At first, Kenzie wasn't allowed to accompany the search.
"We don't know what we'll find," his father had admitted to him, after a long conversation in which he tried to explain why Kenzie couldn't come, using any other reason that didn't involve the potential of finding Tara's body instead of Tara herself, the image that had been haunting them all. It had seemed to take him a long time to even consider the idea as a possibility, and longer to admit it to his son. Kenzie understood this, as much as he hated it, as much as it terrified him. The chance of finding Tara alive and well was fading.
So, his parents left, and he stayed behind, sheltered even from the rain in this too-empty house, surrounded by his sister's toys that no one could bring themselves to put away. While the rain pattered against the roof, Kenzie gathered the dolls and cars (old ones of his) into a pile and nestled them right next to the couch, where he didn't have to see them.
Sometimes he looked out at the street, to check if he would see that strange woman again. His parents hadn't seen her for themselves, but had reacted to his description of her with some interest. It wasn't unlikely that she was a relative from a few generations back, but they had more important issues right now than family reunions, and at least at the start, they tried to keep Kenzie out of it, too. He hadn't told them about what he'd heard Mark say that night, and they were likely keeping some information from him, too. Were they looking into the woman's appearance in town already, and simply hesitated to tell him what they'd found? Was she a suspect?
He almost felt relief at being left behind. He hated himself for it. The police were out there now, Mark leading a group of his officers in the search of the river and the surrounding area. Kenzie should be looking for her, too; as his parents were, his mother limping through the uneven riverbed, made even worse by the rain... If they were searching for Tara, whether they would find her or not, how they would find her... he should be out there, too. No matter how scared the thought made him.
He was overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy, even after he was allowed to join the search a few days later. The adults figured that he might be aware of more places they might have played.
He still couldn't shake the feeling that she had gone to the river, despite days of fruitless searching telling them all otherwise. There must have been something he could have told her. There must have been some way he could have been a better brother.
By then the search party had dwindled down to only Mark, Kenzie, and his parents. They explored up and down the river, from the places they usually played to the places they'd been warned not to go. On an afternoon six days after her disappearance, when the day had cleared, however briefly, and all was still and warm, Kenzie smelt the stench of death, and the vision haunted him anew. The adults ran ahead, left him frozen- it turned out to be just a rabbit, and all breathed sighs of relief.
"Used to be a rabbit, anyway," Mark commented, regarding the remains with distaste. "Looks like it was mauled by something."
"Probably a wild dog," Kenzie's father replied, his voice still shaking. Mark nodded.
"There's been a few of them around, lately," he agreed.
Kenzie was still standing back from it all. He hadn't moved forward to see the creature, and even his mother's hand on his back made him startle. It wasn't like he wasn't used to seeing things like this- the rabbit's death was just part of the natural way of things, and they were pests, anyway... it was only what could have been that left them all so frightened.
"It was just a rabbit, Mackenzie," she was having trouble breathing too, but forced the words despite it. "It's going to be alright. We'll find her." He nodded, the movement more like a spasm. After a time, they went on.
Kenzie was the smallest, so it was often his job to search for any small crevices, for gaps in the stone, potential hiding places for a child. They spent a long time exploring the rockier parts of the river (more likely to run into a snake there, or hit one's head), where the raindrops dribbled down the rock walls and fed the clinging moss.
All the while they called out, "Tara, Tara," like they were just playing a game of hide and seek that had gone on for far too long.
He was good at finding spaces that Tara might have gone into. Small hollows in the rock, or areas sheltered by the curving branches of trees. It was not too long ago that he had been a child her size, and he'd always loved small spaces. It was weird. He could've sworn there were some larger hollows around here... he remembered curling up in one once, watching ants carry away threads of the moss that grew around its entrance. Oh well. That had been years ago, and his memory was always a fallible thing. Maybe it had been in a different area of the river, or a flood had changed its course. Rivers were the kinds of things that were always changing.
Though they searched for a few days more before the focus of the investigation shifted to a potential kidnapping, they never found any caverns large enough for a child to be comfortable in them.
Once different questions began to be asked of his parents- "you can't think of anyone who might have taken her?" – Kenzie was no longer necessary. No one told him this directly. His mother's parting words just became "I'm going out to talk with the police again. I'll be back before your father gets home." Then she was gone, and he was left behind. There was nothing more that he could contribute.
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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...