I trace my finger around the icy window and take a deep breath. It feels nice to be away from school, from the house, and... from the woods. The library's in the middle of town, surrounded by little locally owned stores and businesses. It feels safe, but unusually cold. I rub my hands together. The cold is never a good sign, yet another thing I've grown to hate; the cold just like the night.
I look above at the windowed dome ceiling of the library as Caitlyn sprawls across an old, leather couch and Faye sits on the edge of a desk, thumbing through a magazine. The rain has gotten worse since we've arrived. It's hard and silver against the pitch black night and the frost is doing nothing to calm my nerves. I shutter, turning to Faye. "Is it always this cold?"
She laughs as she gets up and more lights switch on, illuminating the towering rows of books. "It's usually really cold in here, but it feels even cooler tonight." She turns and heads towards the office behind the counter. Another light switches on and the thermostat starts to hum. "There, 73. It was down to 55."
I shiver and slump over on a cushioned chair next to Caitlyn. Faye hops up next to me. "I thought you had things to search for," she says pointedly and grins in false irritation.
I frown, running my fingers through my hair. "I don't know where to begin. I feel like I get one step closer and then, then the questions cloud my mind. I don't know what to think or where to look." I lift myself from the chair slowly.
"What questions, what are you looking for," she hums almost instantly.
Caitlyn sits up too, a curious, malicious smile spreading across her face. "Yeah, what are you looking for?"
"Don't start," I say, eyeing them both irritably.
Caitlyn throws her hands up, "Excuse me for asking."
My stomach is turning and a sick sort of nausea is setting in. I don't know where to begin just as much as I don't know how to tell them. I start to pace before Faye blocks my course, grabbing my shoulders. "You've got to stop, you're making me nervous."
"Wh-", she begins again before I break in. "Where do they keep their records? Major stories from the newspapers. Missing persons..."
Faye cocks her head and Caitlyn raises her eyebrows. "Public records?" They ask in unison.
I half-smile at their expressions and half-smile at how insanely suspicious it all sounds. "Just show me."
"It's not alot, but it's as good as anything right now," Faye says, stopping in front of a large shelf towards the back of the building. It's lined with files of every size and I shake my head in response, "No, this is great. Now I have something, I don't have to start from nothing." There is so much in front of me and I know I have little time, but seeing something that can possibly give me answers is relieving. Relieving in a hopeless way.
I reach out and grab a hand full of the vanilla white binders. Faye follows my lead and I go to retort, but she just shakes her head. "I'm helping in some way or another. Now, where do you want me to put these?"
Sometimes I don't know what to think of her, but she is helping. "Anything could be nothing and anything could be everything," I whisper only for Faye to start eyeing me as we walk back to the front where Caityln's still lying, mindlessly, on the couch.
I sit down on the floor next to her and start to spread out the files. They all have different names and cases and my head spins just thinking of what I might find.
My thoughts are interrupted by a loud buzzing. Faye jumps nervously and grabs her right- hand pocket. "Sorry," she mumbles and is lost in her phone.
I return to the pile of records. There has to be something in here. Anything, anything at all. I thumb through the obvious cases. These are too clear. I'm searching for mystery and questions like my own: questions unanswered. Images of numerous people splash the fronts of different pages, but they're scattered victims, from assault to robbery. I need missing persons and I can feel my patience wearing to nothing as I page faster and further through the records. Nothing, nothing, and then, seeming to rise from everything else, I find what I'm looking for. A smile spreads across my face, but quickly turns to a frown. 'I shouldn't be smiling,' I tell myself. All of the pain and suffering, and I'm smiling. My skin crawls in painful jolts as I open the file. I stare into faces gone. It's like seeing ghosts, and, somehow, it feels familiar. Like looking in a mirror.
I scan page by page and one by one, I read the names.
Amber, 25: missing date 1998, presumed dead.
Quinn, 17: 2001.
Theo, 19: 1996.
I look into their faces, and I can't help the feeling of emptiness that devours me. The ages grow younger and the faces more innocent. Tears start to swell in my eyes as I look up. Faye's standing across from me, her eyes locked on the photos, her expression just as pained as mine. She coughs and looks up to me. "It's horrible," she whispers, "And to think what they went through." She shutters, "If that ever happened to...." she trails off and I know exactly who she's thinking of: her younger sister Gemma.
Gemma's only eleven and she reminds me vaguely of goldy-locks: her golden hair swoops around her face in loose waves and she has the most curious, grey eyes, always flicking from this thing to that. I found myself staring into them once; it was like I could see her innocent soul right through. She's brave like Faye. She is strong, but she is quiet. Where Faye's outgoing, Gemma is reserved. Everything, as she says in her soft voice, is interesting. "Everything has a purpose." I often wonder what she sees. I wish I could see the world through her eyes, if just for once, though she reminds me of me in a way; she's the one consumed with a never ending array of questions. Faye, on the other hand, is always going. Sometimes it seems she'll never stop; she's her own super-woman. Top of her class, valedictorian, and I'm her side kick. But, school is the last thing on my mind these days. The slender man takes everything's place.
Faye shoulders me, bringing me back to reality. "Why are you looking at these?"
