My blood ran cold. “A little boy?” My voice sounded hoarse.
Sal nodded, frowning. “Yeah. Ten-year-old riding his bike to the town pool, and he just disappeared. Name’s Wyatt Geller. You know him?”
I swallowed heavily, gripping the box under my arm as I ran a hand through my hair. The shop was closing in around me. “No. Thanks for letting me know, Sal.”
Sal nodded. “Yeah. You be well, Gabriel.”
“You, too.” I stepped outside, squinting against the sudden bright light, and breathed deeply as I walked to my truck. Just disappeared. Christ.
I didn’t even remember starting my truck or turning out of the hardware store parking lot. Suddenly I was driving down the road, my mind focused on that day, the day in the empty lot near my house. It had been eighteen years, and I could still recall so vividly the way the air smelled that day—like dust and the hollyhocks that grew along the chain-link fence. I could still remember the way the sky had been so blue, filled with billowy white clouds. Peaceful. It had all been so peaceful. And then it had all been yanked away … stolen. Just disappeared.
Without making the conscious choice, I found myself headed for that lot now. Of course, it wasn’t empty anymore. There was a small white house with a porch and a picket fence sitting in the spot. I wondered if the people who lived there knew. I wondered if they ever thought about me, ever sat on their porch on a summer evening, sipping iced tea and wondering what it had been like the day I’d been snatched from my life by the devil himself. Right from that spot. If they did, I bet they’d shake their heads and click their tongues and murmur, “How awful. His poor mother. His poor father. I don’t even want to think about it.”
And then they wouldn’t.
But I didn’t have that luxury.
And yet, sitting there in my truck, idling on the calm suburban street, a certain peace flowed through me. I was here. I had survived—that day, and every awful day that came after it for six straight years. And I hadn’t only survived, I had thrived in almost every way that was important.
Gary Lee Dewey had stolen so much, but not everything. “You didn’t get the best of me,” I murmured. “Not even close.” Despite his best efforts, I had walked out of that dank basement with my soul intact.
Lord, please let that little boy be okay.
I drove the very short distance to my childhood home, where I pulled my truck over and sat looking at it from across the street. The new owners had painted the house a pale gray with forest-green shutters. The white picket fence looked the same, and my childhood swing, the one my dad had hung, was still in the tree in the front yard. I felt my lips curve into a small smile, hearing in my mind my mother’s voice, my father’s laughter, the bark of my childhood dog, Shadow. I closed my eyes and swore I could smell the lemon meringue pie my mother would make on special occasions because it was my favorite. I wanted that again. To have a family of my own, someone to love me, and someone I could love in return.
And as I sat there remembering the happiness I’d once known, the face that flashed through my mind was Crystal’s. Beautiful Crystal, so hard, so wary of the world. Why? What happened to you, Crystal, to bring you to that velvet-curtained room? That purple-walled prison? Crystal. The name still felt wrong, even in my thoughts. God, I wanted to know what her name really was. Who she really was.
And then what, Gabriel? Then what? Will you sweep her off her feet and live happily ever after?
I ran a hand through my hair, exhaling. She was doing a job, and as far as I knew, it was nothing more. And yet, I’d sensed her own battle in the way she looked at me as she’d moved closer on the couch. If she was struggling with something … Christ, I had so little experience with women. And I had a feeling Crystal was far more complicated than most.
Feeling confused and somewhat defeated by my own thoughts, I pulled away from the curb and headed back to the quarry. When I arrived, I brought the box inside the office and set it on the counter. Dominic was with customers in one of the showrooms, so I gave him a nod. He raised a hand before turning back to the woman in front of him, her finger on her chin, looking between two samples of granite.
I walked back outside and took the path to the edge of the quarry area. George was just stepping out of one of the wheel loader trucks and stood for a minute, talking to the driver. My eyes moved around the gargantuan canyon with water at the bottom. I was struck as I always was by the vastness of it, by the miracle of nature, and the fact that the most beautiful things came straight from the earth. When George spotted me, he waved, removing his hard hat and walking to meet me.
