both sixteen. Losing him meant becoming the object of everyone’s pity once again.
How are you? You hangin’ in there, kiddo?
She was confronted by such questions, spoken in low, somber tones, all the time. She wouldn’t have minded so much if those who showed interest were as sincere as they sounded and not just inviting her to provide them with a bit of tantalizing gossip for the next community gathering or church event: Poor Claire. She’s suffering so. I talked to her last week and…
Claire didn’t need anyone gabbing about her efforts to solve the mystery. Or conjecturing on what she might or might not find at the studio. Or confronting her family with the fact that she’d been here. That was why she kept what she could to herself. Why create more curiosity? It would only upset those who’d rather forget….
So, as frightening as it was, she liked the cover of darkness. It made her as close to anonymous as she could get in the place where she’d grown up. The noises she heard were nothing to worry about. No one would have any reason to hang out in an abandoned studio that didn’t have electricity or running water. If some vagabond had moved in, there’d be proof of occupancy.
Knocking the cobwebs out of the way, she followed the beam of her flashlight through the catchall of furniture. Then she climbed to the loft, where her mother used to paint. She’d loved watching Alana create, had never felt more at peace than with the sun pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the second floor, her mother standing in the light, concentrating on her latest masterpiece.
Both finished and unfinished paintings perched on easels covered with sheets, looking like ghosts floating a couple of feet off the ground. Sight of them made Claire sick with loss, a loss rivaled only by David’s death. Whoever had taken Alana had robbed the world, and Claire, of so much.
Was it someone she knew? Someone she passed on the street, spoke to, cared about? One of those people who always asked how she was?
It had to be, didn’t it? Alana went missing in the dead of winter. Although this part of Montana saw an influx of hunters, fisherman and recreationists during the spring, summer and fall, it was not a place to visit in the cold months. Libby, thirty miles away, was the closest town. Notorious for the asbestos mine that’d gotten everyone sick and caused the death of two hundred people, it’d been in the news a lot in recent years. But on the day Alana had gone missing, it was still just a spot on the map, and an overturned truck carrying vermiculite ore had blocked traffic on the highway for hours. The sheriff himself hadn’t been able to get through until it was cleared.
Claire supposed some “bad man” could’ve come from the other direction, from Marion or Kalispell, but no one had spotted any strangers that day. Even more significant, there’d been no sign of forced entry. Whoever had taken Alana was most likely someone she trusted. She’d opened her door, never expecting to be harmed.
The betrayal inherent in that scenario made Claire more determined than anything else to solve the mystery.
Dragging a chair from the corner, the very chair in which she used to sit and daydream while her mother painted, Claire climbed up to reach the handle that would open the attic door. A tad shy of 5’3″, she could barely reach it, but once she grabbed hold, the pull-down ladder lowered easily enough.
It was warmer in the small space above Alana’s studio-dustier, too. Claire coughed as she poked her head through the opening and used her flashlight to reacquaint herself with the contents.
Boxes stacked floor to ceiling left little room in which to maneuver. She hadn’t remembered it being quite so crowded. But when it became clear that her mother wasn’t coming back, Claire had insisted that everything Alana owned, down to the razor she’d been using in the shower, be preserved. The police had confiscated the contents of Alana’s desk, her computer, any recent letters she’d written or received, the photos she’d snapped in the months prior to her disappearance, her journal, what was in her car—anything they thought might help them find her. Claire and Leanne had taken possession of any sentimental items that remained. And the rest had been packed up and stored here years ago, when her stepfather and his wife moved to the luxurious home they currently enjoyed—the home they’d bought with the inheritance Alana had received when her parents died in a plane crash only a year before she went missing.
Riddled with guilt just for having the thought that her mother’s misfortune had provided such a spectacular living for the woman who’d replaced her, Claire steered her mind away. She liked her stepmother. It wasn’t Roni’s fault that Alana was no longer around.
But it bothered Claire that Roni acted as if Alana had never existed. Tug and Leanne preferred to handle it the same way. They’d both come right out and asked Claire to forget the past. Learning what happened wouldn’t bring Alana back, they said. And it was true. It was also true that Leanne seemed to do much better if she didn’t have to be reminded of that fateful day. Which was why, after pleading for the new sheriff to reopen the case a couple of years ago, Claire had gone back to call him off. The rest of her family had been too upset about the questions he was asking. They couldn’t tolerate the assumptions and suspicions that bombarded them in such a small community.
