No one said a word.
Not a single person would tell Emily what happened to her daughter, Aubree, the night of the twelfth. Like any other weekend, she’d dropped the girl off at her grandparent’s ranch so she could work double shifts.
Like all the other times, she spoke with them during her midday breaks. In the background, she heard her daughter laughing while holding side conversations with her cousins and other visiting friends.
Every time she checked in with her parents, she received the same reports. Aubree wouldn’t eat her peas. Only wanted a hamburger. She went to sleep late and slept in again. Didn’t want to milk the cow but oh goodness we couldn’t get her to leave the horse alone.
It was all normal.
Or at least it was until Monday morning when she went to pick Aubree up. Emily was used to going inside, grabbing a bowl of homemade ice-cream and calling for her daughter a dozen times before actually being able to leave. This time, she waited on the steps, duffle bag clutched tightly over her arm.
In hindsight, it was stupid for her to drive off. She was just so happy to see her baby—excited even. She had gotten off of work an hour early and came straight for Aubree without resting in between. In the car, she chatted for the first twenty minutes of the ride, never noticing that Aubree hadn’t replied. At the time, Emily wrote it off as exhaustion. She should’ve recognized then that her talkative daughter wasn’t talking at all.
But the news she’d received at the end of her shift was too sweet to hold in. Her boss at the clinic was going to promote her. Emily was already imagining what she could buy her pride and joy. Aubree had talked about getting a new mattress. Brand new, not from the swap meet like her last two. Emily thought he might put a little extra on her loans then get her baby something suitable to sleep on. Something without wires that poked her back or left tiny scratches on her legs. Something that didn’t randomly collapse in the middle.
Aubree’s teachers had already emailed a few times to complain about her sleeping in class. There was nothing she could do except let guilt consume her. Emily herself barely slept. She understood why her daughter didn’t. The sounds of fighting and chaos outside their window on the wild dangerous streets kept them both up.
The promotion was supposed to change everything. She’d finally saved up enough to put a deposit on one of the nicer one bedroom apartments closer to Emily’s school. They weren’t going to have to leave two hours before school began just to make it on time.
Life was supposed to get better after the twelfth.
But it only got worse.
Now the school was calling for a different reason. All the teachers wanted to know why Aubree wouldn’t talk anymore. Emily made excuses…as best she could. The truth was she didn’t know. All she knew was since the twelfth, her daughter hadn’t spoken a word. That was three weeks ago.
Aubree communicated through nods and head shakes only. On a rare morning she’d give a quick thumbs up. The child even stopped snoring.
Emily blew at the steam curls raising from her mug of hot chocolate. Staring out the window at the burnt brick wall, she racked her brain for a solution. She’d interrogated her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. Three trips were made to the ranch –minus Aubree—to hunt for clues. Everyone insisted that nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Well, almost everyone. Uncle Thomas couldn’t be found. Her mother said that he went fishing…the first time. Movie theater the second time. And the third-time Emily visited, her father said that Uncle Thomas was down by the lake fishing and couldn’t be bothered.
The only problem was when Emily drove by the lake, no one was there. And there weren’t any recent tracks in the dirt.
The front door open and slammed closed, snapping Emily’s attention back to her kitchen. Aubree dropped her backpack on the carpet and rushed to the bathroom.
“Are you okay?”
Emily called out. She left her spot at the window and moved closer to the bathroom door. The sound of rushing water could be heard from the outside. “Aubree?…Aub-”
The shower started, cutting her off. She glanced at the tattered backpack. The bathroom door. The door of her daughter’s bedroom.
Her gaze drifted over to the book bag again. Emily eased down next to the bag then cleared her throat to cover the sound of the zipper opening. What was she looking for? Nothing was ever in that old Jansport except crumbled cereal bar wrappers and homework folders.
Still, she dug through all the papers, careful not to mess up anything too much. She’d reached the bottom of the bag when something vibrated against her fingers.
Aubree didn’t have a cell phone. Emily pushed a crumpled sheet of paper to the side and found the latest Iphone shoved inside a hidden pocket of the bag. She glanced at the bathroom door then quickly removed the device.
A message scrolled across its glowing screen. Emily read it and gasped:
Grandma: The body’s starting to smell.
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