Her dad is missing and it's up to 17 year old Andie to find him. Prologue & 4.5 chapters
My Saturday morning alarm clock has always been the smoke detector. Every weekend, dad presents me with an awful breakfast, a smile of pride on his face. Some years ago, my father read a magazine article that claimed homemade family breakfast in pajamas promoted a deeper relationship in the family. He took this as gospel and has tried every recipe for breakfast yumminess he could find. The problem is that he just can't cook. He burns pancakes and undercooks eggs, cinnamon rolls don't rise and the bacon is so burnt it crumbles, toast is even an adventure. But I always grin back at him and accept my plate of disheartening goop.
Today, I woke with the sun on my face. The only sound, the air conditioner running full steam to beat the 80 degree summer heat.
"Dad? Dad?" I plod through our 2 bedroom bungalow in my cozy fuzzy slippers, my fleece robe tied tight around my cotton pajamas, the old floor creaking.
I expect to find him, in Saturday tradition, hunched over the sink, nursing a burn or rinsing the blood from a cut. The tiny kitchen is empty, no dishes on the formica counters or pans on the dated olive green stove. I retrace my steps through the living room and down the hall. His bedroom is empty and the bathroom door wide open. Maybe he gave in this week and went out for donuts? A girl could hope.
I waited all day for him to walk in with those donuts.
10 MONTHS LATER
The counselors were driving her crazy! Why in the hell couldn’t they just leave her alone? She was so tired of everyone asking how she was feeling and trying to get her to talk about it. No one wants to hear the truth anyway. Her dad is gone. No, she’s not ok.
The teachers are looking at Andie like she’s gonna off herself and the counselors keep trying to give hug her. The principle pulled Andie into his office at least once a week to make sure she’s "OK". A smile for them and reassurance that she’s fine gets them off her back for the day.
Even with all the over concern, high school was her favorite place to be right now. Andie definitely took advantage of all the sympathy that was thrown her way. If she didn’t want to sit through that boring English lecture, she could pretend to be overwrought with grief and excuse herself to wander the halls or just hideout in the bathroom. Occasionally, if she cried, Seth would get sent after her and they could hide out together. Everyone assumed her father was dead. Andie knew he wasn’t, she could feel it. But no one would listen to her. So to heck with them.
Seth Barker is one of the most awesome people she knew. Not cool by societal standards, sure. He’s not athletic, he’s not the smartest guy in class, and by no means are the girls flocking, vying for his attentions. His thick glasses hide his boyish face and everyone looks past his lanky body. But, he understood her. He makes her laugh. He is her partner in crazy schemes and loathes the adults in our world as much as she did. He brings her Snoballs and Snickers. He’s Andie’s best friend.
Today is one of those days. Everyone hovering, everyone looking at her like she’s going to break down and lose her mind at any moment. Andie wants to throat punch every one of them.
Mrs. Falker is lecturing up a storm about verb usage, half the class is asleep, the other half on their phones. Seth gives her a pointed look from his desk next to hers. He wants to skip. He mouths at her to freak out. Sure, why not? Andie doesn’t want to be here either.
Mrs. Falker sighs and points to the door when Andie start sniffling and tapping the desktop with her hand. Andie loudly banged out of her seat and rushed out of the room. Andie moved quickly down the corridor, ducked into the bathroom and checked her reflection in the mirror.
Her chestnut brown hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, long bangs sweeping across her forehead. Green flecked brown eyes stared back at her, noting the smudged eyeliner running onto her freckled cheeks. One of the only downsides from crying fake tears.
“Andie, get out here! All’s clear and we are free to roam!” Seth pokes his head in the lav, a huge smile on his face. “Leaving your bag behind was genius, Falker didn’t even blink when I said I was bringing it to you.”
“Come in here, all the stalls are clear.”
Seth slunk into the restroom, wide eyes trained on the stalls. Andie had missed some shoes under the door their Sophomore year. His arch nemesis, Amy, finding out he was in the ladies room, had started quite the bully campaign. It was months before people forgot about him. Once he was sure it was all clear, he came to lean on the counter next to her. She snatched her bag out of his hand and rummaged for the eyeliner stashed in the bottom.
“So what’s the plan? We can’t stay in the girls room all day. Class will let out soon and I can’t get caught in here. Those cheerleader types already think I’m a freak.” Seth studied her reflection as she reapplied her makeup.
