Wow. Everything’s been going so well for the past couple weeks in this story.
Clearly everything will be sunshine and roses from here on out, right?
Ehehe. We’ll see.
Catch up on the rest here:
And here we have part 10!
I still wasn’t loving the moments where I caught myself looking like some housewife. But as I stood there stirring the veggies I had in a frying pan with a rag over one shoulder and my phone up to one ear, I had more important things I was thinking about. Besides, none of the kids were home to say I looked like their mom anyway. They’d gone out with some other family to an extended-memorial-day-celebration trip to the park.
And Fnu was on the phone. He couldn’t see me.
“I tell you, this UFO is like… it’s on a schedule, bro. It’s every other night. Exact same time. I still can’t catch it on video though. Or… y’know… figure where it’s coming from…” Fnu huffed out a sigh. “I had to take a break and look for local Bigfoot sightings last night. Memorial Day, y’know. Squatch likes his hot dogs and burgers.”
“Who doesn’t?” I absently scraped the wooden spoon against the bottom of the frying pan. “Everybody loves a good Memorial Day picnic…”
“Yeah, but I mean… oOOHHH…” the gasp Fnu sucked in probably drained all the oxygen in his area by how huge it was. “That picnic.Dude, I forgot to ask! How’d that go? The one you were decorating for? What did you do? Did you use the disco ball like I told you to?”
I laughed a little. “Outdoor picnic, moron. Where was I gonna put a disco ball?”
Fnu sounded mildly insulted for a few seconds. “Extension cords and stuff can… okay, whatever. How was it?”
“Weeeeelll…” I dragged out the word for a few more seconds and blew out my breath. “Decorations only got complimented by like five moms… I told off some bullies who were going after Rudy… aaand I had a conversation with the girl next door and got her phone number sooo…” I let it trail off into some sort of verbal shrug at the end of the sentence.
“Duuuuuude!”Fnu’s triumphant cry came over the phone line so loudly I nearly dropped the phone. “That is stellar!Five-hundred percent success.” He made the slight raspberry noise he always did when doing a fistpump.
I laughed and got my grip back on the phone before it fell into the veggies. “Yeah, I guess you could say it went pretty well.”
“You’re really getting the hang of this, huh? Congrats, bro. That’s really stellar.” I could still hear the wide grin in his voice. “So the girl next door you said? What’s she like?”
“Well we haven’t… I mean, we didn’t talk like a whole bunch. But she likes music too. We talked about that a bit. We…” I squinted, trying to cherrypick our kind of weird conversation from the day before. Both of us had kind of griped about the weather together, but that wasn’t something too much worth mentioning. If I just ignored the fact that she was probably talking to me because I was the only other one there who wasn’t a suburban parent or snot-nosed kid… it was a pretty good sign for things moving forward.
I just shrugged. “We talked a lot. It was good.”
“You text her or something yet?”
“I mean… nah. Nah, not really. Best to wait a few days on something like that. You know… don’t want to seem too eager and blow up her phone.”
Plus that I didn’t want to push my luck. She’d only given me her phone number on the front that I’d text her if Charley was on the loose. She said she wanted to “make sure her window was closed if there was some random wacko kid on the loose.”
But still. Better than nothing, right? She still could have not given it to me at all.
“Ah, play it cool,” Fnu observed sagely. “I get it.”
The front door creaked open and chattering voices flooded into the house.
Penrod’s voice rang out above the others. “Uncle Micah, what’s for dinner?”
Well, there went the last of my alone-time. The rest of the time these kids didn’t even have school.
I glanced over my shoulder before speaking back into the phone. “Yeah, that’s the idea. Well, kids are home now. I’ll talk to you later, man. Good luck with the UFOs.”
“Yep, yep. Good luck to you too. Later.”
I stuck my phone back in my pocket just as the kids came stampeding around the corner. Rudy looked a lot more chipper than he had the last few times he’d come home. He chucked his backpack onto the couch and vaulted up onto one end of the counter.
“What are you making?”
“Not like your mom usually makes anything better. Just be glad I’m not making death-by-quinoa or whatever the freak that casserole is.” I looked between the rest of the kids. “You guys have fun?”
“Yeah!” shouted Penrod and Tiny.
Rudy nodded and grinned. “I like when school’s out.”
Charley just nodded vaguely, seeming too distracted with looking out the window for the moment. There was a leaf stuck in her hair.
I eyed her, waiting for her to look my way. She didn’t.
Rudy scootched off the counter, his flip-flopped feet landing with a loud “smack” on the floor. “Can I play Donkey Kong until dinner is ready?”
“Can I watch?” Penrod asked.
