Jeannie found me in the ladies room, standing in mountain pose, trying to breathe like my yoga teacher.
“Jesus, Emily. Look at you.” She smelled floral and cheerful but sounded grim.
I didn’t have to look in the mirror to know why. My mascara had been wiped away and I knew my eyes would still be pink and glassy. I closed them and took another three-part breath.
“Richard’s in the lobby,” I said. “Don’t make me talk about it.” “He can’t see you like this.”
Inhale. “Then fix me, please.”
Exhale. “And bring me some of that perfume.”
I opened my eyes in time to see her give what was meant to be a reassuring smile and pull open the door.
“Be right back,” she said.
As her Guccis tapped down the hallway, I realized what her smile actually said: “Sucks to be you.”
I checked my eyes in the mirror, first straight-on, then from the sides. They’d begun to whiten up and were less puffy. When Jeannie was finished, there’d be no evidence of my breakdown.
She was back right away with an already-unzipped handbag from which she produced concealer, lipstick, mascara, and eye shadow in a single swipe.
“Close your eyes.”
I did what she said and she tugged, brushed, and blotted.
Her work was gentle, but fast.
“Relax your jaw. Like you’re dead.”
I watched her eyes while she dabbed lipstick around the corners of my mouth. There were fine lines in her porcelain skin, but nothing I’d have spotted if I weren’t inches from her face. Jeannie could conceal anything; she was like a cosmetics wizard.
She snapped the lid onto her lipstick and suddenly, it seemed, we were enveloped in a cloud of perfume.
“Walk through this,” she said, spritzing the air between us again.
“There.” She opened the door. With her free hand she pulled me by the wrist and shoved me into the corridor. “See him now, before you think.”
“But—” I never even got a look in the mirror. “Go.”
Through the closing door, I saw her turn to the counter to collect her things. There was nothing left to do but what she’d said, and I knew as soon as I rounded the corner to the lobby that four years hadn’t been long enough.
The receptionist looked up from her monitor and nodded when I passed. Richard was the only other person there, absorbed in some article in The Plain Dealer. A cheap Styrofoam coffee cup looked small in his hand and I watched him take a sip before I let him know I was there. There were gray streaks near his temples that I didn’t remember, and his shirt was wrinkled. It was easier to look at his clothes than his face, and I didn’t like that.
“Sorry, Richard. I was with someone.”
He stood and dropped the paper into his chair. “I’m so glad you still work here.”
When he extended his hand, I considered snubbing him, but couldn’t. So I shook it.
I focused on three-part breathing but tried to be inconspicuous about it. Richard lived in Texas. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted or why he’d come fourteen-hundred miles to get it in person.
“You might have started with a call.”
“But I thought I’d have better luck in person. Forgive me for being this direct, but I’m here because I could use your help with a case.”
He was being direct to skip the awkward small talk and avoid what could become a possibly volatile tangent.
“You think one of our nerdy chemists snuffed his wife for the insurance? Want me to do a little inside fact-checking for you?” I crossed my arms and gave my best “Duh” look.
“Not quite. I don’t need an insider here. I need help from a skydiver and you’re the only one I know.”
I couldn’t remember ever talking hobbies with Richard, so his request was not only insulting, but creepy.
“You’re working a case in Cleveland?”
He turned around, to a briefcase I hadn’t noticed, and pro- duced a plane ticket. “Houston.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, no. Try USPA.” “US-what?”
“United States Parachute Association. This isn’t for me.”
Richard tapped the ticket in his hand and stared at me until it became uncomfortable. I hated being bullied so I stared right back and added a little squint for good measure.
“Sure,” he finally said. “I could find other skydivers. How many will care as much as you?”
“There’s your problem. I don’t care.”
“It’s a missing kid! Focus on a terrified little boy…Imagine his mom, wondering if he’s alive. Tell me I’ll find another person, much less another skydiver, who’ll care about that like you.”
Care about that like me. He meant “identify with” that like me, but wouldn’t say so. He didn’t have to—he knew I couldn’t not become involved, even if it meant putting my mental health on the line all over again. I was being manipulated, and we both knew it. The jerk.