“ Let’s get outta here, I don’t want to be here anymore today. I only have 2 hours before I have to be back to the Dragon house. And who cares what those girls think? Graduation is only days away and we will never have to deal with them again.” She grabbed Seth’s arm and started dragging him out of the restroom. “ I want to go get a milkshake. How’s Sonic sound? I’ll buy.”
Seth shook his head, “We can’t just walk out, Andie. They’ll stop us going past the office. We’ll never make the parking lot.”
She turned to him and winked, “Who said anything about going by the office? We can cut out through the gym.”
They meandered down the hallway, her eyes downcast and his arm around her shoulder just incase some well meaning teacher happened to look out their door. Keeping up the pretense of abject misery was tiring. Graduation posters and well wishes hung on every wall. End of year dance notifications and summer program sign ups adorning the glass of classroom doors.
Their lockers were separated by 6 more congratulatory adorned metal closets. Pictures and signs to send the young folks out into the world. They had tried to get Amy Malden to swap with Seth so that their lockers could be next to each other. She just gave them the “OMG, are you really talking to me?” look. So ya, that didn’t happen.
At her locker, she turned the dial and lifted the latch. The locker was crammed with old papers and candy wrappers, the textbooks buried somewhere in the bottom. Rummaging the top shelf for her fake leather purse and keys her hand knocked an envelope to the floor. Bending to pick up the letter, she saw that her name was printed across the face “Andie Crandle”. Huh, weird. She flipped the envelope this way and that looking for a clue as to what it was. The metal clang of Seth’s door slamming had her shoving the envelope in her purse and slamming her own.
Andie linked her arm with Seth’s and skirted behind the bleachers to the exit door in the gym boys locker room. Cracking open the door lifted her spirits. The sense of freedom and rule breaking both making her smile. They dashed across the parking lot to her gas guzzling beast. Andie was peeling out of the parking lot before Seth had the passenger door shut.
And her Dad used to lecture about letting Seth be a bad influence on her. Ya, right.
Sated with a butterscotch shake and tater tots, Andie trudged up the front walk to the Dragon house. Her saviors, caregivers, hero’s. Sure. After the cops decided her dad wasn’t coming back home, they turned Andie over to Child services, who inturn gave her, and a hefty check, to Ned and Jennifer Dragon. She couldn’t decide if they were living up to their last name or if they had it changed to fit their personalities.
When they came to picked her up from Child Services, they smiled and whispered how sorry they were that he was gone. Jennifer hugged her and pushed her hair away from her face while Ned patted Andie’s shoulder telling her how much fun they were going to have. What a surprise it was when she entered their house.
After a quick tour of the 3 bedroom house pointing out the appliances and the laundry hamper, Andie was shuffled off to the basement and told to make her bed up from the stack of spare blankets and a cot in the corner. That same evening, the Dragons gave her the list of rules. Home directly from school. Chores immediately upon arrival. Dinner on the table promptly at 6. Dishes before homework. After that, make yourself scarce. Her first week there, she tried to make her own rules. And found out that being locked in the basement for 48 hours straight wasn’t her idea of a good time.
After unlocking the door, Andie headed straight for the laundry room, dropping her backpack and purse on the counter in the kitchen. She folded the laundry from the previous day, stacking it neatly in the basket and sorted the pile of clothing for today. With the washer agitating, she moved to the kitchen looking for a hastily scrawled note from the awesome temporary parents that outlined the meal she would have to build and see if there were any other chores outside the usual. Some days she got the lucky task of scrubbing oil stains from the garage and scouring the trash can. Spaghetti and no extra chores. Ol’ Ned and Jennifer’s brains must have been worn out from last night’s marathon of Criminal Minds and couldn’t come up with anything new and appalling.
Gathering her things from the counter to take downstairs, she saw the envelope in her purse and snatched it up. Andie was tempted to just toss it in the trash thinking it was one of the numerous communications from the school regarding graduation preparations. But why was it IN her locker instead of taped to the door like all the others? Generally it was just a type written notice to the anonymous senior taped to lockers all the way down the hall. She ripped it open, sliding her finger under the flap. Unfolding the page she read:
YOUR FATHERS MISSING STEMS FROM HIS YOUTH
IT’S UP TO YOU TO BE THE SLEUTH
IF YOU ARE BRAVE, YOU’LL FIND THE TRUTH
FOLLOW HIS PAST TO FIND YOUR FUTURE
AND END HIS PAIN ALL THE SOONER
Who the hell sent me this? Where did this come from? What does it MEAN? Andie crumpled the paper and threw it across the room watching it bounce of the window with tears in her eyes. Why would someone do this to her? If someone knew where her dad was, why didn’t they just tell her? Why be so cryptic? His past? What about it, what when? She slammed her fist on the counter and let loose a strangled growl.
