If I Run, page 10
The grave has never seemed more final.
I wish I could believe in the afterlife.
As soon as I get to Shady Grove, I see a motel on Main Street called Gran’s Porch Motel. The rooms look like little white cottages, and there’s a courtyard at the center that has what looks like a porch. Something about it draws me, so I check in there. I like the idea of saying I have to go to Gran’s Porch rather than “the motel.”
I picture a family opening this place for travelers on their way down to Florida, hoping to offer homelike comfort. But the man behind the desk doesn’t seem to care much. He’s smoking a cigar that makes me cough, but he takes my cash for a week’s stay and gives me the key card.
The place is clean, and the room has everything I need. A bed, a chair, a kitchenette. I’ll be okay here until I find an apartment.
Leaving my car in the parking lot, I walk up the strip of adjacent stores and offices, looking for a Help Wanted sign. I’ll take anything. Just something to earn a living so that I can pay back my nest egg and get by day-to-day. I stop at two restaurants, tell them I’ve just moved here, ask them if they have any openings. Neither one does, but I leave an application just in case, under the name of Grace Newland.
I like Shady Grove. Its name makes sense, given all the trees that shade the roads. Whoever planned this town had a special respect for trees. It makes me feel warm, at home, and—except for the motel manager—the town and people have a Mayberry feel that makes me think I could actually make it here if I have to stay forever.
I finally see a Help Wanted sign in the window of a store called Simmons Cell Repair. I don’t know anything about servicing cell phones, but I decide to try it anyway. I push through the glass door, wait for a man who’s talking to a customer. I browse the glass cases until he’s ready for me, and finally, he turns. “Help you, ma’am?”
I smile at him. “Hi, I’m Case—” I stop midword and correct myself. “Grace Newland. I just moved to the area and saw the Help Wanted sign on the door.”
He tells me his name—Stan Simmons—and looks me over. “Do you have any experience working with cell phones?”
“No, but I’m a quick learner. Anything you teach me I can pick up right away. If there are manuals, I can read them all tonight. Most of my experience is office work.”
“So what brings you to Shady Grove?” he asks.
“I just like this town. I thought it would be a nice place to live.”
He gives me a questioning look, and I’m sure he’s going to dig for more, but he doesn’t. “Yeah, it is a good town. When I was in high school I had every intention of moving to a big city. Spent two years in Chicago but couldn’t wait to get back. You seem like a smart lady.” He inclines his head and studies me. “Can I count on you staying awhile? You’re not going to get homesick and take off back home next week, are you?”
“No,” I say. “I’m staying.”
He looks hard into my eyes, as if assessing me for truth, and sweat prickles my underarms. “I’m not expecting somebody to fix the phones,” he says. “My techs and I do that. But we also sell refurbished phones, and you would have to help do that. You’d mostly be a sales clerk, taking down what’s wrong with the phones people bring in for service, calling people when they’re ready, that kind of thing. You need to be good with people.”
I give him my best smile again. “I think I can be. My mama taught me good manners.”
He smiles. “We have five other employees, but one just had a baby, two of them are techs who do the repairs, and two of them are in college. We need somebody full time.”
“I can work full time,” I say, “and I can start right away.”
“One other thing,” he says. “This is a subcontracting job. In other words, I can’t afford to offer you health insurance or match your social security. So all my employees are subcontracted.”
I think about that for a moment, wondering if this is a trap. To the IRS, I’ll be self-employed. I’ll have to pay my taxes and social security myself. He won’t withhold anything from my checks.
It actually might be a blessing in disguise. A way to stay off the grid, at least until taxes are due next April. “I guess that’s okay,” I say. “When can I start?”
“Monday?” he asks.
It’s Friday now, so that will give me the weekend to get settled in. “Sure, no problem.”
He reaches out a hand and we shake. “Let me get you to fill out some paperwork so I can get all your info. You’re hired as far as I’m concerned.”
I wonder if he is the only one concerned, but I quickly fill out the application with everything I know about Grace Newland. Then I turn it in, feeling a little sad that I’ve had to deceive him. I’m getting tired of the lies, but what can I do?
I notice the cross on the wall and a framed Scripture verse. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Though I’m not a believer, I’ve had good experiences with people who are. They’re usually nice people trying to do the right thing. I’m always baffled by the way the media portrays them. If I’d never met one, I’d think they were all mean, intolerant prudes who wanted the world to line up like robots. I’m sure there are some who are shrill and bitter, but for the true believers—the ones comfortable talking about their faith, like Miss Lucy—I’ve only been left with good feelings. I like people who stand up for their convictions, even if I don’t share them.
I think I’ll be fine working for Mr. Simmons. I turn the application back in, and he looks it over, then says, “See you Monday! We open at ten, but I need you to be here at nine.”
I have a little jaunt to my step as I head back to the motel. I’m making progress. Once I feel like the earth has stopped trembling beneath my feet, then I can worry about proving my innocence and exposing the ones who murdered Brent and my father. But for now, I just have to stay hidden from day-to-day and forge what little life I can.