I’d never gotten very good at winter driving, but I managed. By February, sounds of snow crunching under tires and wipers scraping ice were as familiar as the voices on my morning radio show. Like most northern Ohio winter days, the sky was overcast and dumping snow. Flakes the size of dimes sank heavily and swiftly, the way real dimes fall through fountain water. I imagined I was in a high school play, that the snow was a stage effect, and that thousands of pimply faced teenagers were in overhead rafters shaking boxes of this crap down on my car. I hate winter.
I drove home from work that morning, struggling to control my car and the emerging situation with Richard, who’d apparently reinvented himself as a private investigator. This wasn’t our first brush with a missing kid. We’d met after my friends’ son disappeared. Richard worked their case; he was a cop then. Their boy, Mattie, came home, but justice wasn’t served to the man who’d snatched him. I’d always suspected Richard had a hand in getting that guy off.
My wipers pushed aside a fresh coat of flakes and my house came into view on the other side of the wet, streaked windshield. Four stark elms cloaked in a thin layer of ice jutted out of my desolate yard. In warmer months, they shaded my place. That day, they looked like a strange weather experiment someone had left on my lawn as a prank. I pulled into my driveway, past a snow-capped mailbox still marked for “Jack and Emily Locke,” and pressed the button to raise my garage door.
The dashboard clock said 10:47 a.m. In the two hours since my ladies room meltdown, I’d managed to speak face-to-face with both Richard and my group manager, Peter “The Abominable” Bowman—undertakings that, each alone, could dampen a day. Doing both in one morning had annihilated it.
I parked in the garage, scooped up my purse and scarf, and headed toward the house. My phone was ringing on the other side of the wall. I squeezed between my front bumper and recycle bins and made it over a pile of old newspapers before catching my toe on a box and stumbling. The contents of my purse clattered at my feet.
I swung open my kitchen door and lifted the cordless from its wall mount. It was Jeannie.
“You sound frenzied,” she said.
“I had to run to catch the phone.” I headed back to the mess in the garage.
“How’d it go with Bowman?”
“I told him I needed some discretionary leave.” “And?”
Next to my car, I knelt to collect my spilled things and dump them back into my purse.
“You know Bowman.” I palmed my compact and car keys off the freezing cement floor. “He’s not okay with any absence unless your entrails are dragging between your feet.”
“But you’re home now, so you worked something out.”
“I told him it was only for a couple of days and reminded him I haven’t taken leave for years.”
“Did he ask why you’re leaving?” “I said it was personal.”
My lipstick had rolled behind the hot water heater, and when I saw the spider webs and dusty funk back there I decided to abandon it forever.
“Mmm,” Jeannie said. “What was your concession?” “What do you mean?” My purse back together, minus the lipstick, I stood and went back inside.
“I know he didn’t let you walk out of there with a pat on the back and tell you to enjoy a few days off.”
She knew him better than I thought.
“I said I’d work remotely.” I headed for my hallway. “Laptop’s in the car. I’ll lug it down there with everything else.”
I tugged the rope that hung from my hallway ceiling and extended the folding ladder to my attic. Its hinges were stiff. They squeaked when I stepped on the first rung.
“Down where? Where are you going with Richard Cole?” I tried my best southern drawl. “Texas, y’all.”
An empty backpack and three stuffed Christmas bears careened past my shoulders and landed on the hallway floor.
“What are you doing over there?” she asked. “It sounds like you’re in a washing machine.”
“Packing,” I grunted, and eased an unwieldy American Tourister down the ladder.
“When are you leaving?”
I made it to the floor and glanced at my watch. “About ninety minutes.”
I hurled the fallen attic artifacts back upstairs and returned the ladder to its loft.
“What’s he want you to do in Texas?”
“That’s the weirdest part. He wants me to skydive.” “Why?”
I dragged the bag-on-wheels to my bedroom and flung it onto the unmade bed.