“If I ever find out who sent this to me, I’ll kill them!!” She yelled at the crushed paper now sitting on the floor under the kitchen table. She paced back and forth through the kitchen seething mad and crying. She couldn’t decide if she should be happy to hear her Dad was ok, mad that he was fine and left her or sad that she had been robbed of almost a year with him. Maybe it was just a mean prank. She knew of a few girls at school that would think this was funny. She grabbed up her purse and pulled out her cell phone. She shot off a text to Seth, “Meet me at the bridge at 12”, crammed her phone back in her purse and paced some more.
Andie waited to hear the t.v. noise in the Dragon’s bedroom, was that NCIS? Another marathon, no doubt. She snuck up the basement stairs and tiptoed down the hall. Snatching her jacket from the hook by the door, she hurried out to her car. Andie started the engine but left the headlights off and backed out of the driveway. Anxious thoughts kept her busy for the 6 miles of winding roadway to her midnight meet up.
Sitting in her car at the pullout for Donovan Creek bridge, she pulled the crumpled note from her pocket and tried to smooth it over the steering wheel. She reread it through the wrinkles while waiting for Seth, the shock now worn off so she could concentrate on the message. Her dad’s youth. She thought back over his stories of growing up in a small town in Montana, the mountains, evergreen trees and piles and piles of snow. His time in college at BLAH BLAH where he earned his degree that he didn’t use. Meeting her mother, their quick wedding and short lived marriage in BLAH BLAH, before she died.
Andie had never met any of her extended family, her dad was an only child, his parents had passed away before she was born. All the stories her father had told made it seem as if she knew them. Andie’s mother had been estranged from her family when they met. He claimed he didn’t know why and had never met them.
Headlights shone through Andie’s windshield as Seth pulled off the highway to park next to her. She clutched the note in her hand and hopped out of her car and jogging over to jump in the passenger seat of his truck.
“Why am I out in the middle of nowhere at midnight? You know I need my beauty sleep.” Seth turned sideways in his seat so that he could focus on her.
She thrust out her hand and waved the note in his face. “Someone left this in my locker today. I found it when we were leaving. I forgot about it and thought it was one of those stupid graduation reminders.”
“Well what is it? Did one of those jerks at school do something mean to you? I’ll kill them all. Stop shaking it at me so I can read what it says.” He reached up and grabbed her wrist with his left hand and drug the note out of her fingers with the other. He reached up and powered on the dome light so that he could read the words.
Andie anxiously studied him as he read the note, her impatience growing. He read it a second time and started shaking his head.
“Well, what do you think?” She was dying for him to say something.
“Shhh, I’m reading.” He gave her a sideways glance, his lips smirking.
“You’ve already read it 10 times!” She reached out and yanked the piece of paper back. “What do you think this means? Do you think that someone really knows where my dad is or is this some kind of sick joke?” She carefully folded the paper and put it in her pocket.
“I think that someone is getting their butt kicked. If someone really knew where your dad was, don’t you think that they would have told you before now? I mean, a normal person would have told someone. I bet it’s that brat, Amy, trying to get you one last time before school’s out.”
She sighed and looked at her lap. “You’re probably right.” The silent tears starting down her face. “I shouldn’t be surprised. I bet those girls are all huddled together having a great laugh about it.” She leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. The hope that had began when she first read the note, slowly draining away. Of course he was right any normal person would have just said flat out where her dad was. She felt Seth reach for her hand and squeeze it tight.
“I’m so sorry, Andie. I wish it were true.”
Andie stood in the middle of 60 other cap and gown clad departing seniors. The noise deafening as everyone snatched their caps from their heads and tossed them into the air. Andie threw her’s alongside them, laughing, her hands stretched high above her head as the crowd cheered wildly.
Walking across that stage had been the highlight of her senior year. It’s done, it’s over. Her own version of a childhood chant running amok through her head. No more teachers, no more books, no more DRAGONS food to cook! Seth is in the row behind her, just as loud as the others. Andie smiles to herself imagining that he was probably jumping up and down with a look of pure delight on his face.
