5 – Kayla (1/3) – 3:00 pm, Real World

Kayla laid her phone on the picnic table next to a printout of Theo’s long, obsessively-up-to-date, and helpfully annotated contacts list, and buried her head in her hands. The cheerful warmth of the early-afternoon sun did nothing to help the chill inside that was as much fear as lack of sleep.

Somewhere between Theo leaving early from his weekly DJ job at the club, which was highly atypical in itself, and coming home, he might just as well have dropped off the face of the earth. At least four of his friends had vanished at roughly the same time. And they were out of people to call, out of places to look. Out of ideas. Out of energy, for that matter.

The landline kept ringing, barely audible past the thunder that made the house quiver. Kayla finally woke up and dragged herself blearily out of bed and up to the kitchen to answer it, beating Max but not by much.

“It’s Heather. I’m really really sorry, but Zach went out to go to the corner store and get milk and that was over two hours ago.” Calm words, but panic bubbled just underneath, making Heather’s normally smooth-as-honey voice tremble on the edge of tears. “I’ve been out looking for him and he’s nowhere in sight. Not that ‘in sight’ means much, it’s pouring down in buckets out there. Hospital says he hasn’t come into Emerg. Maybe Theo’s heard from him?”

“Is Theo still up?” Kayla asked Max, trying to ignore the little icy feet that scurried down her spine—never a good sign when she got that feeling.

“Theo’s not home yet,” Max said, and both glanced at the glowing clock on the microwave. Coming up on three a.m. It wasn’t unheard-of for Theo to run into someone and get distracted and be late getting home, and despite all insistance that waking them was preferable, he sometimes forgot to call or text to let them know. If the weather was bad, he might have caught a ride instead of calling to ask them to come out in it, and that could have detours. Still, under the circumstances…

The icy feet called in reinforcements and repeated the earlier run down her back.

“Let me see if I can find him,” Kayla said reassuringly. “They might be together somewhere. I gather Zach doesn’t have his phone?”

“No, it’s here plugged in,” Heather said. “We both do that as soon as we get home. Thanks, Kayla.”

“Don’t panic yet, okay? It could be anything. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

She gave Max a quick explanation while she dialled Theo’s cell; she got voicemail immediately, which was odd. She said, “Hey, you, call home, would you?” and hung up. The bar had a back-end phone line for staff, and it was past closing but there would still be people around; she tried that, then waited while the manager went looking for anyone who might know whether Theo had left and when.

She thanked him, hung up, and rubbed her temples with one hand. “Okay, not so good. He left around midnight. Told Cindy he wasn’t feeling well and left his laptop there.”

“Hospital?” Max said. She could see her own growing worry mirrored in the tightness of his expression.

“Yep. Heather first. She’s probably got the number right there, too.”

The single local hospital’s emergency room had no record of Theo coming in, or of anyone unconscious and matching his description with no ID.

Max, meanwhile, had gone to get his own phone, and had tried first on that, then on Theo’s computer in the dining room as well, to reach Des. Kayla couldn’t recall ever contacting Des without a response in minutes: phone, text, email, various social media. In his own way, he was as bad as Theo. Nothing. His phone, like further tries on Theo’s, went promptly to voicemail, and there was nothing anywhere suggesting he’d been online since around ten-thirty when he’d said he was going to start building another recycled computer.

“Stay here and listen for the phones,” Kayla said, pinning her hair out of the way as securely as she could. She was going to get drenched no matter what she wore and it was summer, so she didn’t bother with anything beyond shorts and t-shirt and sandals, with the household’s heavy-duty waterproof flashlight, and her own phone zipped into a freezer bag and tucked into her pocket just in case. And, inevitably, her lock-blade utility knife in her back pocket.

“Be careful,” Max said softly.

She gave him her best confident, cocky grin, hoping he’d believe it even though she didn’t feel it. “I’m more of a handful than any of our missing boys.”

Heather was right, visibility was all but nil: huge drops slammed into the ground, and into her, with punishing force that left her breathless and wondering vaguely whether it would leave cheetah-spot bruises. The drops caught the flashlight beam and refracted it into near uselessness as she followed Theo’s normal route to the bar, and explored possible alternate routes on the way back.

“Nothing?” Max asked, helping her strip and wrapping a towel around her.

“Nothing,” Kayla said. “If this turns out to be just Theo forgetting to call, I’m going to kick his ass for that. It’s horrible out there.”

“Levi called.”

Kayla felt those little cold feet again, worse than ever, before Max even finished.

“Suzi took the dogs out for a last walk around midnight. He found the dogs alone, hiding under a porch or something, leashes dragging, over an hour later, both obviously terrified by something and he doesn’t think it’s just the storm. There’s no sign of her. Phone’s going to voicemail. She’s not at the hospital.”

“Fuck. This is just getting weirder and worse by the hour. What the hell is going on?”