"Faye, I already told you-"
"I know, I know, I just can't help-" She begins before her phone interrupts her, which is very hard to do. Once she gets started, well.... it's a pain in... hard to get her to stop, though I'm glad she had. I know what this looks like from the outside. I know what I look like from the outside, but still, I have to do this. I have to know these things, no matter what it takes.
My eyes fall back to the faces. A girl, about age eight, is the next victim. "Missing since 2004… eight years," I muttered miserably to myself. I flip her picture back over; I almost can't stand to look at her face. She seems so familiar… almost too familiar. Like the girl's voice from the woods; I feel like I know her.
My hand shoots back down, flipping it over again in a hurried, crazed rush. Something crosses my mind... A crazy thought, but maybe....
Faye's voice fills the room. My eyes flick up, and I turn the page back over, hiding the girl's face. My eyes widen, buzzing fills my ears, and my stomach knotts. My mind feels numb. What had I just seen? My fingers dig into my legs. It can't be.
"Are you alright, Arie? You look like you just saw someone get shot," Faye says as she shoves her phone back into her pocket.
I swallow and try to push back my feelings and the image of the girl now ingrained in my mind. "I'm fine," I insist as convincingly as possible.
"Ok," Faye says hesitantly.
"Who was that," I continue, motioning to her phone.
An annoyed look twists up her face, "That was Gemma. Apparently she needs her phone, which she so-" She takes a deep breath "-She left in my car. Sometimes I wish she was my older sister, not the younger one." "Do you mind if I go run this to her? I'll be back in like… ten minutes."
"Yeah," I say, forcing a cool expression, though my jaw's still gapping.
Caityln pops up, bouncing on her toes as she does. "Can I come with you," she asks, her face lighting up. Her and Gemma are like Faye and I: inseparable. Wherever one is, the other can be found.
Faye looks from me to her and ends with a tilt of her head. "It's not really up to me," she says as her eyes meet mine.
Caityln follows her gaze, looking beyond irritated. She purses her lips and rolls her eyes. "Can I go," she asks me bitterly.
I wrinkle my nose, "If it gets you out of my hair."
The ends of her mouth twitch, but the smile doesn't persist. She instead looks back to Faye, who's laughing histerically, and starts to bounce again. "Gemma won't mind, will she?"
Faye raises her eyebrows, "You're kidding right?" "Meet me out in the car, it's unlocked-"
"You didn't lock your car," I cut in.
She waves her keys in front of her, "Calm down, mom. I just did."
I bite my lip, "Sorry." My stomach's already knotted enough without having to worry what he… or…. Whatever it is, could do to Faye and Caitlyn. "Humor me, will you," I ask.
Faye nods and Caitlyn bursts into laughter, "So paranoid." Faye elbows her and motions her out to the car. After a minute, the heavy door to the library slamms shut, confirming Faye and I are alone.
"Are you sure you'll be alright here… alone," she speaks up.
"Yeah, I told you. I'll be fine," My lips move automatically. It feels horrible to think for even a moment I will be here alone. But, if Faye leaves, then maybe I can sort this out.
"Alright," she says skeptically and before I know it, I'm alone. Nothing but myself and my thoughts.
I stare at the photo for what seems like ages and finally I force myself to believe what I'm so desperately afraid to. I'm the girl in the photo; there's no way around it, too many things point toward the conclusion. But, it also doesn't add up. How am I that little girl, assumed missing for over seven years? Assumed, most likely, to be dead. None of it makes sense, it only adds to the nightmare of my life. I feel like a puppet and everyone is pulling the strings except me.
I hold the picture between my hands. I remember a photo of myself from the same age that almost exactly matches this one. Same brown hair, same hazel eyes, and I know for a fact that the shirt from the photo's mine. I know because that's the last thing my mother gave me. 2004: that was the year my parents, my real parents, died. A recreational plane crash took their lives and forever scared my own. That was the year my sister and I were adopted… or, so that's what they had told us then. Was I too young to realize what had happened? Were my parents, my adopted parents… My thoughts trailed off. Whatever this is, they have some serious explaining to do. My stomach drops, how can I even tell them? Just go up and ask? Apparently I've been missing since I was eight and my name is Ariana Finch. Same first name, but the last name's the problem. It's one I've never heard before. Confusion sets over me and I feel more alone than I have in my entire life. What's a lie and what isn't?
The photo falls from my hands to the ground and I slowly reach out to pick it up. The last thing I want to do is loose the evidence. Any of it.
My fingers reach the edge of the clipping as an overhead light flickers. "It's nothing," I tell myself, but I can't help but wonder. A chill starts to climb up my spine. "Please," my lips quiver and all I can think about is the girl in the woods and the girl in the… well, myself. "Think, think! Common, the connection is right there, I can feel it! It's just," I trail off, slumping to the cold, hard ground. I look up at the domed ceiling. The windows look like something straight out of a horror film. I squint harder as I see something move above me, but nothing's there. "You're going insane," I say aloud, but a noise from behind sends me spinning around.
My eyes are wide and the reflection is clear in the window now in front of me. A tall, slender figure sending breaths of fog icing tiny circles on the pane.