A short story

Serena & Katherine

(A story)

The music begins quietly, spare piano notes hanging formally in the melancholy air. The lute joins in to fill the spaces, and talking stops. The people around the edges of the room straighten in their high-backed chairs to listen.

The room is steeped in elegant formality, old furniture and Oriental vases, heavy brocades and French tapestries. In the center of the room, the grand piano glistens black and cold. Only the musicians’ movements as they bob and nod in muted gavotte give life to the scene.

Near the room’s huge arched window stands a man in hunt gear, incongruent in suede and rough browns, gloves tucked in a hip pocket, and wearing high black boots.  A riding crop dangles from his wrist. He is unsmiling.  Indifferent to the people and the music, he looks out at the figure of a woman standing in the careful, ordered garden below.

The woman, wearing a white dress and large sun hat despite the grey day, stands motionless, absently fingering a white rose, seemingly lost in some far-away thought.

They remain locked in this tableau for long moments as the music runs quietly, lightly around the room, tinkling the chandeliers, tickling an ear here and there, rippling someone’s champagne. Only an occasional whisper—behind a gloved hand and prompting a knowing smile—breaks the still silence behind the notes.

Suddenly the man turns his head and looks into the room, the hint of a sneer flashing across his chiseled features. A tiny ripple runs through the room and then all is quiet again save the music playing like a breeze on the surface of a pool. Now studiedly indifferent in their turn, the sitters feign listening, chins lifting, an eyebrow arch here, an exquisitely small nod of approval there.

As his eyes scan the room, the huntsman shakes his head once, then turns back to the woman out the window, snorts quietly in frustration, wheels and walks briskly across the room and out the door. As the door slams behind him, the woman lifts her head slightly, her eyes cut toward the window he has so emphatically left empty. She snaps the stem of the rose in her fingers, ripping it away so violently that the rose slaps her leg. She stomps her left foot and tosses her head back. Blood trickles from a thorn-prick in her finger, leaving a bright scarlet trail down the white dress.

Feeling the prick through her anger at last, the woman pulls her hand up to examine the wound, then throws the rose to the ground and runs down the garden lane away from the insulting window, losing her hat in the flight.

Reaching the gate, she pauses, hand on the latch, panting. She looks back at the window. Her gaze falls on the hat and a slow smile opens her lips. She laughs aloud but her eyes harden. She opens the heavy gate and looks out at the pasture and beyond, to the edge of a forest some 200 yards away. Pulling the thorn-pricked finger to her lips, she sucks it gently, then takes it away and squeezes the tiny wound, forcing a welling drop of blood out and flinging it onto her dress. She surveys the effect, then repeats the operation, spattering the white linen with her spite.

Satisfied at last with her work, she grasps the bodice of the dress and rips it repeatedly, opening it nearly to the waist. Glancing back at the window again – still empty – she shrugs the dress off her shoulders and steps out of the pile of bloodied whiteness. She starts to walk away, but turns back to look at the dress, then picks it up and flings it away. Adjusting it slightly so the red shows, she steps back, admiring her work, glances again at the empty window, and walks out the gate, closing it softly behind her.

Walking close to the garden wall and assuring herself that no one is in the pasture, she makes her way to a small wooden shed almost at the corner of the garden. Entering cautiously, she peers through the gloom. “Ah!” she whispers, and goes to the far wall, removing a pair of worn overalls from a peg. She dusts them off and steps into the large pant legs, hooking one of the straps diagonally across her chest. Casting about, she finds an old hat on a shelf, dusts it off and dons it. As she rolls up the pants legs, she sees a rake handle standing in the corner; she picks it up and heads out again, this time angling across the open pasture toward a low spot in the tree line. She moves quickly and checks the gate often.

***

Lane Middlebrooks bounded down the long white steps, climbed into his ’55 Dodge and roared away, sending white gravel flying onto the green lawn. Rattling down the long driveway, he growled. “Damn pea gravel!” He wondered again why the old man liked it so much, got more money than God and won’t pave this awful driveway. He always worried about what damage the rough ride might do to his vintage pickup; old leaf-springs getting pretty brittle. I guess wanting a white gravel driveway is no weirder than that prissy French music he likes so much, he thought, shaking his head. And all those prissy people, he must pay them to listen to it.

When he hit the highway, Lane wound the old truck out in second gear, heedless of the screaming transmission, shifted and continued accelerating to just past 60. Glancing down at the speedometer, he let off on the accelerator abruptly, dropping back to 55. Damn woman, about to make me blow my engine now! He swore, and snorted again. He realized he’d been doing that a lot lately.

He tried to push her out of his mind, turning on the radio and glancing around at the long white fences and green pastures to his left and right. No horses in sight. As he drove along, he changed the radio station several times, looking for something to distract him, but finally shut it off and began whistling sporadically. She kept coming back into his mind as often as he pushed her out. Finally he gave up and just drove along, pounding lightly with his fist on the steering wheel, humming along with the dull vibration.

Twenty minutes down the highway he turned off down a grassy dirt road. Moments later, he parked in a loose group of other vehicles and walked across an expanse of pasture toward a large steeplechase ring. He joined a group of people standing next to the board fence.

“Lane!” a sandy-haired man in casual slacks and a crisp white shirt said. “You’re here. We’d about given you out.” His snappy tassel loafers were covered in dust.