When I get back to Gran’s Porch, I sit in the quiet of my room and count out my money. I spent $3,000 on the car, plus taxes, then $600 on the laptop. I laid down $400 on bus tickets and $600 on hotel bills. I’ve also bought food and telephones and paid for the driver’s license and social security card, taxis, and a few incidentals I’ve needed along the way. I figure I’ve already spent $6,500, and counting out my remaining cash confirms that. Only $5,500 left. Somehow I have to replenish it. I can’t keep spending like this.
I realize that I didn’t ask my new boss what he would pay me, but even if it’s minimum wage, at least it’s something. Sighing, I use the phone I’ve designated as my Shady Grove phone and call Miss Lucy at the number she gave me. She answers quickly.
“Hello?” Her voice sounds happy and upbeat.
“Miss Lucy? This is Grace.”
I can hear the smile in her voice. “Grace, it’s so good to hear from you. Are you still in Atlanta?”
“No, ma’am,” I say. “I decided to come to Shady Grove. You put a hard sell on me. It sounded like a good place.”
“Oh, I’m so happy,” she says. “Now I have exactly one friend in town! You have to stay here with me. You can sleep in my bed and I’ll sleep on the couch.”
I would never make Miss Lucy sleep on the couch! “No, ma’am, I can’t do that. I’m doing fine. I even got a job already.”
“Where, dear?” she asks me.
“Simmons Cell Repair on Main Street. They had a Help Wanted sign, so I went in. They hired me on the spot. I start Monday.”
Miss Lucy’s pride beams in her voice. “You have a way about you, sweetheart. Now, you have to come over for dinner to celebrate.”
“No,” I say. “You just got there. I can’t make more work for Sandra.”
“But I’m cooking. Sandra loves having company. Now, you come at six, and here’s the address. Got a pen?”
Miss Lucy won’t take no for an answer, and frankly, I would rea
But her invitation to stay at their house is totally out of the question. I can’t make her guilty of harboring a criminal or being an accessory to murder. She doesn’t know who I am, but one day she might find out, and if she believes their story, it could break her heart. I can’t stand that thought.
But just eating with them shouldn’t implicate them. It would be good to be among friends tonight—even brand-new friends who know nothing true about me.
I show up at their house with a pot of flowers I picked up at Kroger, and they all seem glad to see me. We eat roast beef with potatoes and carrots smothered with gravy. I try not to eat too much, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a home-cooked meal. After dinner, Sandra’s kids clean the dishes, and Miss Lucy takes me into the missing girl’s room on the third floor, a room converted from attic space.
“Sandra has kept Laura’s room just like it was when she left it,” Miss Lucy says. “She didn’t make up her bed that day, so it’s still like that.” Her eyes tear up as she points to the shoes lying on their sides where Laura had kicked them off the day of her disappearance. “Coming in here makes me feel like she’s still with us, like she’ll walk back in any minute.”
“Have the police got any leads?” I ask in a quiet voice, feeling strangely like I’m standing on sacred floorboards.
“No, none. They combed the woods and dredged the lakes, offered rewards, but finally, when they couldn’t solve the case, I think they just gave up. They ruled her a runaway. But look.” She points to the girl’s computer table, where tickets to an Alicia Keys concert sit. “Sandra says Laura was so excited about getting those tickets that she practically had to peel her off the ceiling. She couldn’t wait for it. And this.” She points to a math notebook open on the bed. “She did her math homework the very day she disappeared. Why would a girl go to the trouble of doing her homework if she knew she was running away? No, something happened to her.”
I’m quiet as I look at the pictures of Laura around the room, all in groups with her friends. I don’t touch anything, but I bend over and study her features. “She’s really pretty.”
“She’s out there somewhere,” Lucy says. “We have prayed and prayed that wherever it is, God would show her an escape.”
I look back at her. “There was Elizabeth Smart. She was found. And those three girls in Ohio.”
“Yeah, that’s what we keep thinking. It could happen for her. But what has she been through in the meantime?”
I wonder how Miss Lucy feels about her prayers not being answered, and why she keeps believing when things have gone so terribly wrong.
It’s almost like she reads my mind. “The Lord sometimes uses sorrow in our lives to deepen us,” Miss Lucy says. “This is one of those times.”
“Why do we have to be deep?” I wonder aloud.
Miss Lucy looks at me as if she’s never considered that question. “Because what good are we if we’re shallow? He can use us when we have some depth. He had sorrows, so why shouldn’t we?”
I give her a soft smile. “You’re a very understanding soul.”
“Because I don’t blame God? Well, it’s true. He did have sorrows. Betrayal, abuse, heartbreak, physical beatings, the worst death imaginable.”
I don’t say so, but I don’t understand why that had to happen. Christians always act like Jesus’ death on a cross was inevitable, like Jesus had to die the way he did. But I don’t see it. For instance, why did God set such a high price on sin? Hadn’t he ever heard of a discount? Couldn’t he have accepted all those bulls and goats being sacrificed and called it even?
