“How will getting answers now change what happened thirty years ago? He’s right, honey. You should just leave it alone.”
The scalding hot shower she’d taken when she got home hadn’t done anything to remove the chill Cal’s words had sent through her body. Paige hadn’t told them about the note she’d found on her car or the words written on it. She hadn’t mentioned that someone else had been in her grandpa’s house the night before, either.
Yet, even if she had, something in her gut told her that neither of them would care. At least as far as Paige’s safety was concerned. Both of them had seemed far more focused on her family’s legacy than what might have happened to Abby.
There wasn’t a chance in hell that either of them would consider for even half a second that the Reynolds family had anything to do with what happened to “that girl.” Yet, Paige would bet everything she had on the fact that one of them knew something.
Her money was on Cal. He’d been her father’s best friend and spent years in her grandpa’s house, before and after nineteen ninety-three. He knew more than he was letting on.
But knowing that did nothing to help Paige and her hunt for the truth. Honestly, all it did was make her angrier than she’d already been. Which just added to her determination to find the truth.
She wasn’t going to stop.
It didn’t matter how many notes she got or how many times someone tried to scare her. She would find out the truth about the night Abby disappeared no matter what.
Even with that determination fueling her, Paige had no idea what to do next. She sat on the couch, staring at the box on her kitchen table. Her gut told her there was more in the box than just the camera, but she didn’t know how that ‘more’ would help her.
But more than that, she wasn’t sure if she was ready to face that ‘more’ alone.
Her phone sat on the table in front of where she sat on the couch, the same blanket Taylor had wrapped around her the night before once again draped over her shoulders. She thought about her friend for a moment, wishing she was sitting next to her, giving her grief about pursuing something dangerous, but Taylor was at work, where Paige knew she should be. Yet, nothing would’ve gotten done had she tried to go into the office. Not while her brain was trying to unravel such a delicate puzzle.
Then there was Nick.
He likely had his own work to deal with, yet Paige seriously considered calling him. She needed more than her own faulty brain to help her through this. She needed someone unbiased, who wouldn’t look at the major players in the mystery and see father, grandfather, uncle, and mom. There wasn’t any doubt in Paige’s mind that her family knew something about what happened that night, but she still had hope that it was one hundred percent innocent.
It didn’t matter that the tiny bit of hope she had was more fragile than a Faberge egg. She’d continue to hold onto that kernel until someone showed her it was worthless. A moment, she sadly had a feeling, wasn’t too far in the future.
Before she could decide whether or not to call Nick, her phone was ringing, the picture she’d taken of her best friend’s brother gracing her screen. If he was calling her, it meant he had news. Maybe it was enough to help her make a decision or at least point her in a general direction. The promise of what he had to say was enough to have her reaching over and picking up her phone.
Before she could think twice about it, she swiped her finger over the screen, answering his call.
“Hey. How was talking to your mom?”
She sighed. “Pretty much exactly how I expected it. Cal was there, too, and once again, they both lied to me. What’s worse, they both told me to leave it alone.”
“Wait, that’s what the note on your car said, right?”
Paige nodded, though she knew he couldn’t see her. “Yeah. Cal said it first, but then when my mom agreed with him, she said it. I don’t know, maybe she was just copying him, and maybe he just picked random words out of the ether, but both times they were uttered, it felt wrong. I came home and took a shower hot enough to nearly melt off a layer of skin, and I still feel…shit, icky isn’t a strong enough word to explain it, but I just can’t think straight.”
Nick muttered what sounded like a swear word, but Paige couldn’t quite make it out. Despite not being anywhere near each other, she could tell he wasn’t happy with the distance between them. Knowing that did nothing to help calm her. In fact, it upped her anxiety level. Her breath caught in her chest as she wondered if she should be worried about her safety. The note on her car hadn’t been a direct threat, but maybe it had been something she shouldn’t have just brushed off.
“Are you at home?”
His question added to her anxiety, though she couldn’t really explain why. And she wouldn’t admit it to Nick or Taylor. Especially when his question could be completely innocent.
Cause before she’d found the camera and uncovered a mystery, her best friend’s brother called her daily and asked her if she was home.
“Just hoping you’re decent. I’m headed your way. I’ll probably be another eight minutes or so.”
Yep. Total idiot. He wasn’t calling just to say hi or whatever. Something had changed. He had news. News that made him worry about her.
“Fuck,” she muttered, then hoped it was low enough that Nick hadn’t noticed.
“I’ll see you soon, okay?”
She sighed, both thankful he hadn’t seemed to hear her and that he was coming over. Despite whatever he’d found, Paige needed help. She needed someone to be there when she dug back into the box that started it all. She needed someone sitting next to her to keep her from freaking out about the similarities between what her mom and Cal said and what the note she received had told her.