“Yeah, I’m here,” Lane said, glancing around the ring at the jumps arranged around it. His face was grim.

“So where’s Missy?” a blonde woman in riding gear asked, smiling up at him.

“Serena? I guess she’s pickin’ roses.”

“Roses? I thought she was going to ride today!”

“Yeah. So did I. Spent half a damn hour looking for her in that barn they call a house, finally saw her through a window. Standing out in the garden in that big white hat she thinks is so ‘elegant,’ rummaging through a rose bush.”

“She didn’t say why she wasn’t coming?”

“Say? She didn’t say nothin’. She didn’t even look when I knocked on the window. She knew I was coming, she knew it was me knocking, but she wouldn’t look, so I left.”

“You just left? Lane… You know how she is. She just wanted you to come looking for her.”

“You should talk, Katherine. She’s your sister and you haven’t said three civil words to each other in the last month. Isn’t that why you moved out – so you wouldn’t have to put up with her?”

“Alright, you two. Let’s be nice.” It was the sandy-haired man who had greeted Lane when he arrived. He continued, cutting off Katherine’s response. “After all, we’re here to have fun, not argue and fight. Especially not about her.” He clipped the final word as if to get it over with quickly, and his face looked sour for several seconds afterward.

Lane leaned over and looked down the fence in his direction, but the man turned his head away, seeming to watch something going on at the far end of the field. Katherine was inspecting her gloves, lips tight. When Lane straighted back up, she leaned over the fence and spoke to another girl beside Lane along the fence. “Caroline, would you mind calling her and just… well, just be sure she’s okay, maybe say we were worried when she didn’t show up to ride…?”

Caroline dropped her head slightly to look over expensive sunglasses at Katherine, mouth opening slightly. “Me? You want me to call your sister?” She sighed. “I suppose so. But I don’t see why you’re so worried. She’s always doing something to get attention.” She turned around to lean back against the fence, pulling a sleek phone out of her hip pocket. The phone beeped once, and Lane turned away.

“I’m going to find my horse,” he said, walking off without looking at any of them.  As he left, a horse stumbled on a rail not far from the group and a gasp rose up from the crowd under the awnings as the young rider pitched forward. But she rolled deftly, springing to her feet and running to the horse who had clambered out of the shallow pool and was standing nearby.

***

When she reached the forest’s edge, Serena Darborville collapsed behind a large tree, momentarily exhausted from her dash across the rough bluegrass pasture.  As soon as she caught her breath, she leaned around the tree for one more look to be sure no one had seen her flight. Satisfied, she leaned her head back against the tree and smiled broadly, looking up into the thick oak canopy. They’ll come looking soon enough, she thought, and when they do… She sat forward abruptly, looking around at the trees. It was an old forest, one of few remaining in the area, and the undergrowth was sparse. She had been walking in it often as a child. Grandfather loved the old oaks—had kept the forest intact when other landowners were clearing everything to invest in machinery and more horses—and he loved me, she thought. She had never been able to get her father into these woods. He preferred the drawing room with its music and polite conversation. Though she had not been beyond its edge since Grandfather died 11 years ago, she still remembered its lay, still knew her way around in the woods that bounded the family property.

Looking back once more at the gate, more to get her bearings than to check for the search party she felt sure would materialize soon, she set out through the trees, unhurried now, confident, thoroughly enjoying herself and her clever scheme. She tried to think it through clearly now, as she wove in and out among the thick trunks of the various hardwoods: when I hit the creek I follow it down to the old fence, then follow it over the hill to the corner of the tract and the big fence. Follow that all the way to the highway and that will take me to … something… can’t exactly remember where that fence comes out, but I know there are some little stores not too far from there. Stores…, she thought, with the first little sinking feeling of the adventure. I don’t have any money, or anything. Well—she  flounced her hair—I’ll just get somebody to buy me dinner. She looked down at the huge dusty overalls and realized simultaneously that she was not at her most fetching and that the costume did little to cover her. Large parts of her bra and underwear were obvious through the voluminous side openings.

Where is that creek? she wondered. Seems like it wasn’t this far. She remembered the angle of it, and veered a little to the left, hoping to intersect it sooner. Her thoughts returned to the problem of dinner. I’m not really that hungry, she thought, feeling defensive now. I’ll just hang out along the highway, or… wait, I know, I’ll slip into the ladies’ room at a service station and wait for someone to come in, then ask them to get me some clothes… besides, it won’t take them long to find me. They’ll probably have every cop in Nicholas County out looking for me. The idea put her at ease for the moment and she concentrated on maintaining a straight course through the trees. She noted the growing darkness around her and wondered if it could be that late in the afternoon already.  It had been an overcast day – she remembered wishing for bright sunlight to make her white dress and hat more striking as she stood in the garden waiting for Lane to find her. She could only barely make out parts of the sky through the treetops and it was hard to tell what was happening there.

A few minutes later, she knew. It was raining. Just a light rain at first, with only a few drops finding their way through the heavy leaf covering above her, but it gradually increased and Serena realized she was slowly getting wet. She plodded on through the darkening forest, quickening her steps and squinting as she looked for the creek that was her only guide out. She thought more than once of turning back, but pride mixed with doubt to keep her moving ahead.

