Jacob stretched, his long, thick limbs casting grotesque contorted shadows on the wall. Emma stared at them without seeing anything. Her mind was still in her book.
"Almost time," said Jacob. The sound of his voice pulled her back to the office.
"Mm," she half-answered.
"Are you going to leave?"
He didn't seem to want to let her get back to her book. Emma sent him a dark look that she hoped got the point across.
"Eventually," she said tonelessly.
"I don't know."
Jacob heaved an uncharacteristic sigh. He furrowed his brow the way he did when he was irritated.
"You need to get out of here sometimes!" he said. "My god, you stayed late yesterday, and Monday. Don't you have anyone waiting for you back at your house? Anyone? A goldfish?"
What had brought this on, Emma wondered.
"I do get out of here," she said. "I'm in school eight hours of the day, remember?"
"And what do you do there?" Jacob asked. He didn't give her any time to answer. "Do you stare at the wall and think about cases? All you ever do is work!"
"Is there something wrong with that?" Emma asked. She studied him as best as she could in the light from her reading lamp. His face was full of dark lines and visible tension.
"Why don't you have friends?" He demanded bluntly. "Friends to go to the movie with. Get your nails or hair done. Get dinner. I'm not the most social person in the world, but I'm not totally alone."
Emma leaned back slightly. She was a bit stung, but mostly surprised. Jacob was the last person to tell other people how to live their lives. How long had he been thinking like this?
"Is there something wrong with me not having friends?" she asked, and she could hear the defensive edge in her own voice. Which was strange, because he hadn't hurt her that badly.
"You're a teenaged girl," Jacob pointed out, less roughly than before. "You should have friends, boyfriends, social engagements. Instead you're always here. I get here in the afternoon and you're here five minutes after I am. I leave in the evening, you either leave with me or lock up behind me. You don't text while we're working, you don't IM, and you never talk about going anywhere. In fact, I don't think you ever DO go anywhere. Why are you always here?"
"Because this is my job," Emma answered. "Job comes first."
"Why let it keep you from making friends?" he asked again.
Emma tapped her fingers on the cover of her book. She stared over Jacob's shoulder without seeing anything. Abstract sentences circulated through her head, flitting in and out before she could complete any of them. Somewhere in her mind was the answer, but she couldn't find it.
"This is who I am," she said. The words were awkward and slow, like she was physically forcing something out. "I am... sorry."
She didn't know what she was apologizing for, but she meant it. She fought the urge to clasp her hands together tightly for comfort and instead turned her wide, empty gaze to Jacob. She could feel her own face freeze in a plastic mask of isolation.
"Why are you sorry?" asked Jacob. The frustration was back in his voice. "You didn't do anything wrong. I just asked you why you don't have any friends. Don't you want any?"
"I-," Emma's voice was suddenly gone. She paused, looking for something to say. "I - I - I don't know. I do not... Have friends. I haven't ever had friends. This is my job. It comes first."
"You've never had friends?" Jacob asked incredulously.
"Um," Emma began. A few images appeared briefly in her mind. "I think so."
"What do you mean, you think so? Have you ever had friends, or haven't you?" He demanded.
Emma thought hard. She didn't fully understand the question, but she didn't want to admit it and make Jacob snap again.
"Well," she said finally. "There was him. He never did anything to me."
"'Him'?" Jacob echoed doubtfully. "And who was that?"
"I used to have a job," said Emma. The words came into her mouth reluctantly. They felt heavy, like stones. "I cleaned a woman's house. There was more than one person there. There was a boy. There were two boys - a young one and an older one. I spoke with the boy."
"Did you tell him about yourself?" he asked.
"Probably," Emma answered. She slipped seamlessly into her brief memories. "I don't recall. We talked a lot about him. But I don't talk to him anymore."
"Why not?" asked Jacob. "Did you two fight? Did one of you move away?"
"I couldn't... talk to him after the accident. I was afraid I'd say something. I wanted to, but that would be bad," Emma answered. In her mind's eye she saw the flashing red and blue lights as they had looked on that particular day.
"Accident? What kind of accident?" Jacob pried.
Emma had no answer. There was a story, but now wasn't the right time. She could feel her desire to speak wither and die in her throat.
"Never mind," she answered, coming abruptly back to the present. She picked up her book and opened it again, hoping Jacob would take the hint.
"You brought it up. You can't make me forget that you said it," he continued. Emma made a major point of opening the book even wider. "Was it your fault?"
"Was what-?" she began, finally looking at him. A second too late she understood what he meant. "No. No, it wasn't."
She diverted her attention back to her book.
