Paige shook her head as her phone vibrated for the third time in as many minutes. She didn’t need to check the message to know who it was from. Her best friend was nothing, if not persistent. Especially when she was traveling with the team they both worked for. If Taylor couldn’t annoy Paige in person, she would happily make up for it via text.
After finishing an email to her boss, Paige grabbed her phone to see what Taylor had to say about the roll of film they’d dropped off a week earlier. It was all her friend wanted to talk about since the day to pick up the pictures had come and gone. Taylor didn’t understand why Paige hadn’t jumped at the chance to grab them. And she couldn’t figure out how to explain to her friend the apprehension that sat like a rock in her gut.
How do I look?
Smiling, Paige sent a quick response back to Taylor, which was immediately answered with a frowny face emoji. The pictures and her family history could wait until after her friend returned from her work trip. Even if she couldn’t voice what bothered her, she still wanted someone with her when she opened the envelope.
It had been a decade since her father died, and even though she’d gotten to spend thirteen years of her life with the man, she didn’t know him. Not really, anyway. He never talked about his childhood. The few glimpses she had of who he’d been as a boy and a teenager had come from her grandpa, and only after her dad had passed away. To maybe get some insight into what he was like back then, both thrilled her and worried her.
The men in the Reynolds family weren’t what anyone could call affectionate. They loved their family members, but sometimes Paige felt like their wives and children were afterthoughts. They were more like possessions they felt like they had to have than something they wanted. Football was the family legacy, and both her grandpa and her dad had been overjoyed to be blessed with sons to continue that legacy.
The sport was the only thing that mattered, even after both of their professional careers ended.
She often wondered if her Aunt Carol had ever felt overlooked the way Paige did. She wondered if her grandma had given her aunt the attention she craved or if she’d been as focused on her son as Paige’s mom was focused on Jacob.
Paige sighed, rubbing her hands over her face. This was precisely what she wanted to avoid. The reason she’d hesitated when her mom had asked for help with her grandpa’s attic and why she’d argued against developing the film. She loved her family, but she didn’t always love the way they made her feel.
The pictures would just have to wait until Taylor returned from the road trip. With any luck, something exciting would happen, and her friend would forget the pictures existed. The follow-up text message that came through not long after the frowny face emoji told Paige there was no chance in hell Taylor was going to forget about a thing. Which meant eventually, she was going to have to face whatever her gut was trying to tell her.
* * *
Two days and nearly a hundred texts later, Paige finally stood outside the drug store with sweaty palms and an upset stomach. Taylor was running late, as usual, which wasn’t helping lower her anxiety. The fact that she couldn’t quite figure out why she was so damn anxious in the first place wasn’t helping either.
No matter how hard she tried, Paige didn’t know what it was about the prospect of the pictures that bothered her. She’d gone through boxes upon boxes of memories in her grandpa’s attic without balking. She’d flipped through one photo album after another, filled with nothing but her dad playing football, with his parents cheering him on, and none of that had bothered her at all.
“Sorry, I’m late. Mitch stopped by my desk while I was packing up.”
Turning around, Paige found her friend hurrying toward her, a giant smile on her face. Hearing about Taylor’s crush was exactly what she needed to shake off the uneasiness. Mitch Jeffries was an outfielder for the team they both worked for and the topic of nearly all of Taylor’s conversations before they’d found the camera.
“And how is the future Mr. Bennett?” Paige asked, earning herself a smack on the arm from her friend.
“It was one hundred percent innocent, thank you very much. He just wanted to know if I could help him with his posts. The team wants all of the players to post more and engage with the fans, so my calendar is full of one-on-one time with pretty much everyone on the team.”
“Sounds like fun. Let me know if you need any help.”
Taylor laughed. “I will, but how about we stop wasting time and go in there and get those pictures. I’ve been dying to see if any of them turned out. It’s pretty much the only thing that got me through the road trip.”