At last she heard the sound of running water. She stopped to listen carefully, then plunged on. A few yards further and she saw the dark crevice that she knew was the creek. It was much wider than she had expected.  She dropped to her knees and let her fingers trail in the quick-moving water. She scooped a little up in her hand, but paused. It had been clean enough to drink when she and Grandfather came here, but now she wasn’t sure. She remembered the time she had waded in the edges of the Ohio when they were visiting in Maysville. Her cousin screamed at her from the top of the dike to stay out of the water, but she had just laughed, kicked off her shoes and walked in the shallows, and then the next morning her feet had been covered in a rash that looked as if it could eat Cincinnati.

She shook the creek from her fingers and stood up, staring at the water. Such a pretty little creek. She gazed up through the break in the trees. It had stopped raining now, but the sky was still dark. Her hair was dripping and the overalls were wet. She began walking downstream, moving far enough away to avoid the brush along the edge but close enough to keep the sound of it clear. Can’t be far to that fence now, she thought. Must’ve veered off to the right a lot back there. And then she was upon it. Her hand struck the old wire before she saw it, and she almost tumbled over it. The sudden stop was the first real jolt to her confidence, and she suddenly felt like crying.

If I can just get to that highway, I know they’ll find me and everything will be fine, she thought, giving a sharp nod to herself. She pushed her hair back out of her face and tried to squeeze some of the water out, then turned right to follow the rusty fence away from the creek. Twenty minutes later, she came to the edge of the forest and a reassuring white board fence cutting across green pasture land. It was much lighter out in the open, and she picked up her pace, confidently striding up the gentle hill.

But by the time the pasture flattened, she was beginning to tire. She stopped, leaning against the comforting boards for a moment, then decided to rest. She found a fence post and sat down, heedless of the wet grass, leaning against the post, head back and eyes closed.

***

Lane had just finished tacking up, shaking his head at the insubstantial little saddle, when Katherine appeared. “Missy’s not in the house,” she said. “Nobody’s seen her since you left.”

Lane grabbed the horse’s reins, and gave Katherine a quick glance.

“I’m a little worried,” she said, looking at Lane.

“Don’t be,” he said, turning his back and walking away, leading the horse.

Katherine caught up quickly. “I just have a bad feeling…”

“Katherine. Like you said, you know how she is. She’s probably hiding in the garden shed, still thinking I’m gonna come find her.”

“Maybe so… I just… Caroline said they’d look for her in the garden.” She looked down at the thin mud splashing with each step, her face lined, mouth tight.

“I’m up pretty quick here. Then I’ll go back over.” He glanced at Katherine’s dark face, then up at the dark sky. “She’ll turn up. She always does.”

“Okay.” Katherine stopped, watching Lane lead the horse toward the starting area. She sighed and looked at her feet again, then began walking slowly up the fence toward the others.

As she approached, she saw Caroline take out her phone to answer its shrill tune. “Oh shit!” Caroline said after a few seconds. Looking up she saw Katherine. “Hold on,” she said into the phone. “They found Serena’s dress in the garden, and it’s like all bloody and ripped, and…”

“What!?…” Katherine gaped.  “Her dress? What happened?”

“That’s it, they don’t know what happened. They’re looking for her now.”

“I’ve got to go.” Katherine ran a few steps, then turned. “Tell Lane, okay?”

“Okay,” Caroline said.

“Katherine, wait!” The sandy-haired man started after her, but she was in a full run now. When she reached her car, she waved to him as she got in.

“See you later, Allen!” she called out, then spun the roadster around and sped off down the little lane, splattering mud on the bright red fenders.

***

Serena crawled under the fence and stood up on the edge of a shallow ditch, looking left and right down the paved road that lay a few feet beyond the ditch. The sky was lighter above her now, but from where she stood on a ridge, she could see dark clouds off to the south still. She noted with a twinge of disappointment that there were no flashing lights on the road in either direction, in fact no traffic at all, and she could see at least a mile both ways. She remembered the ridge now, it couldn’t be more than a mile or two to Myers, and there might be a gas station or something before that. Or was the station back to the left? She looked up and down the highway, trying to remember. To the left was Carlisle, closer to home but a longer walk. Besides, if they found her in Carlisle, it might seem like she was on her way back home.

Fifty-fifty, she thought, and started walking to her right.

***

Caroline shoved the phone into her pocket and stood watching Katherine drive away. “Shit,” she said, as Allen walked up. “There’s always something crazy going on with that bunch.”

Allen shook his head and glanced back at the empty road. “Yep,” he said. “She’s an independent-minded woman.”

“Didn’t have much choice in that family,” Caroline replied. “Otherwise she’d have ended up as crazy as the rest of them.”

She looked back at the arena. “Guess I better find Lane.” She started for the other end of the ring, then stopped and turned her head. “And you’re still carrying that torch, huh Allen?”

“What torch?” he blustered. “We’re just friends.” He looked at his shoes, hooked one toe behind his calf and rubbed the damp dust away, glancing up at Caroline as he put the foot back down.

“Yeah.” She smiled and headed off again.

She saw Lane, mounted and waiting for the signal to start his run. She shouted his name, and getting no response, quickened her pace. By the time she got his attention, he was already crouching, expecting his signal.

“Lane!” she was short of breath. “It’s Serena! Something’s happened.”

“What?! Look, I’m up next, I’ll see you after I run.” He looked away, waiting.

“No! Lane! It may be serious! Her dress! They found her dress! With blood on it!”

He snapped his head around, holding the reins close. “What?!”

“They found her dress in the garden, all bloody and ripped!”

