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59

Victoria McNeil sat at the table in the bay window of her kitchen and looked outside at the flowers she had planted a few weeks ago. They were all blooming in red and white. Her patio furniture, heavy black iron with ivory cushions, was artfully arranged. She had envisioned that this summer she, Charlie, Izzy and Spence would spend a lot of time on that patio. But now Izzy was in Italy and, more importantly, Charlie wasWho knew where Charlie was?

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. Her little boy. The boy who skated in lazy circles through life, smiling all the while. The only time Victoria had really worried about Charlie was after he got in the accident with the construction truck. But even then, he had laughed it off. But where was Charlie now?

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. She couldnt believe this. Why had he been kidnapped? She looked across the kitchen at Bunny Loveland, who was at the counter putting marshmallows into a bowl. She had announced that she was making Jell-O, that awful Jell-O with the marshmallows that no one liked, but Victoria appreciated the effort, appreciated Bunnys cranky optimism.

Her husband, Spence, was in the kitchen, pacing back and forth, the phone in his hand, while he jabbered at his friend George, who was the superintendent of police in Chicago. George had always been able to help them before, like when Izzy needed information last year. But now George was helpless, too. There were no leads in Charlies case.

Spence wore a light blue Oxford shirt. Hed rolled the sleeves up, past his elbows, as if ready to chip in with heavy physical work. Spence hated to be helpless. He was happiest when of service to his friends or family. She knew the situation was killing him.

It was killing her, too. She could feel it. She was familiar with the signs of death within herself-the dying of her spirit, which she held on to tenuously anyway.

God, Charlie. What was happening? She had never felt so useless in her life. She played with her cell phone in her hands, waiting to be inspired with calls to make, something to do. Surely something would happen soon, some direction, some action to take.

Her phone lit up. She had a text message. Probably from Cassandra, her best friend. Victoria was not a huge fan of texting and only used the service with a few people like Cassandra and her kids. And Cassandra was the only one Victoria had told about Charlie. She had this idea-immature, she knew-that if she didnt tell many people, it wouldnt really be happening.

Victoria looked at the phone and scrolled to the texts. There were two-or rather it looked like one message that was long and had been split into two by the phone company. AndOh my God. The text messages were from Charlie! Alarm went through her body. She sat up straight.

Spence, she said, but he was walking out of the kitchen, talking loudly, telling George that he would get Charlies social security number and other information right now. Bunny was muttering about not having bought enough marshmallows.

Victoria looked back down at her phone.

Charlie had written, Mom Im okay. Dont know how to tell u but got in trouble with drugs. These guys kidnapped me cuz I owe money. They say theyll kill me if I dont pay. But if the police get involved, theyll kill me, too. Is there any way u could get $1200 and meet me tomorrow? Please dont tell Spence or the cops.

Victoria s back stiffened, reading the text message again. She felt a charge go through her, one of purpose. It was the opposite of the way she usually responded to a crisis. She fell apart so easily. She had always done that. She was never vocal with her emotions. And when she retreated, it was into herself. She disappeared piece by piece, alive on the outside, but dead inside.

But now, instead of feeling herself recede, she felt as if she were stepping into her skin, coming into power. This was something she could do for her son. But then she shook her head. Could this really be true? Could Charlie really have a problem with drugs? Certainly, he was always drinking wine. And everyone said that people with drug problems usually started with alcohol, but shed never seen any signs that Charlie had drug problems or even any drug usage. She thought then of Cassandra, whose own daughter had a battle with drugs, and when Cassandra found out about it, shed had no previous idea. I never suspected for a second, Cassandra had said.

Victoria squeezed her eyes, sick with the thought that Charlie was putting something horrible into his system. What kind of drugs? Where did he get them? Then she shook her head again. It didnt matter.

Spence came down into the kitchen, still on the phone with George. He was so involved with the conversation, so used to Victoria always waiting, never taking any action herself that he barely noticed her, just kept pacing through the kitchen, into their library and back.

Victoria looked back at her phone, read the texts again and again and again, memorizing the words. Could this be a trick of some kind? But the words sounded like Charlie, and it would explain this bizarre occurrence.

Once more she read Charlies words, and then a decision came to her. She was going to take action. She raised the phone and texted back one word. Yes.


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