"Then why didn't you want to talk to him? What were you afraid of? Were you scared? Lonely? Hurt?" He was either oblivious or deliberately ignoring her attempts to get rid of him.
"No," Emma replied briskly. She nudged the cursor sitting next to her, and the old computer screen sprang to life. Jacob spoke again, but she ignored him.
"It's six o' five," she said without looking at him. "Why don't you go on out and I'll lock up after you?"
He started to protest, but she cut him off.
"Go on, now," she said. Then, less warmly, "go."
"I want to hear the story," said Jacob, but he picked his gym bag off the floor anyways and slung it over his shoulder."
"One day. Not today, not tomorrow, but one day," Emma answered. She forced her eyes to single in on the page in front of her.
"Yeah right," Jacob snorted.
"Yes," she answered softly.
She listened to him leave until the door swung shut. Then she set down her book, sighed tiredly, and laid her head down on the cool desk.
What had come over Jacob? He normally didn't care about her personal life or what she did in her free time. Why on earth did he decide to start now? Emma dug her forehead into the desk and clenched her fists violently. She was angry and baffled and her heart was beating faster than usual. From fear? Was she afraid?
A loud knock on the front door startled her out of her thoughts. It was probably Jacob, realizing he'd forgotten his key and coming back to get it. Emma forced herself up and strode to the front.
She'd been wrong - it wasn't Jacob. The boy standing outside was short but muscular, with tan skin and dark blue eyes. He peered through the glass door and smiled tentatively at her. Emma kept her face blank, but inside irritation erupted like a violent firework. Didn't the sign on the door clearly say 'closed'?
No, it didn't, because Jacob had forgotten to flip it over on his way out the door. Emma had to restrain herself from pulling on her hair in frustration. Couldn't he, just once, do something useful around the place?
The boy knocked again.
She shouldn't let him in. She should leave him out there. She should turn off all the lights and slip out the back. But a part of Emma needed something to take her mind off the argument with Jacob, and that part of her mind drove her to reach out, unlock the door, and pull it open.
"I'm afraid we're closed right now," she said curtly, hoping the boy took the hint from her tone to leave quickly.
No such luck.
"Oh, are you?" the boy answered. "I'm sorry. Your sign said open. Um... Since you're here and all... Is the detective still here?"
"You just missed him," Emma responded.
"Oh," the boy sagged a little. "Could - could you please take a message for me? It's very important."
"How important?" She bit out.
"I have a case," he said. "I think you guys would be really interested."
"Why would you think that?" Emma asked, leaning against the doorframe and crossing her arms in front of her.
"Because," he said. "You guys investigate murders and disappearances and stuff, right?"
'Among other things,' Emma thought. Outwardly she nodded.
"Well, I'm here about a disappearance," the boy answered. "A girl in my class. Only no one else seems to remember her."
A thousand possible snide responses flashed through her mind, but she kept them to herself.
"Are you certain there was a girl?" she asked instead, fighting to keep her tone neutral.
"I'm positive!" The boy shouted, suddenly enraged. His face twisted into a look of stubborn frustration, welded from ages and ages of being ignored. "I even have proof."
Emma let out a sigh that felt more like all the air was being forcibly expelled from her lungs. She was so tired. All she could think about was how she wanted to go home. She wanted to eat her boxed dinner in peace. She wanted to take a hot shower, put on her comfortable pajamas, and go to bed. She wanted to forget about everything that didn't involve her directly. She wanted to take a Tylenol or two for her headache. She wanted to turn off her alarm so she didn't even have to think about high school. And really, only one thing was standing in her way.
"I will write down your case," she began, biting out each word. "And leave it as a memo for Jacob, but you have to provide sufficient evidence. Don't worry about it now - bring it in tomorrow."
"Really?" For a second, the boy's face lit up. Then his expression turned wary. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
Emma sighed again, this time hard enough to hurt her ribs. She clung to the throbbing because it was the only thing that kept her standing.
"Come in. I'll write it down and you can watch me. But I swear to god, that's it for tonight. No more. Come back with anything else tomorrow," she said, leaning into the doorframe and glaring.
The relief on the boy's face couldn't have been more apparent. He stared at Emma as if she'd just saved his life, not seeming to notice her anger.
"Alright!" he said. Emma stepped aside and, gesturing for him to follow, lead him into the office.
Emma didn't even look up from her novel.
"What's this?" Jacob demanded, this time more forcefully. She looked up, studied the note in his hand for a second, and then turned back to her book.
"We had a customer last night," she said blandly. "It was after you left."