“And Mitch, of course.”
“Duh. That was a given.”
Before she could respond, Taylor looped her arm through hers, then used her momentum to pull Paige toward the automatic door at the front of the store. Her friend’s eagerness led them to the photo counter, and through the process so quickly, she didn’t have a chance to think about what they were doing.
It also meant her anxiety didn’t have a chance to rear its ugly head until they were back at the house they shared with an envelope full of pictures. While Taylor got comfortable, Paige grabbed a couple of beers, hoping the alcohol would help her forget the apprehension bubbling in her stomach.
“Do you want to do the honors?” Taylor asked after thanking her for the beer.
Paige looked down at the envelope on the table, then back at her friend. “Go for it. I think you’re more excited about what’s in there than I am.”
Taylor shook her head but didn’t hesitate to grab the envelope and open it up. It had been a long time since Paige had seen photos printed at an actual photo lab from real film. With everything being digital these days, printing a picture was easier than ever, while film was expensive and difficult to find.
“Nope. Nope. Nope,” her friend said as she flipped through the first three pictures. “That’s disappointing. They’re just pictures of a waterfall. Pretty, but nothing exciting. There’s definitely color bleeding too, way more magenta than normal.”
“Told you the film was too old to get anything good out of it.”
“Oh, ye of little faith. We’re only a few pictures in, and who knows what other goodies are in here or how the pictures of me turned out.”
Paige fought the urge to roll her eyes and took a long pull from the beer in her hand instead. In any other situation, Taylor’s optimism would’ve been admirable. Still, in this one, she really wanted her friend to be wrong. The further they got into the pile of thirty-six pictures, the closer she’d get to knowing what her gut had been trying to tell her all along.
“Oooh, here’s one that isn’t too bad. I wonder if these people are friends of your dad. The timestamp on the picture says August twenty-eighth nineteen ninety-three. That was right before he went off to college, right? Maybe he and his friends went camping one last time before they had to go their separate ways.”
Taylor put the picture on the table in front of them in a separate pile from the photographs she’d deemed unworthy of even bothering with. Paige took another sip of her beer before looking down at the group of five teenagers smiling at the camera. Their arms wrapped around each other, their eyes lit up with whatever joy they’d felt that day. Behind them were three tents of various sizes and colors, set up and ready for a fun weekend.
Before she could dwell on the fact that she didn’t recognize anyone in the picture, Taylor set another one down on top of it. This one was of a beautiful girl with brown hair. She smiled shyly at the camera as she reached for it like maybe she was the one used to being behind the lens instead of in front of it.
Her friend continued to add more pictures to each pile. The quality of the ones in the ‘good’ pile was amazing, though they weren’t perfect by any means. There were streaks of random colors in places there shouldn’t be and beams of white where the light had leaked through at some point in the last thirty years. There were more pictures of the waterfall from the beginning of the roll, but at night, which seemed weird given there was nothing exciting about what the photographer had captured.
“And, of course, we’ve saved the best for last,” Taylor said dramatically as she set the seven pictures they’d taken of her to finish off the roll.
Of course, her friend looked beautiful in each shot, but seeing them next to the pictures from her father’s past was odd. The generations of Reynolds family friends colliding in a way she never could’ve predicted.
“So, what do you think? Do you recognize anyone in the pictures? I didn’t see your dad in any of them, but maybe he took most of them.”
Paige shook her head. “None of them look familiar, but I could always ask mom and Uncle Cal. If anyone would know who they were, it would be one of them, especially Cal. It’s actually kind of weird not seeing him in one of these pictures. They were nearly inseparable growing up, even went to the same college, then moved into the same neighborhood with their families.”
“Well, I’m curious as hell who these people are, so you have to let me know once you talk to them. Maybe we could share the pictures with them on social media or something. I’d bet they’d love the blast from the past.”
Paige smiled at her friend despite the gnawing dread chasing away the anxiety in her chest. “I’ll check with them in the morning, then let you know.”