Hopefully, having Nick with her would give her whatever it was she needed to move forward. Strength, perseverance, desire for the truth, all of the above, no matter what it was, she wouldn’t quit. Especially now that her mom and Cal had lied to her again.
The truth was out there, and she was going to find it.
It really was only about eight minutes between when Nick said he would be at her place and when he pulled into her driveway. Normally, she’d hate for a hot guy to see her in a pair of baggy sweats and a sweatshirt that had seen better days, but given everything that was going on, she couldn’t bring herself to care. She hadn’t even bothered to get up and put on a bra before her best friend’s brother knocked on her front door.
A muttered ‘hey’ was all she could manage as she opened the door then stepped back so he could make his way inside. Nick gave her a quick once over, his brows furrowed as his eyes met hers. She braced herself for the judgy statement she figured he would throw at her, but when it didn’t come, her shoulders sagged.
Didn’t he care that she was losing it?
Of course, he didn’t. All he cared about was the story he’d get when all was said and done.
Anger coursed through her, ready to rip into her best friend’s brother as soon as he made himself comfortable. But then he looked at her again as she followed after him once the door was shut and locked, and she nearly lost it. The concern he felt for her was written all over his face. The worry, the fear. He might’ve been able to hide it from Taylor the night before, but he wasn’t even trying now.
“It’s not too late,” he said once they’d both taken a seat on the couch.
“I can’t stop now, Nick. I need answers.”
He shook his head as he reached out, then pulled his hand back like he’d thought better about the action.
“I’m not talking about stopping, Paige. I know you need answers, and I think it’s important that you get them,” he admitted. “That doesn’t mean you have to be the one doing all of the work.”
The statement didn’t make any sense to her. Why shouldn’t she be the one doing the work? It was her mystery, her family. She was the one that uncovered whatever it was that she’d uncovered. She should be the one to find the truth.
“What I mean is,” he said, then paused, his voice shaky with what sounded like nerves.
It was a side of Nick she’d never encountered before, and she wasn’t sure what to do with it or what it meant. In the years she’d known him, Nick Bennett had always been sure of himself. He’d always taken the lead, caring for himself, his sister, and whatever friends she’d brought into his orbit.
Paige always figured it was left over from when he’d taken on raising Taylor after their parents died in a plane crash. He was only nineteen when he’d become his fifteen-year-old sister’s guardian. Still, according to his ward, he was the best, even though he was barely more than a kid himself.
“You don’t have to be the one to dig into this, Paige. We can hire my friends Everett and Amelia. They do this kind of thing for a living, and they’re familiar with the dangers of digging into things people don’t want to be uncovered.”
He’d said the exact same thing the night before and hadn’t batted an eye when she said she wanted to see things through. Paige didn’t know what had changed in the last twelve hours or so, but she knew for a fact that it wasn’t her mind. She was more determined now than ever to do things herself. The answers were just beyond her grasp, and she could feel it.
“I appreciate the thought, Nick, but I haven’t changed my mind since last night. I’m doing this. You were fine with it, so what changed?”
It was really the only thing that made sense. He’d said he had her back last night, but now he was trying to change her mind. Somewhere in between, he had to have uncovered something that worried him, and now she needed to know what it was.
A frown marred his handsome face before he picked up the messenger bag he’d dropped on the floor when he sat down. He riffled through it until he found what he was looking for. The notebook he pulled from the bag was leather bound and pretty, the kind that Paige would never be able to write in because she’d be too worried about marring its pages with her terrible handwriting.
“I worked on trying to enhance a few of the pictures last night. I figured maybe we could work around the damage and even the terrible lighting, and I was right. Though, I kinda wish I wasn’t.”
“Just show me.”
Nick sighed as he opened the notebook and pulled out a few pictures he’d printed off. He handed them to Paige, then dropped the notebook on the cushion between them. She stared at the picture on top, initially unsure what she was supposed to see. The photo was brighter than the one they’d gotten from the drugstore, yet part of her recognized it. This one had been taken at night, probably after Abby had caught her boyfriend hooking up with her best friend.
Originally, she’d only been able to barely make out the waterfall. Now, she could clearly see the waterfall and the scenery around it, which was great, but did nothing for her case. As she looked closer, she realized there was more than just the beauty of nature. In the foreground, there was a person. The body was pixelated, but it was clearly a human standing in front of the waterfall.
“It looks like Abby might’ve captured something she had no idea she was getting on film. Something that might’ve gotten her killed.”
Paige moved the picture closer to her face, her eyes narrowing as she examined every inch of the image. Her eyes caught on something in the hands of the person standing to the left of the waterfall, but she couldn’t quite make out what it was. Nick must have seen she was struggling, but instead of saying anything, he grabbed the picture from her hands and replaced it with another.
In this one, the figure was a little closer to the camera, and it was a little clearer than the one before it. She dropped the picture into her lap and looked over at Nick.