A smile spread across Lane’s face, and he glanced over toward the starter again. “She sure has a flair for the dramatic, doesn’t she?” He grinned at Caroline, looked back at the starter.

“But Lane….” She was talking to herself—Lane was off, headed for the first obstacle, a low white fence.

***

Just as she was ready to jump back across the ditch and rest against the fence again, Serena came over a little rise and saw the big Shell sign. And just a short ways beyond it, the beginnings of the little town. Energy renewed, she headed down the hill with a smile on her face.

There were only a few cars around as she walked onto the concrete, and no one visible outside the little store. She walked directly to the outside rest rooms and tried the door. The knob was locked, but the door had not closed all the way, so she walked in. Her reflection in the mirror gave her a shock, and she began to try to clean her face and straighten up her disheveled, wet hair. Frustrated, she leaned over, flipped her hair over her head and shook it vigorously. The effect was not great, but it beat the drowned rat look, so she fluffed it a little more and then entered a stall and sat down to wait.

She had dozed off, elbow on the tissue dispenser and head against the cold metal wall, when she heard the door slam shut. She rubbed her eyes and peeked through the crack. A young woman stood looking in the mirror, adjusting her hair and checking out her eye makeup. Selena felt a moment of panic, then reached back and flushed the toilet. She waited a moment, then stood up and adjusted the wet overalls. She opened the door part way, and peered out. The other woman glanced over at her and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were in here.”

“Oh, that’s okay! No prob! I was just, ah, resting a little.” She opened the door a little further and the woman looked her up and down. “I got a little wet in that rain, you know, ah…”

“Yeah. Nice outfit, too.” She turned back to the mirror and adjusted the beaded choker at her throat, then tugged slightly at her short black skirt. Selena watched, trying to think of how to begin. The woman turned and headed into the adjoining stall.

“Look,” Serena started out, regretting the word as soon as it came out of her mouth. “I mean, I’ve got a little problem here…” She paused as the woman closed and latched the stall door. “You see, I’ve… I need some dry clothes, some real clothes, and I don’t have any money, but…” She paused again, hoping for a word of encouragement.

“My daddy has lots of money and I can get you some money later, if you could just let me borrow some clothes or something, and I could, I could give you my phone number and you could call me and I could give you some money, like lots of money, like a hundred dollars or something if you could just get me some clothes.” She took a breath, waiting. “What do you think?”

The toilet flushed loudly and then the woman emerged, straightening her tight blouse where it had bunched under her skirt, tugging at the skirt again. She glanced at Serena, who backed up to give her room at the sink. As she washed her hands carefully, she looked in the mirror at Serena several more times, her expression revealing no response to the plea.

Serena tried to look bright. She smiled and batted her lashes. The young woman, little more than a girl, Serena could see now, began drying her hands.

“Clothes, huh?” She glanced at the dirty overalls again. “Yeah, you could sure use some clothes, honey!” She threw the towel in the trash, and looked at Serena. “How much money you say you’d give me? A hunnerd dollars?”

“Ah, sure, whatever you think, I could go a hundred dollars!” She smiled brightly again.

The girl looked at her intently. “I’m ‘onna go ask my boyfriend. I’ll be right back, I guess.” She started out the door, then looked back. “You live around here?”

“Sure, I live about 10 miles from here, over at Paloma Horse Farms, on 36. You know, between Carlisle and Moorefield.” Serena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Can’t get too happy yet.

The girl left, and Serena pushed the door almost closed and leaned against the wall, eyes closed, heart pounding. This was working out even better than she had thought. She paced around the little room, checking out her hair and face several times more, wishing she had asked for a brush and some makeup as well as clothes. Five minutes later, the girl returned.

She stuck her head in the door, smiling. “Doug said sure, come on, we’ll get you some clothes and take you wherever you want. Shit, I forgot to tell him you were wet.”

“Oh good!” Serena almost jumped up and down. “You can get some clothes?”

“Sure! We’ll just go… we’ll go to the house, you can find something there, okay?”

“Great! So you live near here?” Serena followed the girl out the door.

“Yeah. Near here. Not too far, it’s just, ah, just over there in town,” the girl said, glancing down the road. “Myers, yeah we live in Myers.” She led Serena to a black two-door — a Javelin, Serena thought – with painted-over rust showing around the edges. As the girl opened the door and pulled back the seat for her to get in, Serena thought, Lane could give this guy some pointers on keeping up a classic. But the back seat looked clean enough, so she relaxed and crawled in. The girl surprised her, crawling into the back seat beside her. Selena slid across the seat, saying, “It’s okay, I don’t mind sitting back here by myself, you can sit in front with your boyfriend.” Doug had turned around, leering at Serena.

The girl looked at him and narrowed her eyes.

“Shut up, Lacy,” he grinned. But he turned back to the front.

“No, it’s okay, I’ll just, ah, just keep you company a little bit. I get plenty of Doug’s mouth,” Lacy said. Doug looked back at her, then twisted to look at Serena behind him. He smiled broadly, but said nothing. Serena noticed that Doug had bad teeth. His light brown hair, though short on top and sides, hung down in stringy flips in the back. He had a stringy mustache and wisps of beard under his chin.

Serena’s belly did a little queasy flop, and she gripped the seat. Doug began cranking the old Javelin, and after a few seconds of metallic scraping, the engine coughed and spit out a deep growling roar as Doug pumped the gas. The car shuddered and rattled as Doug backed away from the curb, then eased away. “Let’s don’t call too much attention to your lack of a muffler now, Dougie-dear,” Lacy said.