Even if it was the last thing she wanted to do.
“Well, this is a nice surprise. You don’t usually come over for breakfast,” her mom pointed out as she opened the front door wider so Paige could walk into her childhood home.
As she moved further into the house, she found her dad’s best friend, Calvin Stewart, sitting at the kitchen island, a mug of steaming coffee in his hand. Her mom followed her into the room, quickly grabbing an empty mug from the cupboard and pouring a cup of coffee for her daughter. While Lisa Reynolds went about her morning routine, Paige made small talk with Cal.
She’d known the man her entire life. He’d treated her like family, almost like a daughter, after her dad died when she was thirteen. After his divorce around the same time, he’d become a nearly permanent fixture in the Reynolds household. Even a decade later, it wasn’t weird for her to walk into the house and find him in the kitchen, despite it being barely after eight in the morning.
They ate the scrambled eggs and bacon her mom made while they caught up on what they’d done since the last time Paige stopped by. It didn’t take long before the conversation veered to her younger brother Jacob and his accolades at school, then stayed there as her mom talked about how well he was doing in football.
“They’re talking about scouts coming out to see him. Isn’t that great?” her mom asked, though she didn’t expect a response. Of course, anything that happened to her darling brother was great. Amazing even.
As they continued to talk about Jacob, Paige began to remember why she didn’t spend much time with her family. No matter what she accomplished in her life, it would never mean much to them since she couldn’t carry on the family legacy. Nobody cared when her college softball team made it to the Women’s College World Series because Jacob had some football thing to attend that was deemed more important.
She was used to playing second fiddle in her family, but that didn’t mean she was used to the sting every time they reminded her that Jacob was the favored child. Most of the time, she avoided them so she wouldn’t be reminded how much it hurt to be ignored.
Maybe it had been this moment she’d been dreading since finding the camera in the attic. Maybe her instincts weren’t reacting to the camera or the film, but to the conversations she knew she would likely have to have.
“Paige, you never did say why you stopped by today. I know it wasn’t to eat or catch up.”
Biting back a sigh, Paige reached for her purse. “When I was going through the stuff in the attic, Taylor and I found an old camera with film still in it, so we finished off the roll and got it developed. We went through the pictures last night, but I didn’t recognize anyone. I thought maybe one of you might. They’re from the summer of nineteen ninety-three.”
She set the envelope on the island, then watched as her mom gave Cal a look that she couldn’t quite read. His face remained passive, almost uninterested, though there was an undercurrent of tension in the room that hadn’t been there before. Goosebumps pebbled along her arms, making her thankful she never removed her sweater.
“Well, I didn’t know you’re dad back then, but I’ll take a quick look,” her mom said, though she was slow to pick up the envelope.
Going through the pictures was definitely not something she wanted to do.
When she finally pulled them out, she went through them quickly. Paige wondered if her mom even looked at them; she moved through them so fast. Once done, she handed them over to Cal, who seemed even more hesitant to glance at memories from thirty years ago.
“I don’t recognize any of them, honey. You know your dad was really popular. They’re probably just some random kids he went camping with that weekend, or hell, he might not have even known them that well. It could’ve been a coincidence they all happened to be at the same campsite at the same time.”
“Yeah, I don’t know any of them either,” Cal said a little too quickly.
Thanks to her mom’s distraction, Paige wasn’t even sure he’d flipped through all twenty-nine images. In the end, it didn’t matter if he did or not. They’d both just lied to her face about recognizing the people in the pictures.
They knew who they were, and they knew why the camera was in her grandpa’s attic.
Something about the pictures and the people in them had rattled her mom and Cal before they’d ever even seen them.
And she planned to figure out what it was, even if she didn’t like the answer.