The principle on the dias gave the nod for them to file out in their well rehearsed 2 by 2 fashion. She hooked arms with Bill as he escorted her down the aisle and into the hall choked with family and friends of every graduate. A handful of well wishers stop her as she skims the edge of the crowd. Questions about her future and unsolicited wisdom follow her as she makes her way to the door. Outside, she let the blue skies and light breeze take her mind away for a moment. Ah, Dad, you missed it. I made it.
Andie unzipped her gown as she strolled across the parking lot to her 1976 AMC monstrosity. Fluffy Bunny, a stuffed rabbit from her 10th Easter, sat proudly in the passenger seat, a duffel bag she had packed this morning, before leaving the Dragon house, sat in the trunk. Andie flung her cap and gown on the over flowing duffel, tossing her diploma on top of the pile like a cherry on a sundae.
“Andie!” Seth ran up and tackled her in a bear hug. “We did it! Finally Free!”
The look of pure happiness on his face made her laugh as she hugged him back just as hard. “It’s a day of days, my friend! How corny was that speech? ‘Now’s the time we ask ourselves where we will be in 5 years.’ My answer is ‘Celebrating 5 years of you asking that question!’”
“And what about the part where he talked about starting families? No girl but you even talks to me unless they think I can tutor them. So my plan is to acquire cash. Once I have the cash the females will come!”
“They don’t know what they are missing out on.” She leaned in to kiss his cheek, “When you’re famous you’ll have some serious eye candy on your arm and the rest will be kicking themselves in the pants. And what’s with every adult I’ve talked to in the past few days asking me the big question, What’s next? I’m gonna start telling people I’m pursuing a career as a stripper or something equally disturbing. Next person to ask is getting it!”
“Ha! I have about 80 relatives in town. You think you're the only one getting that question?” Seth’s face turned serious, “I really don’t like that you are going off on your own tonight. I think you should come celebrate with me. We can sing happy birthday and share the graduation party my parents are making me have.”
“Thanks, but, no. I’m finally free of the state program and the Dragon’s. I’ve been waiting for this day.”
Mrs. Barker, Seth’s mother, joined them behind Andie’s car and gathered her up in an embrace. “Congratulations Andie!” She squeezed Andie so tight she had a hard time pulling enough breath to say “Thank you, Mrs. Barker.”
“So have you decided what’s next for you Andie? Seth didn’t seem to know what your plans where when we talked about it yesterday.”
Seth and Andie looked at each other and broke out in gut busting, knee slapping laughter.
A puzzled look on her face, Mrs. Barker decided to change the subject. “Come with us for ice cream , Andie. We’re taking Seth to his favorite parlor before the party.” His mother offered. Seth gave her a pleading look that screamed “Save me!” Sorry buddy, not tonight.
“No thanks, Mrs. Barker. I already have plans.” Seth glared at her over his shoulder as his mother dragged him away.
“See you later!” She called behind them, a huge smile on her face.
The house was in need of a good cleaning. Dust covered everything and the musty smell of a closed space overpowered the woods around it. Home. For the first time in months, Andie was able to really relax. She dropped her keys on the hall table and walked into the small living room, taking in the photos on the wall and the comfy broken-in couch. She paused at her dad’s recliner, running her hand over the back.
Shutting off depressing thoughts on such a fine day, Andie moved through the room opening windows. The May weather in Northern Idaho already starting to warm during the day, but still being bitter cold after nightfall. The scent of pine trees wafted through the house, replacing the stale air from months of vacancy. Memories flooded her at the large front window, she could see the tree house that she and her dad built, playing hide and seek with Seth in the woods, quiet weekend mornings with the rustle of the newspaper as her dad fumbled his way through the Sunday crossword.
She tackled the job of cleaning with more enthusiasm that she had shown in months. Getting the house in order helped erase the memories of the last year. The cheap formica counter tops shone in the sunlight, all dishes rinsed and restacked. She eradicated dust from every surface and crumb of dirt from the floor. The small bathroom gleamed, fresh wild flowers on the basin and bright yellow towels hung on the rod.
Unpacking her car, she hung her cap and gown in the closet and placed her diploma on the mantle in the livingroom. Funny Bunny took his place of honor in the middle of her freshly made bed. A stack of sketch books and graphite pencils sat perfectly squared on top of her crowded dresser. All her shoes were lined up by the door and her jackets hung side by side on their hooks in the hall.
