She answered on the first ring. “Hello?”
“This is Colin McAllister.”
“Oh.” Pause. “Thank you for returning my call.”
He’d have given anything to be able to see her face. “I’m sorry I scared you that night,” he said.
“It wasn’t so much because we were alone in the parking lot.” She took a breath he could hear. “It was just because...”
“I recognized you.”
“Yes. You’re the first person, in all these years.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“The thing is...I don’t remember.” In a rush, she said, “The first thing I knew, I was in a car trunk. I was unconscious some of the time. Finally the car stopped, and I found a latch that folded the backseat down and got out. It was...it was an ARCO station, you know, with a mini-mart, at a freeway exit in the middle of nowhere. I hid for a long time, and eventually managed to get in the back of a U-Haul truck.”
Hearing the stress in her voice, he made sure his was soothing. “You ended up in Seattle?”
“Portland. I stayed there for the first couple of years.”
“Why didn’t you get help? Come home?”
The silence this time was so long he almost broke it. Finally, she said softly, “I didn’t remember my name. I didn’t know where home was.”
“Damn,” he whispered. He sank down on a bar stool in his kitchen. “Maddie...”
“Nell.” She sounded upset, maybe even angry. “I’m Nell.”
“Nell.” He cleared his throat. “When did you remember?”
“I didn’t.” Now her voice was small and tremulous. Oh, yeah, she was all over the emotional map. “I still don’t. Exactly. That’s why you scared me.”
Stunned, he said, “But when I said your name, you knew.”
These pools of silence had such emotional density, he had trouble surfacing to draw a breath. Her distress was nearly unbearable when he couldn’t read her expressions, couldn’t touch her.
“Yes,” she said. “But not until I heard you say it. It was like...something I already knew slipped into place. See, I do have memories. Jumbled ones. When I went online and saw pictures of my parents, I knew their faces.”
“You were scared because I could identify you.”
“I’ve always been scared. I never wanted to remember. I know I was abducted, but...I think I was running, too. I think I knew someone was after me. Maybe even that...whoever it was might kill me.”
A chill crawled up his spine, one that reminded him of that night, when he’d stood in the dark staring at that bike and the blood that had pooled in the red dirt.
“You don’t think your parents could protect you.”
“No. Or else...”
The chill spread, lifting the small hairs on his forearms. “You’re afraid of them, too.”
“Maybe,” she whispered. “I don’t know.”
Now he was the one to let the silence grow while he tried to think.
“Why did you call?” he asked at last. “Why are you admitting this to me?”
“I thought maybe I could trust you. It’s been hard, never telling anyone. And not knowing if I’m really crazy.”
“I don’t know a lot about amnesia,” he admitted. “I’ll tell you this. I encourage my officers to listen to their instincts. When we feel unease, or fear, there’s a reason. We notice things our conscious minds don’t acknowledge. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real.”
Nell was quiet for a minute. When she said, “Thank you for saying that,” she sounded calmer.
“What is it you thought you could trust me to do?”
A hitch of her breath told him her anxiety had kicked up again. “I don’t know! I don’t know what I want!”
“Maybe,” he said, “it’s time you came home.”
Silence again. “Do you know them? My parents?”
“I’ve seen your mother. Never talked to her. Your father I have occasional dealings with. They seem like decent people, Nell. I’m pretty sure not a day goes by that you’re not on their minds.”
She was panting now. “I need to think about it.”
“Okay,” he said, making his voice gentle. “That’s good, Nell. There’s no hurry. I won’t pressure you. I promised.” He couldn’t have even said where he was; he had never been focused so intently on the tiniest whisper of sound coming through a phone receiver. All he could see was her face. Not the one in the photo, but the woman in the parking lot. His chest felt bruised. “Maybe I can call you tomorrow. We can talk. Not about this. Just to get to know each other. If you have to trust me, you should know me.”