“Can I braid your hair?” Tiny asked.
I pointed at the three of them in succession. “Yes, yes, and no.”
They all scampered off, leaving me and Charley in the kitchen. I cleared my throat a little.
Finally, she glanced in my direction.
I raised my eyebrows at her. “I know what day of the week it is. I also put the babygates back in place. No running away this Tuesday, you get me?”
She didn’t answer, just staring at me with the same old pokerface.
I put my hands on my hips, still holding the spoon in one fist. “I’m sleeping where I can hear anything that goes on in the house. And I’m paying attention this time, so no funny business.”
Charley shrugged and left the kitchen.
I figured that strategically losing one night of sleep a week might not be the worst idea.
For once, Rudy and his obsessive model-spaceship flying actually seemed to work in my favor.
Normally, I wasn’t letting him do it outside too late. Even if late at night was when his imaginary kidnapper did the most lurking around. But hey, on Tuesday when we needed the extra security to watch for Charley escaping?
Yeah, sure, I’d let someone else with a flying camera hang around outside for a while. I just gave him the memo to come inside by eleven.
I still planned on lying awake on the couch for a while. Keeping an ear open for Charley. And I did.
I messed around on my phone a bit and listened. Being right under her room I had a pretty good idea of whenever she moved around, even if she had a really quiet way of walking. There was one trip to the bathroom. A bit of flopping around on the squeaky bed. And silence. A lot of silence.
My eyes slid shut a couple of times.
I blinked hard and clicked my phone on again.
Eleven-thirty two. I frowned.
Has Rudy come in yet…?
My answer came in the sound of something big and metal smashing up against the backside of the house.
I jumped, adrenaline fully jolting me awake.
That would be a no, then.
I pushed up from the couch, scowling. He had his orders to come in at eleven… I stormed to the back door and pulled it open, stepping out.
Rudy stood there with his controller in his hands and his eyes wide behind his glasses. A small, dented UFO sat by his feet, still blinking its tiny lights frantically.
I raised my eyebrows at him.
Rudy put one hand up to tug at his blonde hair. “I… um… didn’t bring my watch out here. And the kidnapper only just came past a little while ago, so I still needed to be out here to catch video of him.” His words all tumbled out in a rush.
“Uh huh.” I went over to pick the spaceship up from the ground. “This isn’t happening again, buddy. You’re going to bed.”
Rudy frowned. “But I made sure the kidnapper didn’t pick up Charley when she left! He was too busy avoiding my UFO.”
I froze halfway to the door and turned slowly to face him. “When Charley… what?” My stomach sank. “You mean last week, right?”
“No, she left half an hour ago.”
“But I was…! I put the gates back up! I was listening the whole…” I couldn’t even find the breath to speak for a few more seconds. “You just let her go?”
He had better just be joking…
Rudy gave a wide shrug, spreading his hands like he didn’t see the big deal. “She’s with a friend.”
“Oh for the love of…” I dropped the spaceship on the ground and ran back inside, my heart pounding as I went up the stairs. I swung around the corner and opened the door to Charley’s room.
She wasn’t in sight. But the window wasn’t open.
I stared for a few seconds. I dropped down to look underneath the bed. Nothing. Where could she have gone? And how…?
Maybe Rudy had just been joking after all and she was… in the bathroom again?
I looked back to the bathroom. The door was ajar and the lights were off. I walked over and pushed it open to look inside.
And there was the answer.
She’d somehow scraped up the paint around the painted-down window edge and pulled it open. And there it was, still open.
Charley had escaped out the bathroom window. Where there hadn’t even been a babygate in the first place.
I couldn’t see through the mottled glass of the window so I went over and looked out, trying to figure out how that monkey of a girl had gotten down.
I couldn’t figure it out, but there wasn’t a dead body down below so she must have succeeded.
And… Rudy said she’d already been gone for at least half an hour. Nearly midnight out in the city. Yet again.
I swore and smacked my hand against the window, gritting my teeth together.
“Ooohh that window,” Rudy’s voice came from behind me. “Never used that one before.”
I waited until I felt like I could look at Rudy without strangling him, then I slowly took in a deep breath through my nose and turned around.
“You knew she left.” I kept my tone low. “And you didn’t stop her. You didn’t tell me.” I pressed my lips together and watched him, waiting for a response.
Rudy swallowed as he looked at me. Then at the wall off to the side, then back at me. He gave a slow, exaggerated shrug. “She does this sometimes and she’s okay. And she gets really upset when she can’t see her friend so… I let her go. Charley knows…”
I put my hands up and my head down, waving for him to stop talking. “Okay, first thing here. This is in no way cool. This is the uncoolest thing you could possibly be letting your sister do while I’m trying to keep you guys safe home and out of trouble. You tell me what your siblings are doing. You tell me when they’re doing stuff like this, okay?” My voice rose, cracking just slightly and I ended my sentence in a cough.