With a small case of the jitters, she opened the door to the final room in the house. Her stomach flipped when she saw the bed stripped of its bedding. Like a small child, she had hoped to find him there reading a book or struggling with push ups. Andie wandered through his room, trailing her finger through the dust on his dresser. She smiled at the absurd Mickey Mouse alarm clock on his nightstand. The one she had bought him for father’s day when she was 7. He insisted he loved it and had been using it for years even though it’s cheap mechanisms repeatedly made him late. His reading glasses sat open on top of a half read Dean Koontz novel, a stick of stale gum keeping his place. She fingered his worn and tattered robe that hung on the back of the door and pulled it to her rubbing the soft fleece against her cheek. Tears pricked her eyes as she left the room without opening the window, pulling the door closed quietly behind her.
While cleaning up her meager dinner dishes the sound of knocking echoed through the house. Andie put her plate in the drying rack and wiped her hands on her jeans on her way to the door. She peeped out the living room window and recognized Seths truck in the driveway. Flinging open the door she exclaimed, “Welcome to my humble abode!” She smiled and swept her hand in a bow and curtseyed. She grabbed his hand and started pulling him inside.
“Hang on! I have something for you!” Seth ducks back out the door and grabs something he left on the porch. His right hand now cupped around the flame of a candle burning in a single layer cake. “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Andie, You smell like a flower and you look like one too!” His grin splitting his face. “Blow it out.” He held the cake in front of her face. She made her wish and blew, the flame sputtering out.
“Thank you, Seth! You really didn’t have to.” She took the cake from him and kissed him on the cheek.
“Of course I did, you only turn 18 once.”
He followed her to the kitchen and Andie gathered plates from the cupboard and forks from the drawer. “I know it’s your birthday, but I’m still mad at you.” He screwed up his nose and squinted at her.
“What did I do?” Andie pointed at her chest and cocked her head sideways an innocent look on her face.
“You ditched me with the parents. If you would have gone I could have talked about something other than college and adult responsibilities.”
Andie was unconvinced, “Oh, bull. I couldn’t have saved you. They would have just been lecturing both of us.”
“You’re probably right.” Seth chuckled.
Andie took a huge bite of her cake, savoring the sweetness.“ How’d your party go?”
Seth mimed shooting himself in the head. “Are you kidding me? I had every relative in the 3 state area. Some of them I didn’t even know. I think my cousin Judy has a crush on me and my grandma was falling down drunk and hiking her skirts before the music started. You should have been there.”
Andie stuck her tongue out at him and wiped the last of the frosting from her plate. “The last time I was with your family, your Uncle Fred hit on me and tried to get me to sneak off to the shed with him. Gross!”
Seth shrugged his shoulders, “He hits on everybody, so don’t feel special. He doesn’t really mean it. Tonight he was flirting with his own sister.” A shudder ran through his body and Andie giggled when he pretended to gag. “Besides, my parent’s love you. They just wanted to celebrate with you.”
“Your parent’s tolerate me because they know they could never keep me away from you. They know I’d kidnap you if they tried to keep you from me.” She blew in his face and hopped up from the table, taking their dishes to the sink.
“Not true! Seriously, they like you more than me. They are always saying how beautiful and strong you are, and how your grades have always been better than mine, blah blah blah. Frankly, I’m sick of hearing how wonderful you are!” He threw a napkin at her, hitting her square in the face. Seth sprang from his chair, laughing hysterically and raced from the kitchen. Andie pretending to be angry and trying not to laugh, chased him into the livingroom. Seth evaded Andie’s outstretched hand as she tried to snag his shirt.
“You jerk! Get back here! I’m gonna kick your butt!” She chased him around the couch, but his evasion skills were no match for her. “Ok, ok. I give up.” She panted trying to get her breath.
“Good, you know you’d never catch me anyway.” He smirked and pushed his meager chest out.
Andie collapsed on the couch and reached for the drawer on the end table, “I’ll just kick your butt at cards then.”
“Ha ha! Good luck to you little lady.”
After losing 4 rounds of Gin Rummy, Andie stood on her porch, watching his tail lights dwindle down the driveway.
The birds sang in the trees and the sun shone bright the next morning, matching the way Andie felt waking up to her familiar surroundings. Her bed hugged her body, her blankets a welcome weight. Not wanting to move, she let her eyes rove around the room, her gaze perusing and posters of Channing Tatum, in all his Magic Mike glory, on her walls. What a sight to wake up to. Yum, yum.