“Hey there. I heard you went into town.”
I smiled. “Yup.”
“How was it?”
“Not too bad.” George regarded me momentarily and then nodded, seemingly satisfied by whatever was on my face.
“Good, I’m glad.” I followed as he started walking. “How’s the mantel coming along?”
“It’s done. I finished it early this morning before I left for town.”
“Well, damn! Let me see it.”
I laughed, and we walked back up the hill to my workshop. The cool, air-conditioned space made me sigh after the dry heat of the outside air. The large fireplace mantel and surround was against the far wall, covered by a sheet that I removed carefully before I turned toward George. For a moment he just stared at it before moving closer, kneeling down and examining the detail. I watched him as he studied the floral designs and leaves vining up each side of the pale gold marble, his finger following the stem of a rose, a look of reverent admiration on his face.
I had been hired to re-create a fireplace mantel and surround for a couple in Newport, Rhode Island, who had bought a mansion built during the Gilded Age and wanted to bring back as many elements specific to that era as they could. This piece would go in the formal living room.
George stood, shaking his head, tears in his eyes. I smiled softly at his emotion—the same depth of feeling he always displayed at the unveiling of one of my pieces.
“You’re a master. It’s no wonder you have a waiting list a mile long. Your dad would be so damn proud.” His arms dropped to his sides. I knew he wanted to clap me on the back, or maybe squeeze my shoulder like he did with Dominic when he had done something that made George proud, but he knew I didn’t like it, had been conditioned not to get too close to me. I always felt both relieved and mildly ashamed by it. “It’s exquisite.”
“Thanks. I sent them a photo this morning. Sounded like they really liked it.”
George smiled. “Really liked it. I’m sure that’s an understatement, and you’re too modest to say so. But I’m glad they’re pleased.” He winked at me and I laughed softly. “Got the shipping all set up?”
“Not yet, but I will today.”
George nodded. “Great. What’s next?”
“I have the balustrades for the terrace in Chicago. Those shouldn’t take long, and then I’ll be starting on the French project.”
“Okay. If you need any help, you know where to find me.” He laughed as he walked toward the door. We both knew he couldn’t carve to save his life. He turned when he got to the door. “I’m real proud of you, Gabriel.”
“Thanks, George.” And I was thankful. I had lost my own dad for the first time when I was taken. But even at nine, he was the man I knew I wanted to be. I remembered clinging to his love for me, his affection, his calm strength, believing that if I ever got out of that basement, it was the safety of his arms I was yearning for. And then I’d lost him again when I escaped and found out he was dead. The fact that he never got to know I made it was a constant hole in my heart. Yet George, the man who had been my father’s best friend and business partner, often reminded me that he would have been proud of me. And it helped. It had helped every day for twelve years.
I took my time covering the piece, cleaning up my studio, and filling out the necessary shipping forms for the mantel. As I was putting some supplies away, I caught sight of the small figures I kept at the back of a high cabinet—the figures that had saved my life once upon a time. The figures that had been my only friends. The sight of them no longer brought a heavy feeling of melancholy but instead a small twinge of happiness. They were another reason—maybe even the main reason—I was standing right where I was.
“Hi, guys,” I said, nodding at each of them, chuckling softly at myself self-consciously. “Nice to see you.” I told myself for the hundredth time that I should just throw them out. What was the reason I held on to them? They were the last physical reminder of the pain I’d endured for years. And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t sure why my eyes lingered on the figure on the end—the stone girl with the flower held in her hands. I whispered her name. “Eloise. Lady Eloise of the Daffodil Fields.”
Everything is going to be okay. Maybe not today, but eventually. Do you believe?
Racer, the Knight of Sparrows
I walked off the stage, limping slightly once I was out of sight. “Damn blister,” I muttered. I’d been walking everywhere for the past couple of days, and the blister I’d gotten on the highway the day my car broke down still hadn’t had a chance to heal. I supposed my job didn’t require many fancy dance moves—the pigs out there were happy enough with a few hip thrusts—but I liked to challenge myself to come up with a new routine every once in a while. Not for them, but for me.