This was the fourth time Kenzie had attempted to follow the trail himself. After three days, however, the petals themselves had mostly scattered. He followed it more by memory than by sight.
It was cooler today, the sky beginning to fill with clouds. The cows in the paddock weren't resting in the shade this time, they were grazing on what little grass remained. Tara likes looking at the cows, he thought- she would have lingered here for a while.
So far they'd managed to track her trail down to the side road onto Richard and Jane's property. But there, about half a kilometre down the gravel road, the trail died out. There were no more flowers, and what remained of her footprints had been unwittingly overwritten by the tire tracks of Richard's four-wheel-drive. They'd apologised profusely- now everyone in town was aware of Tara's disappearance, but then, in the first few hours after she'd been late home... they hadn't known. For the last two days, everyone who could look had been looking. But by the third... people were becoming less optimistic as to what they would find.
Kenzie hadn't meant to hear it. He'd just stepped out of his room last night looking to get a glass of water, and he'd heard a man's words drifting up the stairs. Mark, the head of the local police, had been a family friend for years, and he recognised his voice easily enough. However, usually he was accompanied by his wife when they were visiting- he'd never before been here on business. He knew Tara. They'd sat at the same dinner table, bickered over the last piece of garlic bread as if they were part of the same family.
But what he said now made Kenzie freeze still.
"If no one's come forward about finding her in three days in this heat, by the fourth, we're possibly either looking for a kidnapper, or a body."
Kenzie didn't hear his parents' response. He had run back to his bed, covering his mouth to stifle the sound- half-gasp and half-sob- he'd let out. His mouth was dryer than it had been before, he could feel the rapid rise and fall of his chest against the thin blanket as he stared up into the semi-darkness of his ceiling.
I'll find you tomorrow, Tara. He promised, without saying a word. Where did you go?
The answer had come to him by morning- he hadn't thought they'd checked the river yet. He hadn't expected she would think of going there, not alone, but... if they hadn't checked it yet, it was worth a try.
And now he was here. He lost his balance going down the bank- one foot slipping from beneath him, scraping the palms of his hands on the gravel as he caught himself.
He muttered a quiet curse under his breath, brushing flecks of dirt and rock out of the reddening grazes.
The river looked a lot different to what he remembered- when they'd played for hours here on cloudy afternoons like this one. They'd sent pieces of bark down the current and pretended they were ships, or, in places where the water was more still, he had taught Tara how to skip stones. It had taken her a long time to get the hang of it, but she'd been so happy when she finally had... His brief smile faded. Why had she come here- if she had, at all? There was much less fun here when the water was all gone. No stick-races, no skipping stones, not even many animals to watch anymore. Why would you have gone to the river? He wondered. It's as dry as old bones.
The vision came to his mind unbidden. A body half-covered by the grass, pale green stalks attempting to cover up the bright blue of the shirt she'd been wearing the day she disappeared.
...Either looking for a kidnapper or a body.
He took a step back towards the tree, leaning against it as he tried just to breathe. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in again- her body in the grass, dried blood on her head, brown as sun-crisped flower petals. Puncture wounds on her leg, hands stiffened and cold trying to drag herself home. Blood clotted in her arteries, venom settled in her bloodstream.
Too late, too late, too late.
He turned and ran, chased home not by the beginnings of the rain everyone had promised would come, but by his own fear. He couldn't be the one to find her like this. He couldn't do this on his own.
The rain just grew heavier as he fled back home, and by the time he reached the streets he called home, he was near drenched- his hair darkened by the rain and sticking to his face, thankfully obscuring any visible tears. He passed by houses with screen doors left open, laughter and conversation drifting out of them. Kenzie barely heard it. Instead, his focus had been drawn to a brightly-clad figure standing on the far side of the street, someone who was simultaneously familiar and... unknown. She shouldn't be here. What in hell... She looked like his Aunt May. But she died years ago, he barely remembered her but for the photographs his mother kept on display. And what was with those clothes? It looked like she was wearing a space blanket, and she seemed awfully lost, too, looking around the street in confusion, not having seen him yet. If she had looked like anyone else, he might have approached her and asked if she was alright. But if she was a relative somewhere else on that side of the family tree... he wasn't going to get involved with that. That was his parents' business- and they'd done well enough at avoiding them for the last eight years. Women on his mother's side of the family often all looked the same, anyway. Tara looked just like their mother did as a kid. Brown hair, freckles... Family reunions, back when they still had attended them, had consisted of a lot of similar looking people, and a lot of confusion.
"Kenzie!" He turned, only to see a face mirroring the one that had given him pause. His mother stood in the doorway, looking down at him. "Oh, you're soaked- come inside! Did you find anything?" At that hopeful look in her eyes, all he could do was shrug as he walked inside, trying to make the movement seem natural and not trembling. The door shut behind him, the sound of the rain now muffled against the roof.
"I think-" he struggled to breathe, chest tight from the running, "she went down to the river. She goes there... sometimes." His mother's eyes widened.
"She shouldn't have gone that far! Are you sure?"
"No, I... she doesn't, usually. Not if she's on her own."
"She's smarter than that." His mother insisted. Her arms were folded tight across her chest, one hand gripping onto her forearm. Kenzie knew she was right, Tara was smarter than that. Or at least he'd thought so.
"The trail just...stops on the road, but there's nowhere else in that direction that she'd want to go. Nowhere that we haven't already checked."
"Did you look?"
"I... I wanted to tell you. I didn't know what to look for." Or what I'd find, though he didn't voice this. His mother looked so small, there, watching him, listening, believing. Did she know, what he'd imagined finding? Was she seeing it, too? If she did, she dismissed it, leaning forward to give him a hug, even though the water from his clothes soaked into hers.
"It's alright, Kenzie. We'll call Mark again, and I'll ask the police to search around there. We can all go together."
Kenzie nodded, not quite able to look her in the eyes. His gaze instead went to the window, to look out at the street where he'd seen the woman. She seemed to be gone. Did his mum know there was family here? She wouldn't have invited any of them, would she? Not at a time like this...
"Mum, do you-"
The phone rang before he could ask. She was gone from him and there to answer it before he could properly let go.
She just listened for a few moments, phone pressed tightly to her ear.
"Yes, he's home," she replied, to who, he wasn't sure yet. "He went down to the river." She was fiddling with the phone cord as she said this, winding the coils around her finger. "He's fine. He thinks Tara might have gone down there." Silence. She was nodding. "We could come down to talk with you. If we could start looking as soon as possible that would be- yes, I know. He-" she looked at Kenzie now, who had sat down on the couch, fidgeting idly with one of Tara's toys. "Alright."
She placed the phone down in the holder with a click.
"We're going down to the station- they want to talk with us before they go out looking."
Kenzie had figured the call was the police. If they could start searching today... maybe they'd be able to find her safe. They'd know what to do better than he would... it might all be okay.
By the time they were in the car and driving to the station through the rain, he had mostly forgotten about the mysterious woman.
YOU ARE READING
Red Petals (Open Novella Contest Entry)Fantasy
It used to be tradition, to tell the children stories of the gods that lived down in the river. It had been generations since those stories had even closely resembled the truth, but they lingered, until finally they were no longer told at all. Kenz...