— 1 —
Dark and unforgiving dreams of Stacey’s abduction (some longer and more allusive than others) prevented Ken from ever getting a peaceful night’s rest for over five-years. Sometimes he would lie awake with her visage bouncing around his thoughts like a pinball that won’t ever stop moving; other times he would wake with the sun, washed in a cold sweat, his breath quick and heavy. But no matter the circumstances, one question remained front and center —
Why did they choose her?
The desire to answer that question led Ken into a long relentless journey — a project he granted himself in order to believe in something much richer than his swelling depression and thoughts of suicide. All of his friends and colleagues (even those that loved and adored Stacey as much as he did) told him he was insane, but the project gave him hope that someday he would see her again, and that was enough for him, despite its ultimate cost — seclusion. He took their lack of confidence far too personally and broke away from both recent and longtime friendships in favor of his newfound focus. What he never took into consideration was how much those relationships meant to him, and how losing them would affect him in the long run. With a complete lack of reason to counteract his passion, Ken lost more than he was able to comprehend.
Alone in bed, the bags under his deep red eyes caught the tears that tried to roll down his face. Regardless of how much sleep he was actually able to find, every morning for the past four years, Ken would use the project to push him out of bed just after six in the morning. He would step into the cold shower and mindlessly wash, after which he would let the water run over his body for minutes, sometimes a half an hour. Once he found the strength to turn the water off, he’d sit and cry — for his wife… for his life — until he was able to justify why he should continue to care.
But this day — a day in which he woke without being drenched in sweat — was a day that the man staring back at him in the mirror was smiling. His eyes, usually wooden and dark, were instead as bright and alive as a child’s on Christmas Eve. With a flurry of excitement that he hadn’t felt since his first kiss with Stacey, Ken didn’t even bother with a shower; he could barely even keep his hands from shaking to brush his teeth. And don’t even ask about his wardrobe choices.
Ken took two steps at a time down the secondary staircase to the kitchen and went directly to the refrigerator, oblivious of his daughter, Tracey, eating Rice Krispies — Snap, Crackle, Pop — at the breakfast table. He chugged down what was left of a carton of orange juice, forgoing the use of a glass in favor of time, and tossed the carton into the sink. He let out a semi-noiseless burp and finally acknowledged Tracey.
“Sorry, sweet-pea,” he said softly. “Didn’t see you there.” He kissed the top of her head. Even without a shower, her hair was soft and smelled like flowers. It reminded him a lot of Stacey, who smelled like honey no matter where she was or what she did. “Is Jacks still in her room?” he continued as he grabbed his watch from the bowl at the edge of the counter.
Tracey stared at the wall across from her without any response whatsoever. She simply placed another spoonful of cereal into her mouth and chewed like a drone.
Ken checked his pants as if he were forgetting something, cleared his throat of residual juice, and headed back upstairs. I sure as hell hope she’s home, he thought as he knocked on his daughter’s door, ignoring the poster that, to this day, he continued to nag her about:
TURN THE F K AROUND
The u and the c of what was easily Ken’s least favorite word were covered up with a picture of a naked woman bending over, her derrière in the forefront with several lipstick kisses painted on it. If he had a choice, he would have torn it down years ago. Not once did he think his project would lead to such disrespect from his eldest daughter.
No reply. He knocked again. “Jacquline, open up.”
Again nothing. He grabbed the doorknob and shook.
“Jacks, if you’re in there, open this d—”
The door squeaked open. Jacquline leaned up against the frame half asleep, her hair knotted up in a torn ponytail. The mass of holes in her ears and nose were vacant, much like her eyes, but sometime in the day they’d be filled with rings and chains that made her look more like a demon than the smart, young woman Ken knew her to be. It was her slip of a nightgown, draped so low down across her arm, that forced Ken to avert his eyes and avoid staring at the tattoo of a hawk just above her nearly exposed breast, one of only a dozen tattoos Jacquline had gotten over the last four years to spite him.
“You’re not too great at reading comprehension, are you?” Jacquline said.
“Can you cover…?” Ken said, waving his hand above Jacquline’s chest.
“God.” Jacquline rolled her eyes as she pulled the strap up to her shoulder. “Better?”
Ken cautiously lowered his eyes, hoping she hadn’t dropped the entire gown, something he knew she wouldn’t be afraid to do, not if it meant embarrassing him or making him feel awkward and demoralized. It was a far cry from the child he loved to remember — the innocence of her sweet, cherubic face, the joy and excitement behind every straight-A report card, and the love she conveyed for her family and friends, not to mention the unadulterated respect she had for herself and her future. He had to dig deep for those memories, though. There weren’t a whole lot of them since Stacey’s disappearance.
“Good to see you made it home last night,” Ken said.
“Who said I did?”
“Look,” he said, ignoring the implication. “I need you to take Tracey to school today.”
Jacquline sighed and shifted away, pushing the door closed.
Ken caught it before it shut completely and followed Jacquline to her bed, where she made a face plant into her pillow. Her room, by all accounts, looked just as callous as Jacquline.
“Do you have a problem with that?” Ken asked.
“I’m already late, Jacks. Can you just do this one thing for me?”