The mirror above her dresser was adorned with pictures of her and Seth and a few of her father. Her mother’s photo taking center stage at the top. Wait! Where was the picture of her mother in the silver frame that always sat on the mantle in the living room? The one of her laughing, holding that bouquet of sunflowers to her chest. She didn’t recall seeing it when she placed her diploma there yesterday.
She crawled out from under the covers and padded her way down the carpeted hall to the living room. Gone. Surveying the room, she hugged herself from the chill seeping into her heart. She’d tear the house apart looking for it after a quick shower and breakfast.
Making her way to the bathroom, Andie’s heart stuttered when she realized light was shining from the crack underneath her father’s bedroom door. She shambled on unsteady legs to stand outside the entrance. Straining to listen for movement on the other side, she could only hear her heart pounding in her ears. Fear and dread gripped her as she slowly turned the handle.
The room looked untouched, the dust undisturbed. Nothing, except the envelope printed with her name lying in the middle of the mattress. She just stood and stared at the menacing white piece of paper. How did that get there? She know it wasn’t there yesterday, she would have noticed. Oh, god! Someone had been in her house!
She grabbed the envelope off the bed and hurried to the kitchen. With trembling hands she tore it open. Steadying her breathing, she pulled the note from its casing. She slowly unfolded it and stared stupefied at what was inside.
A postcard of a beautiful mountain loomed splendid in the background of a serene lake. It’s snow capped peaks reflected perfectly in the glass still water. The colors were faded and the edges worn.
She rolled the card over. A message to her father was scrawled in a feminine hand and signed with love.
I miss you! Please come home.
Plopping heavily into a kitchen chair, Andie analyzed the note. The correspondence had been delivered to her house 3 years ago and was postmarked out of Kalispell, Montana. The return address was for Tara Marcson in BLAH BLAH, Montana. Who was this? Her mind raced, she and her father had made numerous trips to Montana over the years, and toured the beauty up and down the western edge of the state from Dillon to the Canadian line. She had never heard of this woman before or the town.
Gathering the envelope and piece of paper to replace the card, she noticed two words printed in the center of the sheet.
“Are you sure about this? Just wait a few days and I can go with you.” Seth pleaded as Andie tossed her backpack in the back seat of her car.
“I’ve got to go while I have the nerve, Seth. And I feel like I’m short on time. Obviously something is going on. Someone broke into my locker and my house. I don’t think I’ll feel safe unless I find out what’s happening.” She leaned into him and hugged him tightly, “I’ll be careful and call you when I get there. The map showed it only a few hours away. An easy drive. If I feel like something is wrong, I’ll turn straight back. I promise.” The driver’s seat groaned as she settled behind the wheel.
Seth leaned in through the window a look of pure agony on his face, “I don’t want to know a world without you, Andie. Please, please, be safe and call me if you need me. I’ll ditch the family and head straight out.”
Andie watched him in the rearview as she pulled away from the curb in front of his house. She wished she could wait for him to go with her, but she really felt that she was running out of time and would never forgive herself if she didn’t see this through. What if her dad was really out there waiting to be found? What if he was sick or hurt and no one was helping him? Obviously someone wanted her to follow a trail and she would do anything to try and get him back home.
Andie turned her car east at the stoplight, onto Hwy 2 towards the Idaho-Montana line. She always enjoyed the drive from Bonners Ferry, Idaho to Libby, MT through the Kootenai National Park. She and her father spent countless summer days along the Yaak River, and hiking the trails to Northwest Peak.
The closer she got to Montana the less sure she felt. “This could be a trap.” She told Funny Bunny, sitting in the passenger seat. “Or a wild goose chase. There’s alway the possibility that some jerk is playing a joke on me. Or, what if there is a mass murderer luring girls away from home to his house of horrors in Montana?” Funny Bunny just stared ahead out the windshield. Obviously he thought her ramblings were best ignored. She reached over and patted his head. “Thanks for the help, Rabbit.”
Andie parked at the end of the driveway, squinting to double checking that the address on the postcard matched the one on the mailbox. The drive to Mila took 3 hours longer than expected, and the evening light was fading fast. Her father had always drove them on their vacations, so Andie didn’t account for time lost when the roads starting winding after crossing the Moyie River Canyon Bridge causing her to ease her foot from the go juice peddle.
The rutted driveway cut a path through a gorgeous grove of cedars. The approach curved out of sight just past a low water bridge crossing an ambling creek. If she wasn’t so scared she would have impressed by the beauty of it.