"'Sudden disappearance of classmate. No notice from others. No recognition of name. No photographs, no school supplies. Evidence. 4 o'clock'," Jacob read slowly. Emma's handwriting was all over the place. "What the fuck does this mean?"
Emma didn't answer.
"Emma!" he called louder, frustrated. "What does this mean?"
"There was a boy who claimed that his classmate disappeared one day. She didn't show up for school, and no one was worried. He asked around to see what had happened to her, but nobody even recognized her name. Even the teachers didn't know her. He couldn't find any personal affects or any indications that she'd ever even attended school with him. However, he can clearly recall having gone to school with her since first grade. He's absolutely positive that something's up," Emma answered, not looking up.
"And what's 'four o'clock' mean?" Jacob demanded, squinting at the paper in his hand. It wasn't like her to be so sloppy.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"What's four o'clock mean?" he asked again. If he let her get off topic he'd never get her attention again. At least not until she was finished with that book, and from the look of it, she wasn't even near the halfway mark.
"It means that at four o'clock, he'll be by," Emma answered slowly, as if she suspected she was talking to an idiot. Jacob clenched his teeth and furrowed his brow, forcing himself to stay calm. "He says he's got evidence."
"Why would you let this guy in?" He asked, baffled. What had come over her all of a sudden? This case sounded about as legit as a three-dollar bill.
"I was bored," Emma mumbled, not even seeming to acknowledge him.
"You let this idiot come in to bitch to us about his delusion?" Jacob massaged his temple. Figures it would be today of all days. He had a huge math test he had to study for. Was this supposed to be her way of getting back at him for his comments last night?
"You're going to deal with him if he shows," she said, still mumbling.
"What?" Oh yeah, it was definitely to get back at him.
"You're the detective. He wanted to talk to you," Emma answered. Finally she looked up, meeting his gaze with a neutral one of her own.
"But why can't you do it?" Jacob demanded.
"Because," Emma sighed. "This is what he wanted. Besides, I have nothing to say if this is a legit case. I've never heard of anything like this."
"You had to have heard of something like this," Jacob protested. "Unnoted disappearances. Emma, I need to study!"
Just how mad had he made her, he wondered. He'd never criticized her so openly before. And she'd never done anything so careless before. He toyed with the idea of apologizing and quickly discarded it. He was right, after all. He'd just have to put up with Emma's moodiness until she decided either to let it go or that she'd tortured him enough.
"Do you suppose it's possible?" Emma asked suddenly, wrecking his train of thought. He turned to her and raised an eyebrow. "Do you think a person can really disappear without leaving behind a trace of themselves?"
Jacob's mind whirred into action. Newspaper articles, internet postings, police reports, eyewitness accounts - everything flashed through his mind in a matter of seconds, allowing him to discard what was useless and glean as much useful information as he could from his memories. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth, preparing for a lengthy and technical explanation, but before he could begin the front door opened.
"Hello?" called a male voice. Jacob closed his mouth and sighed. He had a feeling he knew what this person was here about.
"Back here," Emma called, her voice light and welcoming and her face expressionless. She put a marker on her page and looked up slowly.
The boy that stepped into view was young, probably not much older than Emma. He was tan and strong looking - probably an athlete. He was clutching a shoe box tightly under one arm. He looked around and smiled nervously at Jacob.
"Are you the detective?" he asked.
"Talk to her," Jacob grunted, waving a hand in Emma's general direction. He flopped onto the worn sofa with a grunt and crossed his arms over his chest. This had better be worth his time.
The boy turned to Emma, looking confused.
"I thought you said-," he began, but she didn't give him a chance to finish.
"Just talk to me," she sighed.
"O-kay," The boy said slowly. Then he seemed to remember what he was holding onto. He strode over and lay the shoe box down on the desk. "I brought you everything you asked for."
Emma made a small groaning noise that was either an agreement or a curse through closed lips. She pulled it over to her, pulled off the lid, and started rifling through it, not even looking up at the person in front of her. The boy shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other.
"Tell me about the girl," Emma said suddenly.
"Her name was Andrea Whitacre," He said. The words rushed from his mouth quickly but surely. "She was my age, I think. She was in my art class, and last year she was in my math class and my French class. The year before that I remember seeing her, but I can't remember if we had classes together. We probably did - my school isn't that big. She's been in the same school as me for as long as I can remember. We were even in kindergarten together."
"Were you close?" Emma asked absently. Her narrowed eyes were studying the paper in her hand intently. Jacob watched, waiting to see what she would do. What was so fascinating to her?