Something very bad, she was sure of that, and she’d learned a long time ago to trust her gut feelings.

As the sun rose with all four still missing, they had expanded the circle of people to call, and then kept expanding it.

Niko’s bookshop’s voicemail now said it was closed due to a personal emergency and would re-open as soon as possible; Kayla left a message, though she wasn’t holding her breath—but couldn’t help wondering about the timing. A very short list of other local people in Theo’s contact list had yet to respond via phone, email, text, or social media, but she wasn’t sure how consistent any of them normally were.

And then Wade had returned the message left on his and Alison’s landline phone: he’d gotten home from working overnight at the sleep clinic to find no sign of Alison, the bed still made, her phone and keys and wallet gone, and attempts to call her got only her voicemail.

Max, with no response after repeatedly knocking on Des’ door other than Ramses’s distinctive high-pitched plaintive meow, unlocked it and pushed it open. “Des? You here? It’s Max and Kayla.”

Slim tuxie Ramses emerged promptly, but Ryu’s tabby tail vanishing under the couch was the only glimpse they got of him.

Kayla headed for the kitchen first. The bowl of kibble was lower than Des ever allowed it to get, though not entirely empty. Normally, there was always wet food as well, extra water to help Ramses’ aging kidneys and lower-carb to reduce the odds of Ryu gaining weight, but the scant streaks remaining in the bowls were dry and old. Kayla put them in the sink to soak, grabbed two of the alternate dishes from the drying rack, and got a can of food from the cupboard. Ramses coiled around her ankles.

“No sign of Des,” Max called from the bedroom. “Bed’s made about as much as it ever is. Looks like Ramses has been pawing at the blankets, piling them up, like usual.” He joined Kayla in the kitchen, and watched Ramses rubbing against Kayla’s hand and arm vigorously as she set the bowl on the floor.

“Start packing up their stuff,” Kayla said. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I’m not leaving them here alone. They’re used to our house. We can leave Des a note. If we’re overreacting, well, he’ll forgive us for wanting to make sure the cats are safe.”

“No argument from me. Something’s got Ryu spooked bad.”

“Ramses too, I think. Ramses just reacts to being scared more like Theo does: he goes to friends for comfort.”

Five missing. All had grown up together all their lives, all were present at the blackout barbecue. Only two others fit that description, and both Erica and JC remained unaccounted for, neither answering phones; neither had an alternate number on Theo’s list, Erica’s listed work number went to an office of some kind with weekday hours, and there was no work number for JC. It was a pattern, of sorts, but one without any apparent meaning.

Which left them… where? The police would just laugh them out the door at this point. She’d talked Max into going to check on Heather in person, figuring that Heather could use a shoulder to cry on but also hoping that the respite might allow her to clear her thoughts and think of something.

Theo’s out there somewhere, probably with Des and Zach and Suzi and Alison and maybe Erica and JC, and I’m dead sure he needs me. But what do I do? There has to be something. Life without Theo… just not going to let it happen. Somehow. But how?

A somewhat tentative rapping at the gate made her raise her head and look over her shoulder. It wasn’t closed tightly, and swung inwards under the pressure, revealing a woman, cheetah-lean, dark hair cropped short, and Kayla figured she had at least a decade on the visitor. Her chocolate-brown tank-top bared t-shirt tan lines and, combined with khaki cargo pants and laced black boots, made a sharp contrast to the motley collection of rather folk-y jewellery adorning neck, wrists, fingers and ears. Resting against one hip, the strap across her chest, was a simple old-school messenger bag of faded canvas that had probably once been coppery-brown.

“Do I know you?” Kayla asked wearily.

The woman shook her head. “No. But I think I can help you.”

“If the next line has to do with finding Christ, I’ll probably throw something heavy and my aim is really good. I have someone a fuck of a lot more important to find.”

“I’m not here to preach. Or to sell anything, or ask you to donate to anything or to support anyone. I can probably help you find whoever you lost.”

Kayla slammed both hands down on the table, which made the cellphone jump at least an inch off the wood, and spun around to stand up. “There are two people on this planet I care about more than anything. One of them is missing, and the other one is ripping himself to shreds. Other people who matter to me are also missing. Think really carefully before you turn this into some kind of sick joke.” She was only average height, not particularly impressive physically, but she’d learned long ago—not long after she’d learned not to cry because crying only made you a target—how to use body language and voice to intimidate, and she was in no mood to be tolerant.

“The one who’s missing,” the stranger said, unmoved. “Someone who was born in and grew up in this immediate area and has never lived anywhere else, or at least not for long, and right around forty-five? There are others who fit the same description, and they were all present on the night of the blackout when something odd happened involving a woman, probably an old and frail one in need. You did something nice for her and she said something that made no sense. And they’re all missing, but no one else is.”

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