Paige got out of there as soon as she could leave her mom’s house without causing a scene and drove straight home. She needed Taylor to be the voice of reason. It didn’t matter that she was probably still sleeping or that there was a strong chance she wasn’t alone. She needed Taylor’s help to figure out why her family was lying to her and who the hell the people in the pictures were.
To her surprise, Taylor was in the living room, her usual bright and shiny self instead of the woken-up-before-she-was-ready grump Paige was expecting.
“Paigey! I didn’t think I’d get to see you until later.”
Paige’s brows furrowed. “How much coffee have you had this morning?”
Taylor smiled, the look on her face a little concerning. “Eh, Let’s just say enough and leave it at that. So, where did you go so early this morning?”
“They lied. Both of them, right to my face.”
She didn’t even have to say who they were or what they lied about. Taylor knew instantly like she had a feeling it was going to happen.
“I could’ve believed mom didn’t recognize them; she hadn’t met my dad yet. But the way she said it, the way she acted. It was a lie. And Cal, he didn’t even try to hide that he was lying.”
“I guess that means we’ve got to figure out who these people are and ask them why their camera was in your grandpa’s attic.”
Paige frowned. “How the hell do we do that? In case you missed it, these pictures are older than we are.”
The smile on Taylor’s face gave Paige goosebumps again, but this time for an entirely different reason. “I guess it’s a good thing my older brother happens to be an investigative reporter. If anyone can help us find these people, it’s him. And he just happens to owe me a favor. What do you say? Want to go pay my brother a visit?”
* * *
Taylor’s brother lived in a two-story West Seattle townhouse with as much character as a traffic cone. It was just one of many cookie-cutter buildings that had popped up in the area, just like every other neighborhood in Seattle. The drive to his place from their home in Montlake wasn’t as bad as it usually was, given it was a Wednesday morning and most people were already at their 9-5 jobs.
“Are you sure Nick will be okay with us just dropping by like this?” Paige asked as they approached his door.
She should’ve asked the question before they got in the car. And certainly, before they drove over the West Seattle bridge. But it was better late than never, she supposed. Knowing Taylor, it didn’t matter how her brother felt about them coming to his house unannounced. They were going inside, and he would help them with their project, whether he liked it or not. Good sister she was not, but overly fierce friend. That was definitely something Taylor excelled at.
Nick had made a name for himself as a freelance reporter selling stories to whatever magazine or news outlet would pay the most. He was so good at what he did Paige had heard his name a few years before she’d even met Taylor while playing softball in college.
Before Taylor could even knock on the door, it was swinging open, revealing the handsome face of her brother.
“Hello, Brat, to what do I owe the honor?”
“Jerk, we need some help,” Taylor said as she pushed past her brother and moved into the house.
Though she’d known the Bennett siblings for years and had witnessed the sometimes ridiculous way they talked to each other, Paige still had no idea what to do. She stood on Nick’s front porch, her eyes locked on his, politely waiting for the invitation to enter his house. She ignored the way he smiled at her and the subsequent way the smile made her insides a little mushy.
“Hey, Nick. Sorry to bother you about all of this.”
“It’s fine. We all know whatever Taylor wants, she gets. It just so happens I’m in between stories right now, so I have the time.”
“Did she call ahead?”
Nick laughed as she shook his head, his dark hair falling into his eyes. “I just know that if my sister says you need help, it’ll take a little more time than she thinks it will.”
“Are you guys coming or what? We don’t have all day.”
Paige winced at the sound of her friend’s voice, though Nick didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all.
“Hold your horses. We’re coming,” he yelled before turning back to Paige. “Please come on in, Miss Reynolds.”
She tried not to laugh at the way Nick stepped back and gave her a mock bow. The entire show gave her another reason to have an unrequited crush on her best friend’s brother. She was such a cliche, though she didn’t really care.