"No," said the boy. "We never really... talked. I mean, we did, sometimes, but it was always small, short conversations, you know? Just a few words here or there. I don't know why. I never really... saw her with anyone. She was always alone, looking at the floor. She never answered when the teacher asked a question. She never talked to the people around her. I know everyone thought she was a little weird, but I don't know exactly why. She just didn't talk."
"Hmm," Emma hummed absently. She looked up, and her eyes met Jacob's with a look he couldn't read. "Jacob, come here."
Once upon a time, he would have snapped at her for her commanding attitude. But he'd been working with her long enough now to know when she genuinely had something and when she was just lost and calling for help. This was one of the former times.
She wordlessly handed him a photograph before turning back to the boy.
"Are you sure all of these things belonged to your classmate?" she asked. "There's nothing in here you're not sure about?"
"It's all hers. I gathered everything I could of hers," the boy answered.
Jacob looked up.
"And this is, without a doubt, her?" he asked. He looked back at the photograph - a tacky blue sky background, typical of a film studio, and a faded area where a person should be. Should be. In this photograph, there was no one.
"I pulled it out of an old file I found," the boy answered. He averted his gaze. "I've been doing a little... investigating of my own."
"There are still records of her?" Emma asked.
"That was the only one I could find," the boy replied. "It was in our old middle school. There was just that picture and nothing else. I wasn't able to check the computers, but they probably won't have anything about her in them."
"Probably not," murmured Emma. Jacob looked over at her, and then at their client.
"Emma," he said. "Come with me."
She looked up at his face briefly. Then she stood, pushing her chair back, and followed him into the back room. He shut the door firmly and waited a moment before speaking.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Do we have a legitimate case?"
"If this is a delusion, it's a very strong one," Emma answered quietly, frowning at her shoes. "This photograph isn't the only thing he's managed to gather. He has a hair tie of hers, a paper with her name on it, and somehow - don't ask me how - her enrollment form in their kindergarten. It's mostly blank, but it still has her gender, address, part of her telephone number, etc. I believe him. At very least, I believe that he believes there was a girl. It may be worth looking into, even if it's only to prove that there was never anyone there. We can get paid either way."
She looked up, still frowning, at some point over his shoulder.
"It looks legitimate," Jacob mused. "Why would a school photographer take a blank photograph? Why would this kid fill out all this paperwork just to create an existence from nothing? It doesn't make sense."
"Then we should take the case," said Emma. Her gaze finally settled on his face. "Your uncle will probably be fine with it, right?"
"Yeah," Jacob answered. "Go back out. Talk to the client some more."
She nodded. Wordlessly, she turned on her heel and exited into the bright office, shutting the door firmly behind her. When he was sure she was back at her desk, Jacob pulled out his cell phone. He punched in the number more familiar than his own birthday and held it to his ear, waiting. For a long while, the phone rang and rang and rang. Just as he was considering hanging up and trying again, someone picked up.
"Hello?" came the crisp voice on the other end.
"Uncle," Jacob said. "We've got a case here. A young boy who says his classmate disappeared. He's been able to find only minimal records of her, and no one around him remembers her. There's sufficient evidence to indicate either a strongly manifested delusion or an honest case."
"Then take it," his uncle replied as though it was obvious.
"Fine," Jacob answered. He waited a second to see if his Uncle had anything else to say. When it became apparent that he didn't, he lowered the phone and pressed the 'end' button, swinging the door open again.
"We've got it," he said. The boy blinked, obviously surprised, but Emma looked completely unfazed.
"Alright," she said. She opened one of the drawers and pulled out a piece of paper, handing it to him. "Please fill out this form. Please, what's your name?"
"Dane," the boy answered. "Dane Corben."
"Alright then," said Emma with a smile. "Dane. We will do everything in our power to solve your case."
Jacob had a feeling that it wouldn't take much.
"So," said Emma. She looked up at the large school building in front of them critically. It was old, and some of the woodwork around the windows was rotted to the point of falling off. What was once probably grand masonry was now broken and worn down. "What's the plan?"
"We go in and ask the principal," said Jacob drily. He started towards the front staircase, not even waiting for her. Emma had to jog to catch up.
"It's five o'clock," she pointed out. "Do you think he'll still be there?"
"According to the school website, they've got sports teams that meet after school," Jacob replied without turning. "Hopefully he'll be here to oversee it."
The chances of that weren't very good, but Emma kept her comment to herself. He wouldn't be happy to hear it.