“Well, here we go Bunny. I don’t know why I was in such a hurry to get here. I’m so nervous I could spit.” The rabbit stared straight ahead. “Ok, ok. I’m going. Stop pushing me.” She shook her body, trying to release the building tension. Sweat started popping out on her brow and she could feel her pulse quicken. Great, she’d stink to high heaven while trying to talk to some lady. She’d probably run her off because her B.O. is so bad. She turned the car down the drive, practicing the breathing exercises they made her do in music class. They were supposed to open the lungs to make you breath easier, it wasn’t working. Teachers lie.
The cabin at the end of the road was crowded on three sides by the Cedar grove. With its steps sagging and roof peeling, the cabin almost looked abandoned. A light glowed through window off the long porch that ran the expanse of the rustic building, putting the thought of emptiness to bed.
Andie gripped her steering wheel, her knuckles turning white with the effort. Her eyes roved every inch of the property taking in the splitting block and axe tucked off to the side by a huge stack of firewood. A dilapidated old ford pickup sat to the left of the drooping steps. 2 lawn chairs sat to the right of the door, on a porch that ran the expanse of the building.
“I can hear you over there, bunny. I know, I know. Put the big girl panties on and get out there.” Andie pulled herself together, finding her resolve. She was here to get answers and answers she would get.
“Hello? Hey, is anybody in there?” Andie crept up to the screen door keeping an eye on where she put her feet. The dilapidated porch sagged under her weight. The door looked like it was barely hanging on and didn’t close all the way. Summoning her courage, she rapped on the wooden door frame twice and called again. “Hello? I’m looking for Tara, Tara Marcson? I don’t know if this is the right place.” She heard a thump deep in the house. Andy scrambled backwards barely catching herself on the crumbling porch rail. Another thump had her sprinting down the steps to her car. Yep, she was a chicken.
“Stop right there, young lady! Turn around!” The voice so loud it echoed off the tall Cedars. Andie slid to a stop and threw her hands in the air, like she had seen on t.v. Her body shook with fear as she slowly turned to face bellowing woman.
On the porch a woman stood with hands on her ample hips, propping the screen door open with and elbow. her gray hair was pulled back in a messy bun low on her head. Her weathered face even more wrinkled from from the scowl she sent Andie’s way. “Who are you?”
“Um, I’m Andie. Andie Carlson. Um, are you Tara? Uh, uh, I mean Ms. Marcson?”
“Until I know what you’re about, that’s none of your business, missy. Why are you here?” She stepped forward allowing the door to slam behind her. She cocked her head to the side as she slowly made her way down the porch steps, squinting her eyes, giving Andie a deeper look.
Andie didn’t like the scrutiny this was woman was looking at her with, so she squared her shoulders and cocked out her hip, giving this lady a taste of her own medicine. She let her eyes wander from the bottom of her work boots up her over her worn out jeans, her round stomach and finally to glare in her aged face. “I don’t need to tell you my business if you’re not Tara Marcson. If you aren’t her you just had to say so and I’d be on my way.”
The woman’s hardened face broke into a grin and a deep laugh rumbled up from her chest. She turned and walked back towards the porch waving for Andie to follow her to the house. “I like your moxie. Come on kid, let’s have a chat. I’m Tara Marcson, or I used to be. I’m Tara Colder now.” She settled into a lawn chair to the right of the door. She patted a second chair and asked, “What can I do for you?”
Andie cautiously climbed the crumbling porch steps and slid past Tara to perch on the edge of the other seat. “Did you know my dad? His name is Robert Crandle. I think he used to live around here.”
“Robert Crandle.” Tara sighed his name. “Oh, yes. I knew Robert Crandle. That’s a name I haven’t heard in years. What’s this all about?”
“I found this yesterday, do you recognize this?” Andie pulled the postcard from her back pocket and handed it over to Tara.
She took it slowly from Andie’s grip and flipped it over. Tears welled in Tara’s eyes. “Yes, this is one of several. How did you find this?”
“Someone broke into my house and left it on my father’s bed for me to find. I thought it might have been a joke, but decided to find out for sure. So here I am.”
“I don’t understand. Why would someone leave this for you. It doesn’t make sense. I must have sent a hundred of these. Surely you’ve seen them and know all about me.”
Was this chick mental? Andie leaned farther away from her, “I don’t even know who you are or why you are sending these to my dad. I didn’t even know that this thing existed until yesterday. If you’ve sent so many I should have seen them. I don’t know what to think right now.”