He grimaced at her. “I’m not an idiot, Miss Smart-ass.”

“Oh, I see.” she replied.

Serena was mystified at the conversation. Hope I didn’t make a bad decision hooking up with these two low-lifes, she thought. Make the best of it. “So you’re Lacy?”

“Yeah, I’m Lacy. The smart one.”

Doug sputtered in derision, turning onto the highway.

“Well, nice to meet you Lacy, I’m Serena.”

“Yeah, and your daddy’s got lots of money, right? Horsey set, I bet.”

“Yes, he does raise horses. My Granddaddy started the farm way back. Daddy doesn’t much like horses, but they do make lots of money, especially around here, you know, the racing and stuff.”

“Yeah, I bet they do,” Doug chimed in.

“Shut up, Doug.” Lacy made no attempt to conceal her spite now.

Serena noticed that they were traveling away from Myers. “I thought you said you lived in Myers?” She looked out the back window at the receding lights of the town.

“Ah, yeah, Myers, ah, Doug’s got to go get something first, before we go to the house. We were just on our way over there, stopped to get some gas and pee.”

They rode along in silence for some time. Serena couldn’t think of anything else to say; her mind was busy reassuring herself that this was working out well, according to plan. Maybe she should just have them take her home. Forget the clothes, forget dragging this out, even if Lane did need to be taught a lesson. He probably was worried sick already. It was getting darker out. “What time is it?” she asked.

“Time, ah, seven…  seven thirty almost,” Lacy answered. “Be dark pretty soon, these clouds and all.”

“Yeah,” Doug replied. “Seven-forty-five,  eight, it’ll be dark.” He glanced back at Lacy.

***

Allain Darborville met Katherine at the door, running a hand through his thick gray hair. “Good! You’re here. Please find your mother and try to calm her down. I’m waiting for a deputy to arrive.” They almost embraced, touching cheeks lightly.

“What do you think happened, Daddy?”

“I just don’t know what to think, dear. Try not to worry, just get your mother to calm down. Make her some tea or something, I  don’t know, she doesn’t seem to listen to me at all.” He pulled the edges of the curtains back to look out the window. “What could be taking them so long to get here! You’d think something like this they’d be a little concerned, at least get out here to see what’s happened, probably sitting in some coffee shop talking to the waitress!”

“I’ll go find Mother… is she downstairs?” Katherine turned to go.

“I think so… try the kitchen.” He walked across to the windows on the other side of the door and looked out again.

Katherine’s mother was sitting with elbows propped up on the kitchen table, head in hands, her breathing heavy. She looked up as Kathering entered. “Oh, Kathrine, thank god you’re here. You’re such a good girl to call! I guess no one would have even gone looking if you hadn’t called. What do you think she’s done now, Katherine dear? Your father is just beside himself with worry.”

“Hello, Mother. He seemed okay. He thought you might need a little company, actually.”

“Me?  Oh I’m holding up. I’m trying not to panic.” She patted her own face gently with both hands. “It’s all so strange!” She looked up at Katherine. “What could have happened? Why would anyone rip her dress off right there in the garden? And where could they have taken her?  Charles said there had been no one up the drive since Dane or whatever his name is left in that dreadful old truck. We’re quite mystified, really.” Katherine smiled calmly through this little speech, then went around the table and put an arm around her mother, kissing her head quickly. She stood, hand still on the older woman’s shoulder.

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. You know she was supposed to meet Lane ready to ride today, and instead she was out in the garden…”  She stopped, not wanting to alarm her mother.

“Oh yes, I know! He barged in on Daddy’s Friday afternoon concert looking for her, stormed out, created quite a scene in the music room!”

“Lane said she was wearing that big white hat… nobody seems to be taking this very seriously… I…”

“Yes, well, please let’s not go on about your sister now! We don’t know what’s happened and we must take all precautions! No need for panic, but we must get someone out looking for her one way or the other! Such people as are out these days, why anything could have happened!”

“Of course, you’re right, Mother, you’re always right.   It’s just that I…  Would you like some tea, or a drink or something?”

“No, dear, I’m fine.—Well, maybe a little chamomile would be nice.” She held her head in her hands again. “I do worry so about your sister, all the time, actually.”

Katherine was putting on a kettle of water, and looking in the cabinets for tea. “Serena will be fine, Mother, don’t worry so much.” If she ever grows up, she thought.  But something didn’t feel right about the thought.  She had the same bad feeling she’d had when Caroline told her Serena was missing.  She put two teabags in a teapot and set it by the stove.  “I’m going to check on Daddy; don’t forget to pour up your tea.”

“Thank you, dear.”

When Katherine returned to the foyer, her father was still checking the driveway for the tardy deputy. “Let’s sit down in the front room, Daddy,” she said. “We can hear him when he comes up the drive.” She took her father’s elbow and smiled.

“Yes, I suppose we can. Alright then, let’s sit for a little.”

They had just relaxed and exchanged a few remarks when they heard the growling of tires on the pebble driveway. Mr. Darborville got up quickly and opened the door. He stopped on the threshold, and Katherine came up behind him. Coming up the drive slowly was a green ’55 Dodge pickup. Mr. Darborville looked sourly at Katherine and went back in to his chair. She stood in the doorway, waiting.