“I sometimes think that if there’s a God, he’s too hard on us,” I admit.
Miss Lucy sits down on Laura’s bed, runs her hand along the sheets. “Were your parents hard on you when you were a child?” she asks.
I didn’t expect that question. I think back. “My dad was, but not my mom. She had some struggles of her own, so she was pretty easy to get around. But Dad . . . he was the one who could be stern with us. But he also showed us that he was our biggest fan.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“Yeah, he was.”
I swallow the knot in my throat. “He died when I was twelve.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” She takes my hand, pats it. “Well, that’s how God is with us. He teaches us hard things, sometimes has to be stern with us, and disciplines us. All because he loves us.”
“Do you think that’s why Laura disappeared? Because you were being disciplined?”
“No!” she says without hesitation. “Evil just exists in the world. It will be repaid, but not yet. The devil gets his way sometimes, but it won’t last. Jesus said that the prince of this world now stands condemned. His time is short.”
I know the devil. His name is Gordon Keegan, and he’s on the Shreveport Police Department. He got his way in my father’s and Brent’s deaths. He’s trying to get his way with me.
If there is a God, I don’t see any evidence that he’s got Keegan in his crosshairs.
Her words hang in my head as we go downstairs. I look at the other pictures of Laura framed and hanging on the walls among her siblings. I’ve been trying to imagine what might have happened to her, so finally, I ask. “What exactly happened the day Laura disappeared? Where was she?”
“She was at a bonfire on the lake with her youth group that night. Her friends saw her there. One of them said she went to the porta-potty, and she just never came back.”
“That’s awful,” I say. “How long before they realized she was missing?”
“Probably a couple of hours of her not answering texts or phone calls and never coming back. There were about fifty kids there, and I imagine everyone thought she was with someone else. The youth minister finally called Sandra to see if she’d gone home. That’s when we called the police. At first they didn’t take it seriously. They figured she’d gotten a ride with a boy or something, that she’d be back.”
“Did she have a boyfriend?”
“No. There was a guy she liked at the time,” Miss Lucy says, “but he wasn’t reciprocating. Her friends said he’d spent some time talking to her that night, though, and she was very excited. But he was at the bonfire the whole night. Her friends say there’s no way she would have just left the party without telling anybody.”
There’s movement in the kitchen doorway, and I see Sandra standing there. I wonder if we should shut up, if this conversation will upset her. But she comes in and pulls out a chair. “Some of the youth group said they’d seen a dirty blue van with Kentucky plates parked near the rest of the cars,” she says. “They’d joked about whose car it was. It was gone when they started looking for her. But if that was the person who took her, no one else saw him, and that van was never seen again. She could be anywhere.”
The mood stays somber as I help finish cleaning the kitchen, so I finally thank them for their hospitality and tell them I need to get home to bone up on what I’ll be selling at my new job.
As I drive to my room, I think about the hole left in that family, the hole that will never be filled as long as Laura is missing. It’s so like the hole in my own family, the one that keeps sucking others into its vortex.
I wonder if the ones left behind should even be called survivors. We’re like half-dead souls, circling the vortex, waiting to get sucked in too.
Facebook is the pot of gold at the end of an investigator’s rainbow, and I take advantage of it now, checking the profile, pictures, and videos of every person Casey has ever friended. I work out a timeline of parties she’s attended, outings with her friends, dinners in restaurants. Even Brent’s page is full of information. Casey is in at least half the pictures he’s posted in the last year.
I find one of her friends who posts from the moment she wakes up until she goes to bed at night. I don’t know her, but I
I find a ton of information about Casey, studying the pictures and the videos this girl named Brittany has posted. Casey’s not an attention hog. She’s friendly in most of the videos, usually listening intently with interest in her eyes as one of her friends drones on. In some of the videos, I see Casey in the background, washing dishes and cleaning up after they’ve eaten. She’s always the one being useful.
In one of the clips, her friends are giggling hysterically after drinking too much, and someone says, “Casey’s the only one here with her head on straight.”
Casey just smiles.
“She didn’t drink anything tonight,” the person with the camera says. “Casey, what is wrong with you? Why can’t you drink with us?”
I find myself grinning with her smirk as she answers. “Have you seen yourself drunk?”
“So what are you saying? You don’t want to be like me?”
“I don’t need to have a buzz to have fun with you guys.”
“She is saying she doesn’t want to be like you, Brit,” one of the guys says. “You’re a stupid drunk.”
“And you’re not?” Brittany says in a huff.
“No. I’m a cerebral drunk.”
Another person who looks ragged speaks up. “They say that whatever you are in your real personality, you just become more of it when you drink. So like, if Brittany’s a stupid drunk, that means she’s always stupid. Drinking is just stupid on steroids. Rick is naturally smart, so he’s a smart drunk.”
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