Once they were all gathered in the living room with drinks Taylor had gathered, though it wasn’t her house, Nick looked at each of them, then back to his sister. Despite the pictures technically being Paige’s, she’d let Taylor take the lead with them, especially since it was her brother they were going to see. Given her track record where Nick was concerned, Paige hadn’t been entirely sure she’d be able to form a coherent sentence, let alone enough of them to tell him why they needed his help. Taylor was more than prepared for the task.
Her friend pulled the envelope of photos out of her purse and then threw them onto the coffee table in front of her brother. While Nick rifled through the pictures, Taylor told him where they came from and how the people closest to Paige’s father didn’t know anyone in the images.
“Did you ask your grandpa? It’s his house you found the camera in, right?”
Paige winced at the question and was thankful when her friend answered for her.
“They just put him in assisted living. He’s not always lucid, so we’re hoping to keep him out of this if we can.”
“I’m sorry,” Nick said, looking over at her.
Paige hated the way her voice caught as she said the word. Taylor, the best friend that she was, drew her brother’s attention back to her.
“We want to know who these people are. Can you help us? I’m sure you’ve done this kind of thing a hundred times.”
Nick smiled at Paige, then over at his sister. “Figuring out who they are is child’s play. At least as long as they’ve ever posted a picture on the internet. Nineteen ninety-three is back toward the early end of the internet’s popularity, so reverse lookup might not work. Still, facial recognition might be possible if we don’t get an exact hit.”
Taylor turned to her and smiled. “I told you my brother could help us.”
“There was never any doubt,” Paige told her, though her eyes were stuck on Nick.
Nick smiled at her, then grabbed the envelope his sister had set on the coffee table. He combed through the photos until he found whatever he was looking for.
“We’ll start with this one,” he told them before getting up and leaving the room.
Paige looked over at her friend, then toward the direction Nick had headed. Taylor shrugged, then got up and followed her brother. Paige did the same, though she felt a little awkward walking further into the home of the man she’d crushed on for years.
They found him in what looked like a home office. A laptop took up most of the space on the desk, accompanied by an extra monitor. On a filing cabinet next to the desk sat a scanner that Nick had opened, the phone he grabbed sitting face down on the glass. He made a few clicks once they were in the room, and the whir of the scanner replaced the silence in the room.
She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Taylor elbowed her in the ribs, and the air in her lungs rushed out in a loud whoosh. Nick looked over at her and gave her a sympathetic smile. If it had come from anyone else, it would have enraged her. Coming from Nick, it made Paige want to curl up in a ball in embarrassment.
“Okay, now that the image is on my computer, we’ll use the reverse image lookup on this search engine first, and if that doesn’t hit, we’ve got a few others we can try,” Nick informed him as he maneuvered the mouse on his desk around, the clicks filling the space the sounds of the scanner had left.
If she’d had the choice, Paige would’ve sat on the floor, the only other space to sit beside the chair Nick was occupying. But the last thing she wanted either of the Bennett siblings to know was how on edge she was. There was nothing about the situation that she could explain, nothing that she could put up as an excuse for why she didn’t really want to know what Nick’s computer was about to tell them.
Her instincts had always been off the charts, and she feared this situation was no exception. Whatever Nick was about to find was bad.
Time seemed to stand still as sweat pooled under her arms and between her breasts. As if the situation couldn’t get any worse.
Nick cleared his throat as he made a few more clicks with his mouse. Paige watched him as he shifted in his chair, then tugged his lower lip between his teeth. His brows furrowed as he mumbled something to himself. Whatever was on that screen, she wanted nothing to do with it. Too bad she didn’t get a say in what happened next.
“Come on, Jerk. I’m dying here. I know you’ve found something over there, and you don’t want to tell us but spit it out. What the hell did you find?” Taylor finally asked though every fiber of Paige’s being was screaming, ‘don’t do it.’
Nick looked over at them, then back at the screen of his laptop. With a heavy sigh, he grabbed the picture he’d set on his scanner and handed it over to his sister.
“This is Abby Foster. And the date this picture was taken was the last night she was ever seen alive.”