“So where’s the scene of the crime?” Lane called out as he walked up. “The gardener, in the garden, with a rake!” He stopped with one foot on the top step, smiling broadly at Katherine.

“Lane! Please don’t be so… we don’t really know what has happened, do we?” She walked out onto the porch.

“Okay, okay! Sorry, I’ll try to be more serious.” He knitted his brows, but the smile came back.

Katherine walked closer, spoke softly. “Daddy’s just inside, don’t get him riled up, he’s already a little upset. They’re waiting for a deputy.”

“Ah,” Lane said, voice low, trying to contain his smile. “A law enforcement officer! We’ll get to the bottom of this matter presently, I am quite certain!”

Katherine poked him on the shoulder and smiled in spite of herself. “Let’s go in and talk to Daddy… and be serious!”

“Yes, m’am!” Lane followed her into the house, looking down at his boots. He was still in riding gear. He hoped Mr. Darborville wouldn’t notice he was not wearing proper steeplechase attire. No one else in their little club seemed to mind Lane’s unconventional dress and approach to the tradition-bound sport, but Mr. Darborville was one of the patrons and he was a stickler for the formal white pants and red coat. If he really thinks something has happened to Serena, he won’t notice, Lane thought.

As they walked into the room, Mr. Darborville was leaning back, staring up at the ceiling. “Evening, Mr. Darborville,” he said, as respectfully as he could manage.

“Is that deputy out there yet?” Mr. Darborville asked his daughter. Lane sat down on the far end of the couch.

“Didn’t see him, Daddy.”

“Huh!” Darborville looked at Lane. “What do we pay taxes for in this county? Can’t even get a deputy out here when there’s been a crime committed!” His face was beginning to turn red.

“Maybe I should go looking for her,” Lane said, unable to think of any other response that wouldn’t provoke the old man’s anger. Lane sat forward on the sofa.

Darborville raised his eyebrow and looked at Katherine. “Why don’t you two go have a look around in the garden. I’ll wait for the deputy.

“Sure!” Lane said, standing up.  Katherine looked at him once, then headed out for the garden, Lane following.

“Where’s her dress,” Lane asked, as they headed for the back door.

“We left everything just as it was. So the police could see for themselves, Daddy said.”

They passed the hat, lying next to the rose trellis where Serena had stood as Lane watched. The dress was near the back gate, piled up, the specks of blood still bright. Lane walked around slowly, looking up at the window he had stood in earlier and then at the gate. He went over and opened the gate and looked out at the pasture. The ground was firm and grassy all the way up to the garden wall, no soft earth to show footprints. He looked across at the dark trees beyond the pasture. He turned back to the garden, looking down at his feet, shoving the gate closed.

He looked at Katherine, who had been watching him as he surveyed the scene. “Not much sign of anything happening,” he said. He looked at the dress. “Not much blood, either.”

They began walking slowly back toward the house. “I don’t know Katherine. I don’t mean to be flippant, but… I can’t really get that worried yet.”  Katherine stopped and looked at him, her face lined, eyes clouded.

Just then, Mr. Darborville and a ruddy-faced deputy came out of the door,  Darborville walking rapidly, explaining everything.  Katherine nodded to the deputy and fell in behind them. Lane shook his head and continued into the house.  He glanced back at them once, his confidence shaken by Katherine’s look.

***

When the Javelin whipped to the left and into the motel drive-up, Selena sat up with a start.  She looked around, confused.  Harsh light filled the car.  “What are you… Where are we?”

“Sleeping Beauty awakens!”  Lacy grinned at Serena. “Musta been a rough day, huh sistah?”  She laughed.

“Did I fall asleep?  Where are we going, what are we doing here?” She looked from window to window, searching for the familiar.  She looked at Lacy.  “What about my clothes?  Is this Carlisle?  What are we doing here, I thought you lived in Myers?”

“Don’t worry about it, sweetie, I told you we had to come over here and see some people, we’ll get you some clothes.”  She was still smiling.  She patted Selena on the knee.  “Yeah, we’ll get you whatever you need.”

Selena looked around at the motel as the car pulled up in front of the office.  She recognized it now, though she had never given it more than a passing glance.  Across the street was a convenience store she had stopped at a few times. She began to get her bearings.  They must have gone all the way through town while she slept, and stopped at the new motel, the one by the Paris highway.  Her stomach rolled uneasily again, and she felt panic rise in her throat.  She swallowed and took a breath, trying to calm herself.

“What is he doing in there,” she asked, looking at Lacy and tipping her head toward the office, trying to keep her voice from echoing the quaver she felt in her throat.

Lacy looked out her window.  “Oh.  He’s just… ah, he’s just checking to see which room our friends are in.  They didn’t know when we talked to them.”

“I hope you guys aren’t buying drugs or anything stupid like that.”  She was sure Lacy could hear the quaver now.

“Drugs?!”  Lacy laughed out loud. “Nah, honey, we ain’t buying no drugs!” She laughed again.  Affecting a tone of offended dignity, she mocked, “How could you think such a thing!” She broke into near-hysterical laughter, then forced herself to stop, but little puffs of laughter kept breaking out.

Serena just shook her head.  Crazy, she thought.  The thought was not reassuring.

