“I’m at the bottom, Mom!” he calls up to me.
I let out a huge sigh of relief. So much so that I almost end up dropping the flashlight into the well. There’s no way I’d be able to explain to Dad how that got down there, or think of a good enough excuse as to why it’s broken without him figuring me out, so I set it down on the side of the well, use the weight of my body to pin the ladder to the side of the well and call back down to Richter.
“It should be above your head! It felt like paper!”
I know that’s not the best description of what I’m looking for. Especially not with all of the dried leaves at the bottom—hell, even the shit we slept on felt like paper, but I know it had to be whatever was left over from what Jocelyn spent her last days on.
He falls silent, the only sound echoing back toward me is the shifting of his feet and his grunts as he tries to find what I sent him down for.
“I think I got it!” he calls up excitedly after a few minutes.
“Come on up!” I instruct him nervously. Leaning to the side, I grab the flashlight again and shine it down into the darkness. Agonizing seconds pass before I finally see the top of his head as he climbs up as quickly as he can. When he finally clears the top, I drop the flashlight onto the grass again and yank him over, hugging him tightly.
“Thank you, sweetheart. You’re so brave,” I whisper, kissing the top of his head.
“Aw, Mom,” he groans, shifting uncomfortably in my arms. I laugh and let him go. He picks up the rope ladder and starts to gather it back into a neat pile the way Dad always has it before he reaches over and pulls the wooden gate closed.
I put an arm around Richter’s shoulders as we walk quickly back toward the house. When we reach the front steps of the house, he holds the dirty, yellowed folded paper out to me, then runs inside with the flashlight.
Taking up my watch again, I slip the dusty paper into my bra and turn my attention back to the driveway.
Come on, Dad, I pray silently. Bring my baby back home.
The next morning, I’m woken up by the nudge of a boot. I wake up with a gasp and rub my eyes, quickly realizing that I fell asleep on the front step and that Dad was home now.
I look up at him and smile in embarrassment. He doesn’t look happy, but he doesn’t exactly look angry either—it’s more of a curious confusion.
“Did you sleep out here last night?” he inquires as he rubs his chin.
“Yeah,” I reply honestly. There’s no point in trying to come up with a lie. Dad has always been able to tell when any of us are lying, so I gave up that ghost a long time ago.
“Why?” he prods.
“I was waiting for Cleo,” I say softly.
He chuckles and shakes his head as turns around to glance at the driveway. “Well, I hate to break it to you, Darbs, but that kid isn’t our problem anymore.”
I didn’t mean to shout at him. It was what he said that jolted me so wide awake and full of anger, that I couldn’t help myself.
“Don’t raise your voice to me, little girl,” he warns in an even tone. “Grab the other two and bring the groceries in. If I decide to tell you what happened to her, then I will.”
I get to my feet, my hands balled at my sides. I want to hit him. I want to grab him by his shoulders and shake the answers out of him, but I won’t. Not while I still have two children under this roof to protect—not when I have a daughter missing and he has the answers.
Dad waits for me to get up and walk in first. It’s the gentleman that’s locked somewhere inside of him rearing its head. I know better, though. He knows that I’m a high-strung mess now and I’d more than likely attempt to make a break for it, run into town, and see if I can find my darling Cleo.
“Richter! Skylar!” he booms through the house. “Get your lazy asses up and help your mother with the groceries!”
The kids’ bedroom door opens almost immediately and I watch them rush out, hair wild, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, as they do as their father commands.
I wait for them to run outside before I walk into the bedroom I share with my father and close the door firmly behind us.
My fear of what’s happened to Cleo has turned into the anger of wanting to know where she is.
“Where’s my daughter?” I ask him evenly, turning and sliding the lock into place.
Dad lets out a laugh as he sits on the edge of the bed and pulls his boots off. He knows that the Darby that’s in the room with him now, is the same Darby who’s will