They entered the school and fell into step, with her lagging slightly behind. Jacob was deep in thought, and she could tell that he didn't want to be disturbed. She contented herself by going through scenarios in her head. With any luck, the principal would recognize their description of Andrea Whitacre and be able to point them in the right direction. If he couldn't, they were back to square one, only with a whole building full of potential evidence to search. She was hoping it wouldn't have to come to that, but if it did, she was prepared. She'd packed an extra scarf and a pair of gloves in her bag in case she got out early enough to walk home, as well as her cell phone charger and some extra money in case she needed to call a cab.
In order to reach the principal's office, a sign on a huge wooden staircase informed them that they would have to go up. Emma took the excuse to hang back further from Jacob, keeping an even pace while he darted up. He'd been in a thoughtful mood all day. It was best not to interrupt him - he was probably mentally dissecting the case. She knew better than to ask - he'd just stare at her coldly and walk away.
He reached the top of the staircase before her and was already entering the principal's office by the time her feet were on flat ground. She ran over and stopped respectfully short of him, preparing herself to step in should he start asking questions in his rude manner.
The first room in the office was empty. The secretary had obviously gone home for the night. Emma was pleasantly surprised to see that the light behind the door labeled 'Principal' was still on. Jacob had been right after all. He didn't seem to give any thought to this as he strode over and burst inside.
"Who are you?" The Principal was a short, scrawny man with a head of wild gray curls and an unshaven chin. He stared at Jacob like he was trying to place him from somewhere and didn't even seem to notice as Emma slipped in.
"We are private investigators," Jacob answered. He pulled his fake license out of his pocket and held it up just long enough for the man to see. "We're here investigating a disappearance. According to our record, the girl went here as a student."
The principal squinted at him but thankfully didn't ask to get a closer look at his credentials. Emma was always surprised by how trusting people could be.
"A disappearance?" the man asked. "Did it happen today?"
"No, no," said Jacob before Emma could answer. She shut her mouth and took a small, respectful step backwards. "It happened a while ago. We don't suspect foul play. We just need you to answer a few questions for us."
"Certainly," said the principal, shoving aside the papers he'd been filling out. He gestured to the empty seats in front of him. "Please, sit down."
As they moved forwards to take him up on his offer, the man seemed to notice Emma for the first time.
"Who's this?" he asked, nodding briefly at her.
"My partner," Jacob's tone was clipped. He sat down roughly and eyed the man across the table from him for a second before he continued. "Are you familiar with name 'Andrea Whitacre'?"
The man, who had been about to say something, closed his mouth and seemed to think about it for a second.
"No," he said finally. "I can't say I am. Then again, we have over three hundred students here, and unfortunately I'm not on first-name basis with all of them."
"Check," Jacob said firmly. "You have a database of all the students who attend here, don't you?"
"Unfortunately, that's not updated very often," the principal answered, not seeming taken aback by Jacob's brusque manner. "The files here are much more accurate."
He gestured behind him, to a wall lined entirely with filing cabinets overflowing with papers.
"Check," Jacob said. "We need all the information we can get."
The man rolled his chair complacently over to the cabinets.
"What did you say her last name was again?" he called over his shoulder.
"Whitacre," Jacob replied.
"And how do you spell that?"
"W-H-I-T-A-C-R-E," he said automatically.
The man fumbled with a set of keys, trying several before he found the one that unlocked the drawer he was in front of. For several minutes the room was quiet, save the noise of paper rustling loudly.
"I'm sorry," the principal said, shutting the cabinet and pushing himself back up to his desk. "I can't find anything on a Whitacre."
"That's fine," Jacob answered. "Would you happen to know a female student with brown hair, about five-foot-five, maybe a hundred and twenty pounds, dark eyes?"
"That description matched about half of the female student population," the principal sighed. "I'm sorry, I really don't know. If we don't have any records, you must have the wrong school."
"That's fine," said Jacob, immediately pushing himself to his feet. Emma stood as well and prepared to leave, glancing back at the man and wondering if she should add anything. It seemed like Jacob knew what he was doing, so it might be best just to let him handle this one.
Suddenly he seemed to remember something.
"Thanks," he called over his shoulder.
Maybe there was hope for Jacob as a human being after all. Emma stifled a smile, pressing her fingers to her lips and ducking her head.
When they were back in the hallway Jacob stopped walking. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked around.
"The art room might be best," Emma suggested gently. "Introverted people often find means other than physical communications through which to express themselves. We might be able to find a hint as to her mental state."
Jacob nodded absently and started to walk to the right. A quick glance at the wall told Emma that he was actually heading away from the art room. She cleared her throat loudly. If he heard her, he gave no indication.
"Jacob," she called gently. Nothing. "You're going the wrong way."
Jacob stopped and turned back to her, clearly irritated.
"How would you know?" he asked.
Emma wordlessly pointed to the map hanging next to the office door.