I took another breath and let it out, then narrowed my eyes at Rudy. “And another thing. Who is this friend? Who does she think she needs to visit in the middle of the night? Couldn’t she have just… seen this friend at the park earlier or something…?”
Rudy shook his head, perking up slightly like I’d just brought up a subject he liked. “Oh no. He likes it better when they hang out at night.”
My heart followed after my stomach, dropping down to my toes. I swallowed, raising my eyebrows slightly higher and taking a step closer to Rudy. “He?”
“Mmhmm,” Rudy bobbed his head in an enthusiastic nod. “Charley and I met him on the way home from school the first few times. His name’s Quinn.”
“And what is Quinn like…?” I prompted.
“He’s really nice. He likes kids and he doesn’t live in a house since he likes camping better and has different camps under bridges and in the woods. Also he doesn’t have shoes or haircuts. And he smells all smoky.”
A homeless man. Who wants to meet with children in the middle of the night. And right now he was meeting with my mute niece doing… goodness knows what with her.
My heartbeat slammed against my ribs and pounded in my ears. I swallowed, feeling like I needed to sit down
Rudy noticed my expression and his enthusiasm faded a little bit. “I like him,” he added hesitantly.
“Believe it or not, Rudolf, that doesn’t count as some sort of pedigree for this guy,” my voice cracked again. I sat down on top of the plastic toilet seat and pressed the heels of my palms against my forehead, working on getting a few more deep breaths. I drummed my fingers against my scalp in a frantic beat.
Normally with this sort of… homeless dude and littler girl interaction, somebody should call the police. But who would come out of that whole mess as the irresponsible, guilty one?
Me. And Charley possibly getting thrown into some mental institution somewhere because she was a danger to herself.
And Henry was going to absolutely murder me.
So I didn’t find Charley last time. So that didn’t mean I couldn’t find her this time. And I really needed to because this whole running away thing needed to stop.
Rudy’s footsteps sounded a little closer to me. “Uncle Micah…?”
I clenched my teeth together and looked up at him. “Where do you think they might meet?”
He blinked a couple of times. “Quinn gave her a map to show his camp a few weeks ago. Because he sometimes camps in different places and isn’t always here…”
“Rudy. Do. You. Know. Where?”
“I took her map when she left last week,” Rudy replied with a frown. “Cuz she knows the way now and I wanted to see if I could find it through my UFO camera.”
I felt a tiny bit of relief that immediately hardened into rock-solid determination. I pushed up off the seat. “Get the map. Wake up Penrod and I’ll get Tiny. We’re going to get your sister.”
Rudy hesitated for a second. “But Quinn…”
I stood there for a second, drumming my fingers against my leg before heading downstairs. A quick stop before I went to get Tiny. One item I needed to get was a flashlight.
And the other was my pocketknife. Because if it had a chance of getting this Quinn guy give Charley back… you’d better believe I was gonna use it.
Since Rudy apparently knew where the horribly scribbled map was talking about, he got to be the co-pilot and sit in the passenger seat.
Clementine was asleep on Penrod again almost before we got out of the driveway.
Penrod yawned, rubbing at his eyes as I jerked the car out onto the road and stomped on the gas.
“Where are we going?”
I glared at the road beyond my headlight beams. “I didn’t want to leave you guys alone in the house. We’re going to visit Charlotte’s friend. He’s at the…” I glanced over to Rudy.
“The woods down by the railroad tracks,” he finished, adjusting his glasses and squinting out the windshield.
“Right.” I tightened my grip on the steering wheel as we drove past a stop sign, ignoring Penrod’s horror that I didn’t stop. Rudy and I were going to have some serious words when Charley wasn’t in immediate danger. About how you don’t just let your sister keep up randomly meeting in the middle of the night with a homeless guy. And how you tell the adults if you know about this sort of thing.
Good lord I hoped the kids wouldn’t tell their parents too much about how Uncle Micah handled babysitting.
I kept jerking the car around a few more turns at Rudy’s direction. After another minute down the road out of town, I pulled onto a side road. A dirt side road that bumped off into the woods and looked like it’d been abandoned since the early days of America. It wound up a small rise that anyone born and raised in the Midwest might call a hill.
Rudy confidently pointed up the road. “It’s this way. The map definitely says.”
“The map definitely says,” I echoed in a mutter under my breath. I reefed on the gas again, sending us clattering off up the road. The pebbles sputtering up into the wheel wells sounded like a machine gun. I heard Tiny yelp from the back.