Claire respected their position. But she couldn’t stop digging entirely. She needed resolution as badly as they needed to forget.
What, exactly, she was hoping to accomplish by coming here tonight, however, she didn’t know. She’d been through all of this stuff so many times. Her father, his wife and Leanne had seen it, too. They’d been together when they packed it.
Claire just couldn’t help hoping that she’d see something she’d missed before, that some clue would emerge and solve the mystery. It happened all the time on those forensics shows, didn’t it?
Squeezing through the narrow pathway, she targeted a box she knew to contain her mother’s childhood memorabilia: Alana’s report cards, her early journals, pictures of her family and friends. Claire enjoyed looking through that box because it made her feel closer to the woman she missed so terribly. And it was as good a place to begin as any. She planned on going through every last box, even if it meant many trips to the studio over the next several weeks.
She bent to lift it, then saw some boxes she recognized as having packed much more recently. They stood out because they were labeled in her own handwriting: David’s clothes, David’s things, David’s yearbooks.
Her hand flew to her chest as if she could stop that familiar lump from growing in her throat, but she couldn’t. What were her late husband’s personal belongings doing here? She hadn’t expected to find them, wasn’t ready for such a powerful reminder.
One day a few months ago, her mother-in-law had come over and packed up everything of David’s, insisting she let it all be taken from the house. She said that Claire couldn’t get over his death if she was living with his ghost, still sleeping in his T-shirt and crying over the fact that it was beginning to smell more like her than him.
Claire had assumed those items, except the few she’d managed to retain, had gone into David’s parents’ garage, but Rosemary must’ve asked Claire’s father to put them here. The two often talked, usually about their concern for her and how she was or wasn’t “coping.”
No one had mentioned that David’s belongings had been moved to this attic, but Claire supposed it was understandable why they would be. Rosemary had a large family and a crowded house. She probably didn’t want to run into her dead son’s possessions every time she retrieved the holiday decorations. The studio already held what remained of Alana’s life, and nobody ever used it. It’d probably seemed like the perfect solution.
Squeezing her eyes closed, Claire reached out for the warm presence she’d felt once in a great while since David had gone. She wasn’t a superstitious person, certainly didn’t believe in the type of ghosts that rattled chains and haunted people, but she did have faith in the power of love to create a bridge between this world and the next, at least on rare occasions. She’d felt some comfort since he died. It was almost as if he visited her now and then to check in and make sure she was all right.
She wished she could feel him now, but the pain was too sudden and too acute. Grappling with it required all her focus.
“Why’d you leave me?” she whispered. The warm tears that rolled down her cheeks were nothing new. She cursed them, wished she could get beyond them, but the senselessness of what’d happened, the fact that she’d lost David so soon and couldn’t imagine ever loving someone else in quite the same way didn’t help.
She almost shoved his boxes out of sight, pushed them to the back so that she wouldn’t have to see the thick black letters that seared her to the bone: David’s. They were only inanimate objects he’d once owned. As badly as she wanted him, David wasn’t here any more, and he never would be.
But she didn’t push the boxes away; she pulled them closer. She’d spotted something that struck her as odd. On a 2′ x 2′ box, third from the bottom, David had scrawled his own name. She easily recognized his writing-but not this particular box, which she would’ve noticed since it was white and all the ones she’d used were brown.
Why had she never seen this before? She was positive it hadn’t come from her house….
Once she opened the flaps, she realized why. He must’ve stored this above his parents’ garage before he went to college. If she had her guess, it’d been brought here in an effort to keep all his possessions together.
Fresh longing filled her as she touched the soccer and basketball trophies, the varsity letters he’d never sewn on to a jacket, a pen set he’d made in woodshop. Then there were the cards she’d given him from when they first started dating. They’d gone to high school together, were sweethearts for two years before he left for college, so she had the same Homecoming and Prom pictures.
Unable to travel any farther down memory lane for fear she’d undo all the progress she’d made in the last few months, she was forcing herself to close up the box when she decided to see what was inside a fat accordion-style file holder tucked between some old sweaters. It looked far too business-like for the seventeen-year-old David who’d packed up the rest of these things….
When she opened it, she realized why. It wasn’t from that early period. It was from after they were married. And what it contained stunned her so badly, she had to put her head between her knees so she wouldn’t faint.