Jacob let out a frustrated sigh and stalked back over in the opposite direction. She made sure he was several feet away before following after him.
She spotted the art room immediately. The door had a large copy of some famous painting she couldn't name, and the word 'art' had been painted theatrically just above the window. She made her way over and realized with a sinking feeling in her stomach that she'd forgotten something. What if the door was locked?
Jacob solved the problem for her by materializing at her side and shoving it hard, forcing it open.
The smell of paint mixed with air freshener and clay drifted into Emma's nostrils. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. It was a pleasant but alien smell.
"Where should we look?" asked Jacob, bringing her back down to Earth. She sighed and leaned forwards, fumbling around in the dark until she found the light switch.
The room looked as cheerful as it smelled. There were a few desks all pushed against the back wall, but most of the space was dominated by easels and bookshelves full of thin, colorful books Emma was pretty sure she'd never seen before. The chalkboard contained a skilled mural of a country landscape, and the teacher's desk had several small, bright sculptures set up around the edges. Emma ghosted across the floor, looking around the cluttered space. Where to start, indeed?
"Here," Jacob called. She turned around quickly. He was standing behind her, in front of a drab, gloomy looking door, probably a storage closet.
"Is it locked?" Emma asked. Her mind flashed to the bobby pins she always carried in her purse in case of emergency.
Jacob kicked the door firmly and it flew open, colliding with something inside and filling the air with the sound of glass rattling. Emma's eyes widened slightly.
"Nope," Jacob called, not seeming alarmed in the least.
... Why did she even bother hoping?
The art closet was filled to the brim with papers, paints, clay, stencils, brushes, pens, pencils, and spare easels. Emma sighed softly. It would take them ages to find what they were looking for. Jacob, however, didn't seem daunted. He nudged her aside gently and started re-stacking a pile of broken things onto the middle of the floor. Emma watched him curiously.
"Here!" he said suddenly. He reached into a mass of papers and pulled out a large, decrepit box with 'notable artwork' written on the side.
"Do you think she'll have anything in there?" Emma asked. She awkwardly crawled over a lopsided desk and half sat, half fell to the floor beside him.
"It's worth a shot," he said, pulling off the lid.
The pictures inside seemed to Emma to be devoid of any particular finesse. They were better than she could ever hope to create, but they definitely weren't the work of a professional. Jacob lifted them up and laid them in an orderly stack in front of him, barely seeming to glance at the work on them. As he lifted away a particularly grotesque cubist sketch, Emma spoke up.
"Wait," she said quickly. She reached into her pocket and fumbled around for her phone. She pressed a few buttons and then passed it wordlessly to Jacob, who studied it and then studied the painting in the box.
"I can't ascertain if it's the same artist from this," he said finally, frowning. He pulled out the paper and turned it over so that he could see the blank back. "And I can't find a name."
"It looks the same," Emma muttered absently. She reached out and pulled the paper a little closer to herself, glancing from it to the screen of her cell phone, where a picture of a watercolor done by Andrea was displayed. "It could definitely be hers. See the liberal use of the color blue?"
"I do, but blue is a pretty common color for the sky," Jacob answered, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
"They're both landscapes, though," Emma said. "Prominently featuring a beautiful sky. The shading also looks similar to me. I'm pretty sure it's hers."
Jacob frowned deeper.
"If it is, what can we learn from it?" he asked.
"Is there more?" Emma peered into the box.
"Look," she said, pulling out a wrinkled pamphlet with Sandusky, Ohio written on the top and a picture of a sunset over water beneath it. Jacob took it from her hands curiously and opened it up.
"What does this look like to you?" he asked, laying the paper flat and pointing to a photo on the inner fold.
Emma glanced over to Andrea's watercolor, and then back to the pamphlet.
"I think we may have found our answer," she said, unable to keep the happiness out of her voice.
"I don't know. Maybe it was just in here because it was her inspiration," Jacob replied pessimistically. Somehow it didn't damper Emma's spirits at all.
"No," she said. "I think we've found her."
"Well, if we have, all we know is that she's in Sandusky," Jacob said. There was a blunt edge of exasperation behind his words. "We don't know where, or-"
Emma pointed the screen of her cell phone, now dark.
"Do you think it's a coincidence that she painted a picture, left a pamphlet, and then painted another picture of a particular house?" she asked.
Jacob only sighed.
Jacob swore loudly and kicked the door to the car as hard as he could. Emma watched him from the opposite side, smiling in what was either dry amusement or a piss poor attempt to calm him down. He kicked the door again and let out a stream of curses in every language he could think of.