Jacquline looked up at Ken, more depressed than tired. “Why? So you can waste even more of your life?”
“I have not been wasting my life. You know —”
“She’s dead, Ken,” Jacquline stated with derision.
“She’s not dead!” Ken screamed, grabbing Jacquline under the chin, pulling her face close to his. Jacquline was more than willing to jam his teeth to the back of his brain, but managed to remain as morose and calm as a dormouse.
A minute later, Ken relaxed.
Jacquline shook her head from his hand. She shifted up her bed slightly and pulled her legs in close to her body.
“I am going to find her.”
“You’re freakin’ deluded. She’s dead. Accept it and move on already.”
“I can’t,” Ken said softly.
“Get it through your thick skull, Ken. The bitch left us, just like mom did. If you were smart, you’d take my advice — forget about her. Tracey deserves at least that much from you.”
“Not yet. Not when I’m this close.”
“Then do me a favor and leave me and Tracey out of it, okay.”
“Just drive Tracey to school,” he said and left without another word.
Jacquline followed him to the door. “Asshole,” she screamed before slamming it shut.
Tracey hadn’t moved an inch when Ken returned to the kitchen, though the lightly stained milk was now nearly empty and her spoon sat next to the bowl. Ken watched her a moment as she stared at the wall, silently thinking — planning? — about whatever it was she thought about. Ken’s own thoughts strayed from that of Stacey and dwelled on his inability to really know his own daughter. On the surface, she was a normal eight-year-old girl with the exception of a birthmark in the shape of a crescent moon imprinted on her left cheek. (There used to be one on her right cheek as well, but that mark faded away about the same time as Stacey, and Ken had convinced himself that it had never been there to begin with.) But inside was something far different, and something Ken was unable to understand. She was the complete opposite of Jacquline; instead of a rebelliously sociable promiscuity, Tracey kept everything hidden and preferred stable routines in close proximity to the safety of her home. She absolutely hated communicating with anyone, including her very own family. Thinking about it brought long-buried feelings to the surface of his mind, forcing him to realize how much he had missed — had ignored — over the past five years. Time to sit with her, talk with her as a father and understand her thoughts, her pleasures and fears, had passed with the single beat of his heart. It chilled him to think that he might have lost that chance forever. In a few days, perhaps he might get his second chance, but not today. He had a project to finish — a life to find.
Tracey would have to wait.
Ken brushed Tracey’s hair behind her ear and kissed her head. “I’ll see you,” he whispered. Tracey sat motionless, unaware of the love he was trying to give her — if that was truly what it was.
Ken grabbed his keys from the bowl on the counter and hurried out the door without another look back. He walked with confidence to the rusted pickup truck and fired up the engine. For a moment, as Ken found a more comfortable position in his seat, Ken found his thoughts once again bounce to his daughters. What he saw most clearly was a broken family — isolated and defiant. He saw two young girls, both of whom had lost a mother without a word of reason, each fending for themselves because the one parental figure they both shared in common had basically abandoned them. And for what? He hated what Gloria had done to Jacquline and somehow knew his own actions of late were bordering on just that. But he also knew, above all, that the dream he was chasing so relentlessly was the key to fixing that broken family. Gloria was a lost cause; nothing he could ever say or do would fix that. But Stacey had been taken against her will. She was out there somewhere, and only she could bring happiness back to the hell he called home.
There could be no further hesitation. The truck backed out of the driveway and shot down the quiet suburban road. As he drove, Ken’s mind shifted gears faster than the pickup could. The further he got from his home, the less he thought about his girls and the more he thought about Stacey — her smile, her voice and her gracious and enlightened personality. It all melted into the night he first met her, standing in the middle of the road, the rain glistening off her body. There was an odd magnetism between them that he knew he would never feel again. From that point on, Ken couldn’t concentrate unless she was with him; when he was alone, his energy drained from his pours. He loved her, more than anyone he had ever loved — his parents, his daughters, and especially Gloria, who at one point he was sure would be his one and only love.
So, what happens if the project’s a failure?
Failure was on his mind every day, but Ken always suppressed that possibility with his tenacity. His project would not fail; it couldn’t. He would lose everything if it did, and that was simply not an option.
All of this faded gently to the background as he mechanically pulled up to a faded-brown wooden shack in front of a black steel gate. The guard was half-asleep but he quickly became alert at the sight of the little Toyota. Ken flashed a smile and a white badge with his picture and name.
The guard replied with his own sluggish smile and turned a key to activate the gate. “Have a good day, Dr. Brody.”
“Indeed, I will,” Ken said, waiting impatiently for the gate (moving slower than its usual snail-pace) to open enough for him to squeak past. He raced through the nearly empty parking lot and came to rest in a space near a black door sitting all alone among the flood of gray metal making up the foundation of the large industrial-style building. Ken hurried to the door and slid his badge across the top of a small security pad with a red light shining brilliantly above a faded keypad. He typed in a series of numbers — 0-2-1-4 (Valentine’s day, the date of his marriage to Stacey) — and the red light vanished in favor of the green one next to it. A loud “CHUNK-Clink” soon followed. Ken vigorously stepped inside his second home and allowed the door to slowly latch itself closed behind him — Click-CHUNK — swallowing him once again from the outside world.