“To check out a drop zone near Houston.” I rummaged through dresser drawers. “It has to do with his case and he needs somebody who can fit in. He was about to explain it all when Bowman walked by and asked me for ‘a word’. There was only time for Richard to pass me a plane ticket and promise more details on the flight. Now you know as much as I do.”
She was quiet.
“At least it’s warm there,” she finally said. “You might see some sexy cowboys. Maybe you’ll meet the Marlboro Man and he’ll whisk you away to Me-he-co.”
“Me-he-co?” I opened my top drawer, distressed to find only two pair of clean underwear. “You sound like Speedy Gonzales on Prozac.”
“You’re funny now. Spend a couple days with Richard and you’ll be the one on Prozac. I don’t think this trip’s a good idea.”
In my master bath, I unplugged my hairdryer and grabbed a cosmetics pouch from under the sink.
“I don’t have time to get into this now. I’ll call you from the road.”
“Don’t let him call the shots,” she said, and hung up.
The last items I shoved into my suitcase were an assortment of skydiving tees and a couple pairs of shorts. Then I opened my closet, where my skydiving gear was hibernating for the winter.
Plenty of my friends jump after there’s snow. But they’re fools. When ground temperatures reach the fifties, at altitude it’s in the thirties. That’s cold enough for me to hang it up for the year. My last season ended in October, so there was dust to brush off my gear bag.
I hoisted the forty-pound sack onto my shoulder and dumped it next to the suitcase on my bed. I unzipped the compartments and checked that all the miscellaneous must-haves were inside— goggles, gloves, tube stows, rubber bands, and pull-up cords. My jumpsuit and helmet were there too, under my logbook. I pulled the logbook out and flipped to the last entry:
Jump No.: 686
Date: Oct. 9
Place: Northern Ohio Skydivers
Aircraft: Super Otter
Equipment: Sabre 120
Altitude: 14,000 ft.
Delay/Total Time: 65 sec. / 11 h, 3min, 7sec Maneuver: 4-way with Mike, Walt, and Jerome Description: Launched the exit. Went to crap.
Built 1st and 2nd points.
Turned for the 3rd point, a bipole, but never got it. Breakoff at 3000 ft.
Pop up landing over the peas.
I snapped the book shut and tossed it back into the bag. It reminded me of another log, my old journal. I hadn’t looked at it since my last entry, which now seemed so long ago and yet so relevant. It was buried under old cards and photos in the bottom drawer of my desk. I pulled it out and ran my fingers over the ratty cover and twisted binding, tempted to open it, but short on time. I tucked it under my arm and returned to the bedroom, where I dropped it into my gear bag with the rest.
The parachute system itself, or rig, was safely cocooned inside the gear bag too, dominating most of the space.
“Good to see you, old friend,” I muttered. I pulled the gear bag’s zipper shut, slipped my arms through its backpack straps, and heaved it onto my back. Then I rolled my bag-on-wheels across the living room, wondering what I’d forgotten to pack.
# # #
When I found my gate at Cleveland Hopkins, Richard was waiting in the chairs. The terminal smelled like hot dogs and popcorn. Two little girls in matching dresses wove under and around velvet ropes that cordoned the boarding area. I did a quick side step to avoid bumping into one of them, then felt a pang watching them play.
Richard leafed through a thick file on his lap and scribbled notes on a legal pad.
I took the seat beside him. “Heavy reading.”
He looked up from his file and seemed surprised to see me. His eyes were slightly bloodshot. That was either new or had escaped my notice earlier at the office.
“I don’t have much to go on, but I’ll show you what I have on the plane.”
He paused and added, “I want to thank you—”
An airline rep on the loudspeaker announced the first round of boarding. I used her distraction to pretend not to hear his thanks. I wasn’t in the mood to let bygones be bygones. Instead, I followed him toward the boarding line and glanced out the windows. It was bleak as ever and still snowing. We’d be lucky if our plane didn’t fall out of the sky like a hundred-and-fifty-thousand pound Popsicle with wings. The line inched forward, and Richard and I obediently blended into the herd.
I remembered my last trip to Texas, when we’d first met. Little Mattie Shelton was missing then. Please let this trip have a better ending for the family involved.