The drive to Sandusky wound up taking them an hour more than it should have due to the car nearly overheating. He'd planned to be there by four o'clock, and instead it was closer to five thirty.
"...Worthless, rotten piece of shit...."
"I'm going into that convenience store," Emma interrupted. She pointed behind him, towards the store he'd parked in front of. "I'm going to ask them if they know anything about the house in the picture."
"Who the fuck is going to recognize a house right off the top of their fucking head from a fucking watercolor picture?" Jacob snapped. Emma smiled into space, not at all disturbed, and walked around the car and into the shop. Muttering another long string of curses, he followed her.
The inside of the convenience store smelled like sauerkraut and rat poison. Jacob bit his tongue to keep from spitting out several less-than-polite comments about what that indicated and resolved to let Emma do the talking, since she was much less likely to cuss out the cashier.
She strode confidently over to the counter and held up the picture so that the fat, red-faced man sitting there could see it clearly.
"Excuse me," she said sweetly. "We're looking for this place. Would you happen to know where it is?"
"Well, I'll be damned," the man leaned forwards and squinted at the painting. "That looks like the old Barbarosa place. Yeah, it really does."
He leaned back in his seat and nodded to himself.
"You go down this main road here, turn right, then at the first intersection on that road you turn to Pinecrest lane, and then you turn off onto the skinny little road attached to that, and it's the last house to your left," he said.
Jacob couldn't see Emma's face from where he was standing, but he could clearly see in his mind's eye the beatific smile she flashed the man behind the counter.
"Thank you," she chirped. Turning, she flashed Jacob a pleasant grin and waltzed right out of the shop. He followed, dumbfounded.
"I can't believe he recognized the place," he said. "I can't believe he recognized the place."
He wasn't sure whether to be mad or grateful.
The house was as beautiful in person as it was in Andrea's watercolor. It was a clean white, with a deep green trim. The woodwork had been done stylishly, giving the place the look of a fairytale home. The turret on the left only added to the analogy.
Jacob stared up at it, dumbfounded. How on Earth had they managed to find the place on the first try? Beside him, Emma adjusted slightly to get his attention.
"Should we go?" she asked.
He nodded but made no move to get started.
Emma sighed and lead the way, climbing carefully up the two steps that put them level with the yard. She didn't hesitate once, which surprised Jacob. He'd have thought she'd be all over the place, giving undivided attention to the bush shaped like a giraffe or smelling every flower she came across. He could just see her now, stooped down sniff a delicate little spring blossom while he waited and hoped no one was watching.
Emma stopped abruptly, and he nearly ran into her. She turned to the left, face blank, and he followed her gaze.
There, in the shadow cast by the porch, stood a skinny girl in a pair of dirty men's jeans and a sweatshirt. Jacob couldn't see her face very well, but she seemed to be looking right at them.
"Hello," called Emma. "My name is Emma. This is Jacob. We're here looking for someone. Would you mind talking to us for a few moments?"
The girl stepped forwards, into the light.
She was of medium height, about five foot five, with brown hair and dark eyes. Immediately Jacob recognized her.
"Are you Andrea Whitacre?" He called. Emma's elbow struck him firmly in the stomach.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, glaring down at her.
The girl's voice was as smooth as glass. She smiled at them, just a slight upturning of the lips, and gestured for them to follow her.
She led them up onto the porch, where they waited while she opened the heavy wrought-iron storm door and the thick oak main door. She stood aside, watching them expectantly. Jacob and Emma made to step in at about the same time and nearly collided before Emma moved back.
The inside of the house was beautiful. The woodwork was freshly polished, and the large picture windows were spotless. The tiled marble floor shone like it had been freshly washed, and the chandelier on the tall ceiling reflected the fading sunlight into a myriad of colors on the walls. Jacob heard Emma draw in a small breath.
"Come in," Andrea invited a second time, shutting the door behind them. She gestured to their left, into a spacious parlor furnished with that appeared to be antiques. Jacob strode forwards and turned when he realized Emma wasn't following. She was taking off her shoes. He looked at his own muddy boots, sighed, and stepped back onto the welcome mat. Andrea waited politely in the doorway.
When they were both sitting on the fainting couch across from Andrea's chosen armchair, Jacob finally asked the question he'd been wanting the answer to since the start of the case.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean, how and why did you disappear?" he elaborated.
"Oh," Andrea's smile was back. "That. Don't worry about it."
"No," said Emma quietly. She was staring at a painting on the wall of an angel in red robes. Her eyes were half lidded, but Jacob knew better than to assume she was falling asleep. "It's our job to worry. That's what we were hired to do."