Tara looked as though I had kicked her in the stomach. Pain crawled across her face as she fought back a full flood of tears.
“Don’t you know who I am?” When Andie shook her head, Tara turned her eyes to the porch floor and choked back a sob. “I used to be Tara Crandle, I’m your aunt. Your dad is my brother.”
“No way!” Andie leapt from her seat and started heading to her car. “My dad didn’t have any family, he was an only child!”
Tara reached out and grabbed her arm. Fingers digging into her bicep. “Now you just hold on.”
“No, get your hands off of me! I didn’t come all this way to hear a bunch of lies!” Andie twisted and pulled her arm free. She stormed off down the driveway and pulled the drivers door handle.
“I know what you’ve been told, Andie. It was for your own good. When you’re ready to hear the truth just come on back.” Tara called to her.
Trembling, she started the engine, swing the car around and accelerated down the driveways, slinging gravel.
Andie didn’t know where she was going, she just drove. Her mind reeling. The road started climbing, she pushed her foot down on the gas and screamed as loud as she could. Seriously! Crazy old woman!
Andie pulled to the side of the road and let the tears she had been fighting fall down her cheeks. Confused thoughts bounced around her brain, the fog of emotions keeping her from a having a coherent thought. The sun was behind the trees, it’s light pushing through the branches shining through her passenger window. The beams casting their glow on the stuffed rabbit the passenger seat. Andie reached for they toy and hugged it to her chest. “Oh, Bunny. What the hell is happening? I drove all the way over here for answers and only got more questions.” Crazy lady.
Her tears slowed enough for her to safely pull back onto the road. She whipped a U turn and headed into the tiny town of Mila. The sun had completely set when she passed the Mila city limit sign, touting a massive population of 823. The few blocks of Main street were lined with quaint storefronts and narrow sidewalks. The only cars on the street where parked in front of the BLANK diner. A sign at the other end of main street glowed Vacancy like a beacon.
She parked her car in front of a quaint old colonial brick house and reached in the back seat for her bag. With Funny Bunny tucked under her arm she opened the door of the Inn and let herself into the abundance of cowboy cliche.
The Wrangle Inn was furnished was adorned with paintings of horses and cowboys in every imaginable scenario, The furniture was heavy dark leather and featured animal hides tossed over the backs. A short, rotund man dressed in western flavor stood behind a rustic counter to the left of the door. “Welcome to the Wrangle Inn! My name is Don. Do you have a reservation?”
“No I don’t, do you have any available rooms?” Andie responded, placing her bag on the floor by the counter.
“Well that depends, sweetheart. You look awful young to be out on your own. Do you have some I.D.?” Andie dug her wallet from her bag and pulled out her Idaho drivers license. “I’m 18. That’s old enough to rent a room.” She passed the license across the counter.
The fellow pulled a pair of reading glasses from the breast pocket of his starched western shirt and placed them on his nose. “Hmmm, I see. Your birthday was yesterday? Well, happy birthday, Andrea...um…” He lifted his face from her license and gave her an earnest look. “Your last name is really Crandle?”
Andie was puzzled. It wasn’t that unusual of a name. “Yes, Don, my name is Andrea Crandle. So, can I get a room or not?” She huffed at him.
“Oh, yes Miss Crandle. Forgive me. I was just chasing ghosts. Let’s get some paperwork done and I’ll show you to your room.”
After filling out an information card and paying for the night in cash, Don lead Andie to a small room on the second floor. The bed was made from a heavy mahogany, over stuffed pillows and a patchwork quilt covered the mattress. A cowboy boot overflowing with fresh flowers sat in the middle of a matching dresser.
“We updated a few years ago, so you have your own facilities in the room. They are pretty cramped, but private. Showers are still dorm room style and at the end of the hall, boys on the left, girls on the right.” He turned to leave the room, reaching for the door handle to close the door behind him.
“Hey Don.” Andie stopped him. “I haven’t eaten since Libby today. Where is the best place in town to get a meal on a budget?”
“The diner downtown is about all we have. Lucky for you, the food is great and the prices are better.”
“Thank you, Don. Have a great night.” Andie closed the door behind him and dropped her bag on her bed. She hadn’t expected to stay the night in Montana so she grabbed her wallet and counted out her meager cash. $86 dollars left of the $200 she brought with her. That should be enough to fuel up the beast and get a good meal. She might have to skip breakfast, but she’d be back home for lunch.
Spotting the phone sitting on the nightstand, she remembered her promise to Seth.