***

Lane roused himself from the big chair quickly when he heard them approaching.  He stood in the doorway as they came up the hall, the deputy assuring Mr. Darborville and Katherine that he would call in the missing persons report immediately and someone would be in touch right away.  Darborville continued to issue instructions about an APB and detectives and superiors as the deputy hustled to his cruiser, and he stood on the porch watching ‘til the car was headed up the driveway, then came back into the house mumbling to himself.

Katherine stood in the hall watching him, then turned to look at Lane as Darborville went off down the hall.  Her face was still dark.  “Well, that should get the ball rolling,” Lane said, trying to cheer her up. “We should find out something pretty soon.”  Katherine just looked at him, then walked past him into the dark room and sat down heavily on the sofa.  Lane stood in the doorway looking in at her.  If he had brought a hat in, it would have been in his hands.  “Katherine, …”

“Not right now, Lane, I just need to think, okay?  We’ll talk later.  Go make yourself a drink or, make Mother a drink.  She’s in the kitchen.”

“Okay.  Sure.  I’ll just be in the kitchen then, if you need anything, or… Okay.”  He headed down the hall, looking at his feet.

Katherine sat with hands behind her head, leaning back, eyes closed, trying to think of nothing.  Trying to let it all slip away.  Her head was spinning, full of the uncertainty, the ambivalence that had bedeviled her since the first report.  She knew her sister, she knew what it looked like.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling that this time was different, that something wasn’t right.  She couldn’t explain the bad feeling that kept edging into her mind.

She propped her feet up on the coffee table and sighed deeply.  Images of Serena began to chase themselves through her mind.  Serena as a child, Serena on her horse a few months ago when they had last ridden together through the pastures they loved.  Serena on several occasions when she had gone wandering and come back late,  everyone angry yet relieved.  Serena and her many boyfriends, her coy ways and naïve flitting from heart to heart, unaware of her wake.  Serena the loving daughter, devoted sister, following in her footsteps yet always shining a little brighter.

***

“Come on in, meet our friends,” Lacy said, smiling brightly.  “They won’t laugh at your overalls.”

Selena sat in the car looking up at Lacy as she stood smiling, holding the door open for her.  “I don’t know, I feel so awful.  I must look disgusting.  I’ll just wait in the car.”  Lane stood by the car, hands in his pockets, looking around, scuffing his foot on the asphalt repeatedly.

“Look honey, it may be awhile, you know how it goes, and they might even have some clothes you can wear, hey you never know!”  She leaned down and caught Serena’s arm, tugging.  Serena pulled her arm away, but began to step out.  She was tired of sitting in the damp clothes.  She stood up and pulled the overalls away from her skin, looking around, hoping no one she knew would happen by, see her like this, with these people, in this car.  Lacy shut the car door and looked at her.  “Ready?” she said.

“I don’t know, I’ll just wait around outside, okay?”

“Oh come on!” Lacy said, the smile a bit forced now.  She grabbed Serena’s arm at the elbow and began to move toward the motel room, looking at Doug and nodding.   He headed for the door just ahead of them.

Serena, surprised at the strength of the grip on her arm, moved with Lacy.  “Okay! Okay!” she protested, struggling against the grip but moving along, muddled, unhappy, but compliant.  As they reached the door, she saw that Doug was opening it with a key.  He stepped aside to let them enter.

She looked at the key dangling in the door now, and spun toward Doug.  “Why do you have a key?  I thought…”  She pulled harder, but Lacy’s  fingers locked around her arm and they froze in the doorway.  Doug’s face hardened and she saw his hand coming up to her chest.  She opened her mouth to scream, looking past Doug for help.  As Lacy’s hand closed around her mouth and Doug shoved her backwards into the room, all she could see was the brightly lit sign proclaiming “Motel 8”.

***

Katherine had relaxed a little now, the images of Serena were mostly smiling and pleasant ones, sunlit hair tossed by a galloping horse, garden parties and ski trips.  She had released her doubts and anxieties for the moment, renewing her mental clarity in the silence.  Suddenly an image broke through that broke her peaceful reverie, brought her forward with a gasp.  In her mind, she saw an unnaturally bright, garish sign, and though it looked like one of those bad scenes shot through a lens smeared with Vaseline, she could clearly read the large lettering: Motel 8.  But it wasn’t the image that frightened her, it was the feeling: panic. Panic, and a scream. And somehow, she knew the panic and the scream were Serena’s.

She sat on the couch confused for a few seconds, icy sweat breaking out, mouth dry, eyes unable to focus.  And then she knew.  She stood, unsteadily at first, then rounded the couch and headed down the hall calling for Lane.  Slowly her mind began to clear.  Don’t scream, don’t want to cause a panic.  Just get Lane, get Lane and go. Because she knew Serena was in real trouble, and she knew where.

***

“Is this as fast as this thing will go,” Katherine asked.

“Can’t push a classic like this too hard,” Lane said, “Something might go.”

“Look, I know it sounds a little crazy…”

“A little?”

“Shut up and listen – this is for real, Lane.  Trust me, please.  Besides, if  I’m wrong, what’ve we lost?  If I’m right, we could lose a lot.  Okay?”

“Okay, big sister, but a blown head gasket could really slow down our progress wherever we’re going.”

“Okay, so don’t blow anything, just pick it up a little.  Motel 8,  you know where that is, right?”

“The new one, almost to the highway?”

“Right.  Just go straight, right through town.”