“That’s a shovel. Jeezus. Did she…”
He shook his head. “Fuck, I don’t know. We can sit here and speculate, but there could be a reasonable explanation for why this man has a shovel in the woods. Right?”
“My family wasn’t the camping type, so I have no idea what’s normal and what’s not. What about you? Did you guys go camping before…well…shit.”
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and now Paige felt like an asshole. It wasn’t that they’d never talked about the death of Nick and Taylor’s parents before, but it wasn’t the place or the time to bring up such a sensitive topic.
“It’s okay. We did go camping a lot over the summers as a family. Once I got to high school, I was too cool to go with the family. Instead, I went with my friends. If I’d known that I only had a few more years with them, I would’ve gone camping with them every weekend.”
Nick paused for a moment, taking a sip of the water she’d set out for him. “To answer your question, though, we might’ve taken a small collapsible one, but definitely not a full-size garden shovel like the one in the picture. That doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m also not a professional camper, so maybe I’m wrong.”
Paige let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding, her shoulders drooping as she considered the situation. There was a dead girl whose camera and pictures started this shit show. Her family was lying to her about whatever they knew about the girl and her death. Someone was trying to scare her away from whatever it was that her family had done, and now they had a picture of a person with a shovel in the woods.
What the hell was even happening?
“Have you looked at the rest of the stuff in the box?” Nick asked, his question bringing her back to the moment.
She glanced over at the box sitting on the kitchen table, then back over at her best friend’s brother. It was still so surreal that he was helping her with her investigation. Though that word seemed like a strange way to describe what she was doing since her family was involved.
But it fit.
More than she really wanted to admit.
The truth was, she was investigating her family and whatever terrible shit they were involved in thirty years before. Who knew if it stopped there. Whatever answers she and Nick found, she knew her life would never be the same. Paige wasn’t sure if that revelation was supposed to scare her or not, but even if it did, she wasn’t going to stop until she knew the truth.
“I keep finding something else to do instead. It was what started this whole thing, knowing there are potentially worse things in there than the camera of a dead girl,” she paused to take a breath. “I just don’t know what to do with that. I know I need to see what’s inside, but not looking allows me to be in the dark for a little bit longer. It’s stupid, I know…”
“It’s not stupid, Paige. I get it. I can’t imagine what this has been like for you. Looking into the dirty secrets of other people isn’t easy. I bet it’s even harder when it’s people you love.”
“Thank you,” she said as she ducked her head, trying to choke back an emotion she didn’t want to let out. “Will you stay and go through it with me?”
“Of course,” he answered without hesitation.
Before she could do it, Nick was up and striding across her living room toward the object in question. He pulled the lid off, tossed it on the table, and then carried the box back to where she sat on the couch. Setting it on the floor between them, he resumed his spot next to her, then reached down and grabbed the newspapers from the top.
“Those are just more newspapers with articles about my dad. There were a ton of them in the attic,” she told him before reaching down to grab something herself.
Paige hadn’t realized what she was picking up since her attention was on Nick, but when she looked down, she had the messenger bag in her hands. Abby Foster’s messenger bag. Her hands shook as she tried not to drop it. There was still a chance the bag wasn’t Abby’s. At least, that was the lie she was telling herself.
There was no doubt the bag was from the 90s. The patches and pins attached to it were an homage to the time and pointed to belonging to a woman. Even in the 90s, not many men would have a patch for Heathers next to one for Point Break. One for the movie The Lost Boys also adorned the bag, as well as patches for the bands Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. And those were what was on the flap. The back side was covered in embroidered flowers in a variety of colors that had to have taken the owner a long time to add.
Still, the bag in her hands could’ve belonged to any number of girls her father knew. It also could’ve belonged to her Aunt Carol, though she doubted that. Paige needed proof that it belonged to Abby. Otherwise, she was just jumping to conclusions.
Looking over at Nick, she saw he was still preoccupied with the newspapers, though she had no idea why. She’d already told them what was in them, yet he was opening each of them up and looking through the pages. Shaking her head, she set the bag aside, then leaned over and grabbed the next thing in the box. It took her a second to realize what she was holding in her hand, her brain unable to register the shape at first because it didn’t make any sense.
“I don’t see any articles in these newspapers about your dad, Paige. They do all have one thing in common, though. They all have articles about the missing girls.”
“What missing girls?” she asked, but then she remembered that another girl had gone missing the same night as Abby.
It was then the item she held came into focus. A green apron with a local store name printed on the front and a name tag fastened over the left side.
“Lucy,” she murmured, drawing Nick’s attention.
She could feel Nick’s eyes on her before they drifted down to the apron she’d dropped onto her lap. Chills ran down her spine as the picture became more evident. The picture she desperately didn’t want to see but couldn’t ignore. Before she could say anything, Nick said what she was thinking but didn’t want to voice.