"Why?" asked Andrea. Her smile was gone.
"Because a boy named Dane Corben wanted to find you. When you disappeared one day, he was very worried. The fact that nobody else seemed to remember you didn't help matters," Jacob answered.
Andrea sucked in a sharp breath, and her eyes widened visibly.
"He remembered me?" she asked. "That can't be. I made sure that everyone would forget all about me!"
"He didn't," said Emma. "On the contrary, he remembered everything about you. That's why he asked for our help. He couldn't find you on his own."
Andrea drew in a shaky breath and clenched her hands into fists on her lap.
"I disappeared," she said slowly. "There shouldn't be any remaining records of me. Any traces of me are gone."
"Did you destroy them?" Emma asked in the same lulled voice. She still hadn't looked over.
"Not with my hands, if that's what you mean," Andrea smiled strangely. "But I did make sure there wouldn't be anything left."
"Unfortunately, you failed. There were remaining traces of you. Dane found most of them. He just missed your most important clue - the watercolor you painted of Sandusky," Emma said.
"That was my one little hint," Andrea said. Her voice had gone quiet. "In case anyone did remember. If they wanted to find me."
Her head fell forwards so that her hair was obscuring her face.
"You chose to disappear, didn't you?" asked Emma. "You chose it and planned it for a long time. You did something most people are terrified of doing - you totally abandoned your own identity. You left the place in the world that had been molded to fit around you in order to find a new place. And once that space in the world was empty, everyone forgot it was even there."
Now she turned to look at Andrea, and Jacob couldn't decipher the look on her face.
"Except for Dane. Dane remembered you. Could it be that it's because he really cared about you?" she asked. Her voice had a rougher edge to it now.
"Nobody cared about me," Andrea answered in a small voice. "That's why I was able to live here. Nobody noticed me. This place has been abandoned for so long everyone just takes it for granted that it's still empty. But I'm going to take care of it. I'm going to make a place for myself here."
She looked up suddenly and narrowed her eyes.
"You can't change that. I won't let you. I won't go back to being Andrea," she said.
"Do you have a different name you'd prefer to be called by?" Emma asked kindly.
"Rose," Andrea answered. "I want to be called Rose."
"That's fine," Emma said, smiling. "Rose is a pretty name."
The smile slid off her face.
"Andrea, we have to tell Dane you're here. Rose - Rose. We have to tell him that we found you, at very least. I'll understand if you don't want to see him - there's nothing wrong with that. It's your choice. But you have to decide now. Tell us what you want."
Rose bit her lower lip and looked down.
"I don't want to see him," she said. "I'm not a part of that life anymore."
"Then that's what we'll tell him," said Emma. Her smile was back.
"Can I give you something to give to him?" Rose asked. "It'll explain everything. That way he's not left wondering."
"So that's it, then."
Dane lowered the letter with trembling hands. His breathing was uneven, as if he was about to cry.
"She's really gone."
"Don't think of it like that," said Emma. She was sitting behind her desk with her head in her hands and a small smile on her lips. God only knew what she was staring at. Jacob wondered if she was even fully aware that she was speaking. "I know she doesn't."
"She told me everything in here," Dane said. "About how everything sucked for her, and about how she's fine now."
"Exactly," said Emma. Her smile grew.
"I'll never see her again, will I?" asked Dane. It sounded to Jacob like he already knew the answer.
"No," he replied anyways. "You never will. And you will probably forget her. But that's what she wants. Sometimes, if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen."
"I still don't understand," Dane shook his head.
"You don't have to," said Emma. "Just know that the explanation she gave you is perfectly valid."
Dane nodded. He turned slowly and began to trudge out the door. Suddenly he stopped and looked up at Jacob.
"I'll take care of the bill and all. You know where to find me - it's on the form," he said. Jacob nodded. Dane hesitated, but when nobody said anything he started walking again. A few seconds later the door swung shut loudly.
"Do you suppose it's for the best to disappear?" asked Emma suddenly. "To leave the false self behind and embrace the newborn true reality?"
Jacob didn't have the answer, but he couldn't say he'd never wondered the same thing.
Author's notes: Have I passed the three week mark already? Huh? A few weeks ago? I can't believe it! It must be a lie!
God, I'm so lazy. Luckily the chapter I just finished is super long, so maybe that makes up for the lateness? Ah, who am I kidding. Sorry, guys. As I said in my last chapter, feel free to chew me out! I'll take it like an adult, I promise.
Well, thank you for reading my stupid ramblings! I'd be pleased to receive a review, even if it's just telling me that I suck and need to get my priorities straight. I love to hear from people!