by Heidi Beierle
Two police officers collected evidence in Debra’s office.
Jane looked out the window of Dr. McPherson’s office, relieved the first thing she’d done after calling 911 was cancel school for the day. The rain had begun again. A heavy mist. Precursor to round three of the atmospheric river. Medics rolled Peregrine on a stretcher to the ambulance. He was shocky, sure, and Jane wasn’t surprised they thought he might also be having a heart attack. He didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Jane was less sure about Annabelle and the rain. She hoped the girl was sleeping peacefully at a friend’s house and not lost somewhere in the woods where she would be cold and wet, or worse, tied up and—
“Did you find my daughter?”
The voice startled Jane. She turned. “Jack Watson?”
“Yes. You told me not to call the police, but the police are here. And an ambulance.” He sucked in his breath. “Oh my god, what happened to my daughter?”
“Your daughter isn’t in the ambulance. Dr. McPherson is. You had no luck with Annabelle’s friends?”
A tear dripped from the corner of Jack’s eye. “I don’t know who they are or if she even has any. This is so messed up. I mean, I’m so messed up.” He shudder-sighed. “I haven’t been the best dad to Annabelle with the stress of my divorce and getting my company stable. I didn’t even want to bring Annabelle here, but her mother wanted me to and that seemed like something I could do for Annabelle. I don’t know. To show up somehow. To be with her in her life.” He looked imploringly at Jane. “It kills me how alone she must be, that she might be hurt or worse.” Jack scrunched his face as if seeing The Horror, then whispered, “I abandoned her.”
Jane put a hand on his arm. “You did not abandon her.”
Jack yanked his arm away. “I did!” he cried out. “Maybe not when I brought her here for the tour, but before that.” He covered his face with his hands and wept. “I’m a terrible father.”
“You’re not a terrible father. You’re here now. It’s clear you care for Annabelle.”
“She doesn’t know that.”
“Maybe. I don’t envy you being the parent of a teenager, but you didn’t bring Annabelle here with the intention of abandoning her. You had every reason to expect she would return after the tour. I apologize that that didn’t happen, and I sincerely apologize that we didn’t report her disappearance earlier. I take full responsibility for the slack follow up.”
Jack dropped his hands and looked at Jane with a heart-breaking lost puppy face.
Jane swallowed the tartness of her own concern. “I reported Annabelle’s absence when I arrived this morning. I’m worried about her, too. Some officers are searching campus for her right now, but there isn’t much to support their efforts.”
“What do we do?”
“Do you think Annabelle’s mother has a better sense who her friends might be?”
“Probably. She called me last night once she landed in St. Barts and ripped into me about Annabelle missing. I have no idea how she found out since she was in flight while all that happened. Anyway, I called and texted Emerald after you and I spoke earlier this morning, but she hasn’t responded.”
“Well, that’s a start.” Jane took a slow breath. “Full disclosure, I called Emerald to let her know Annabelle was missing.”
“Oh?” Jack blinked a few times. “Well, thank you. I could have done without being chewed out, but I deserved it.”
“Ma’am?” It was one of the officers from Debra’s office.
“We’re all done in there.”
“Thank you. Could you tell me the status of the other officers searching for the missing girl?”
“Sure thing.” The officer turned to the side and spoke into his radio. He turned back to Jane. “They just finished their sweep and are heading back to the Old Main parking lot.”
“Ok. Will you please ask them to wait? This is Jack Watson, the girl’s father. I’m going to lock up, and we’ll be right down.”
The rain intensified. The wind picked up.
Judson Trompe carried his tea into the sitting room where he had an expansive view of the water beyond Westminster Academy. He liked his hillside perch, which he named Your Highness. A bust of Sir Isaac Newton sat on a shelf above Judson’s Everyday Armchair where he settled with his tea. Judson hoped Newton’s genius would rub off on him by virtue of proximity.
He picked up his notepad and pencil and wrote ‘Feet’ at the top of the page. ‘Ungulate quadruped. Spondee, trochee, dactyl.’
Your Highness shuddered. Judson looked up from his poem. A gale shook the house. Sir Isaac Newton fell from the shelf and hit Judson on the head as a massive mudslide pushed through the back of the house and avalanched the unconscious man in tons of pudding soil, rocks, boulders, and broken trees, destroying Your Highness and suffocating its sole inhabitant.
“Who are you?” Jane asked the slight, dark-haired man in a sopping jacket whose water-streaked glasses didn’t hide the dark circles under his eyes.
“Alex Porter. Fort Landers Daily Mail. Funny coincidence. I’ve been calling the Academy here to follow up on a story I wrote a few days ago about Judson Trompe, but that’s not why I’m here. I saw the school’s closure notice this morning on social media. It seemed out of order.” He scanned the group. “So…what’s going on?”
“Lovely day for a ride,” Ruff said coming around the corner of the building kitted out in full rain gear. “Oh hello.” He looked at Alex. “I didn’t know you were here. Doesn’t matter. Here.” He handed parchment-wrapped packets to Alex, Jane, Jack, and the four officers. “I cooked these beauties while I closed the kitchen down this morning after Jane sent out the school cancellation notice. I’ve been experimenting with a new recipe.”
He turned to his bike when Marie came tearing across the grass. “CHATtahoochee! Where the heck you been?”
“You want one, too, CHAT-a-CHAT-a-bang-bang?”
Marie wailed again, turned and ran back the way she’d come. Just before she disappeared, she leapt straight up in the air. As if on cue, the sky filled with birds – small ones, medium ones, large ones. The sound of their collective voices crackled like the planet’s version of a noise band.
All the people gathered outside Old Main watched the sky.
“What on earth?” Alex said.
“No way, look!” an officer pointed to the woods at the edge of the field.
Animals ran from their cover. Squirrels, rabbits, raccoons. A beaver.
Netta was screaming and brushed herself off as she ran toward her Prius. “Are they on my face? Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off!”
A man ran after Netta pointing at the sky, “Netta! The birds! The birds are telling me!” He stopped abruptly, turned his face to the soaking sky, and lifted his arms to the wind. “Tell me!”
Marie dashed into the field.
“CHATastrophe!” Ruff hollered.
The earth shuddered. The birds dispersed. The man in the field fell to the ground. Everyone standing outside Old Main looked at one another. No one had the words to ask if anyone else felt the ground shake.
Marie stood on the chest of the man in the field and wailed.
The wind kicked and brayed.
A splintering crack sounded from the woods.
A woman in a dark checked flannel jacket and a woman in pink pajama pants and a camo parka ran from the woods.
Marie faced the wind, dug her claws into the man underneath her, and yowled.
A woman with a mess of white dust all over her stumbled out of the woods and stopped to help a young dark-haired woman to her feet.
“Annabelle!” Jack called across the field and ran toward his daughter.
The earth heaved.
The ground crashed into Jack, buckling his legs and slamming his body.
The earth rumbled and ripped apart. Rock exploded. Trees snapped with echoing reports. Buildings collapsed.
The rain sheeted, dampening dust the earth kicked up and the wind whipped. Car alarms blared and honked. High tension wires sizzled and popped.