“Yes, m’am.”  They could see the lights of the little town ahead now, and Lane breathed deeply.  He felt it again, that deflated feeling, something telling him that she was right,  and despite his outwardly chipper attitude, he was not feeling very confident.

Katherine closed her eyes and leaned her head back, trying to maintain calm.  She had never been so sure of anything in her life, and never wished any harder she was wrong.  The scream kept replaying over in her mind, “the silent scream,” she thought, trying not to think of the painting.  She tried to replay the happy images of Serena, to contact a different image of Serena somewhere, but she couldn’t get past the scream.

They clipped through town, slowing only slightly.  The sun was hardly down, but there was little traffic moving.  When the Motel 8 sign came into view, Lane looked over at Katherine.  “What now?”

“Just pull in slow, like we were checking in.  We’ll just look around.”  Seeing the real sign made her feel cold all over, and she shook her head quickly.  “Maybe you could just go in and ask if they have a room, ask about the rates or something, come back out.  I’ll just sit in the truck.”

When Lane came back out, he leaned in the window.  “Thirty bucks a night. Cheap.  See anything?”

“Nothing.  Let’s walk around, like we’re trying to make up our minds.”  She got out and came around the truck, hooked her arm in Lane’s and they strolled down the drive between the rows of parked cars.  “Just a lovely couple, looking for a room.”  She smiled at Lane’s discomfort, but slid her arm out as soon as they were out of view from the office.

“Pretty typical night at the old motel,” Lane said, trying to keep his voice light.  They walked on in silence, looking from side to side at the cars, occasionally looking up at the second floor balcony.  Nearing the end of the row, they came to a stop.

Katherine looked up at him.  “Any ideas, macho man?”

Lane cut his eyes at her, but ignored the jibe, glad she could almost joke.  He was feeling pretty worried.  “No ideas, captain.”  They turned around slowly, looking back up the row.  “That is a nice classic over there.”  He pointed to a car a few spaces away.  “I do believe that’s a Javelin!”  He walked toward the car.  “Yep, it’s an old Javelin, about a seventy-eight I guess.  Did they still make Javelins in seventy-eight?” He looked at Katherine, and she just laughed.   “I don’t know, probably a seventy-something, anyway,” he finished.

The little laugh helped her relax a little, and she walked over to the car, following Lane as he did the obligatory stroll around the car.  Suddenly she felt that shiver again.  She shook it off and stepped up onto the sidewalk in front of the room.  She watched as Lane cruised up the other side of the car.  “Hope they’re not watching out the window, thinking you’re intent on larceny,” she said.

“Nah, man, anybody into classics knows the cruise of an appreciative fellow connoisseur.  It’s cool.”

Katherine looked back at the window of the room and again felt a chill run up her spine.  Tears welled up in her eyes, and she took a deep breath.  Suddenly from inside the room she heard a shrill voice. She only caught part of the words, but the anger was clear: “…shut that little bitch up!… whimpering … drivin’ me fuckin’ crazy!”  Katherine began to move away, glancing at the window.  The light was on and she could see shadows moving against the cheap drapes, figures flickering by the crack where they didn’t quite meet.  And it came again, the little chill.  I’m losing it, she thought.  But she stopped and stared at the window.

Another voice now, a woman’s, it too filled with anger and venom: “…shut up… bring all the cops in … town!”  Something in the woman’s voice filled Katherine with loathing.  She realized Lane was calling her, then turned and beckoned him to her, shushing him with her lips, pointing to the window.  He came over, puzzled, peering at the window, whispering “What?” to her.  She shook her head and tapped her ear.

The man’s voice again, rising to a crescendo:  “…her fucking phone number!”  Katherine’s mind was buzzing.  Ignoring Lane’s tugs at her sleeve, she stepped carefully into the junipers under the window, crouching low and bringing her eye to the crack in the drapes.  As she moved her head sideways to pan the room, she caught sight of a figure lying on the far bed, facing the wall, hands bound behind it’s back.  She couldn’t see the face, but as her vision traveled down the figure, she saw, with a shock that almost gave her away, Selena’s boots!

Her legs began to buckle and she sat down in the prickly ground cover, exerting all her will to keep from gasping, screaming, wailing.  Lane caught her shoulders and they got her out of the greenery and onto the sidewalk.  Lane was dying now, guesturing madly at her to speak to him.  She shook her head and pointed into the room.  “Serena!” she mouthed.  Lane almost dropped her, started to rise, but she held his arm and shook her head.

“Police!” she mouthed, holding her fingers to her face like a phone.  She pointed to the office, Lane nodded, and she stood up.  After a few seconds, she was stable and began walking toward the office.  Lane stood, looking at the window.  She looked back and he pointed to the ground.  She nodded and continued up the sidewalk.

***

It had been an easy rescue.  There were over a dozen cruisers on the scene before anyone made a move, with more on the way, but when the officers knocked on the door,  Doug had opened it up a few inches, then collapsed on the floor at the sight of them.  Lacy had screamed at Doug and locked herself in the bathroom.  Katherine and Lane went in right behind the EMTs, and there was lots of hugging and crying once they were sure she was unharmed.

She sat on the bed for a little while, rubbing her wrists and shaking with another sob every few seconds while Lane and Katherine patted and rubbed her in turn.  The sobs got farther apart and the tears stopped in a few minutes.  She looked up at Katherine with doleful eyes.  “Do you have any decent clothes I can put on?  I can’t go out there looking like this!”

####

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