I didn’t slow up, keeping my tight grip on the steering wheel even as I winced at the harder bumps. I kept my teeth clenched together even as I spoke. “How far on this road?”
“It’s to the end of the road and then you go…” Rudy turned the map around a couple times, squinting. “You park first. And camp is off to the right.”
My car probably looked like it had been through a dust storm by the time we reached the end of the road. We were definitely in backwoods Missouri now. If I didn’t have Rudy’s word on the existence of Quinn, I would have bet a million bucks that no one had lived here in years.
I killed the engine and yanked out my keys. I stuffed them in the pocket of my jean jacket, pulling out my pocketknife. I sat there, unsure for a few seconds. Then I pulled out my keys again and tossed them to Rudy.
He fumbled with them for a few seconds, then looked up at me, a frown on his face. “Can I drive?”
I gave a humorless laugh. “No way. What you cando is lock the doors after I’m out of the car. And hit that red button if anything goes wrong.” I pointed to the car alarm button. “If Quinn tries to come up to the car? I don’t care how much you ‘like’ him. You hit that button to tell me, okay?”
Rudy fingered it, intrigued.
“But that’s the only time you push it. Either Quinn or… a black bear. That’s when you push the button.”
Rudy kept fingering it.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Actually, you know what?” I pulled the keys out of his hands and threw them back to Penrod. “I’m giving these to someone I actually trust.”
“Who’s Quinn?” Penrod asked as he fumbled with the keys, sounding scared.
“Dead meat is what he is,” I muttered, popping open my door and stepping out. It thumped shut as I whacked it with one arm. I blinked, taking a few seconds to let my eyes adjust to the dark in the woods.
Cicadas screeched in the trees overhead, making it almost sound like a jungle. The air was warm and wet and made my clothes feel sticky.
I shifted uncomfortably, adjusting my grip on my knife. Rudy said off to the right. So…
I moved over and looked. Sure enough, off to the right, there was a small worn footpath. And beyond that, somewhere off in the trees I could see the distant glow of a campfire.
So there wasa camp back there.
I let out a breath and took my flashlight out of my other pocket, then started walking down the path. Trying to avoid twigs and crunchy leaves turned out harder than I thought in the dark. But I wasn’t turning on my flashlight since I wanted to stay hidden for as long as I could.
I could hear someone say a few things as I got closer, but couldn’t make out the words. Well if they were talking, it was probably Quinn.
I ducked behind a thick tree trunk and peeked out towards the campfire. Still quite a few trees between me and them. And the fire wasn’t as big as I thought. Just a tiny little thing, giving just enough light to be visible as a campfire. But I could still see the outlines of a taller guy and a small girl sitting in little camp chairs next to the fire. A hammock was strung up between the trees on the other side.
The guy… Quinn… said a few more things quietly as I moved closer.
Charley nodded. She pushed up out of her chair and stretched a little, then tromped off into the woods to the side.
At first I almost gave myself away by moving after her, but I stopped, narrowing my eyes at the remaining outline by the small campfire.
This gave me some nice alone time with this Quinn guy before Charley got back. I’d take it.
I stepped out from behind the tree, not trying to disguise my steps anymore. I put the knife out in front of me and swung my flashlight around, ready to click it on. “Hey!” I barked out.
The figure jumped, turning towards my voice.
I stepped out into the opening, clenching my flashlight and knife tighter. All the nervous, freaked-out energy channeled into my words as I spoke. “Hands up and turn around, buddy. What the heck did you think you were doing with my niece? Huh?”
I tried to click on the flashlight button. It wouldn’t go.
Slowly, Quinn stood up and turned around, raising his hands. I saw the outline of the long hair Rudy had mentioned in his description.
The weirdo homeless pedophile who’d been having midnight excursions with Charley for God knows how long.
I spoke through my clenched teeth again, stepping closer. “You’re done being friends with her, you…”
I jumped, nearly dropping my flashlight. My heart skipped a beat. I’d heard that voice. That same word… earlier today.
I smashed my thumb down on the button of the flashlight. Harder this time.
And this time it clicked on, finally showing the face of this Quinn I was talking to.
His long hair, wide grin, lanky limbs and a plaid shirt over a t-shirt with a picture of a UFO on it.
He laughed. “Micah MacQuoid? How small of a world is this?”
Even though I hadn’t seen him in over a year, there was no possible way it could be anyone else.
I dropped my knife and flashlight, just staring.
Anybody see that coming? Hopefully I surprised at least a few of you. xD
Tune back in next week for more and we’ll see what the heck Fnu’s doing here!