Alerted by the slam of the front door, Ellie slid her laptop to the side of the breakfast bar and covered it with a copy of Us Weekly. Noah mumbled a greeting, stalked to the fridge and started foraging through it. He had the inward look he always got whenever he was replaying the day’s events over and over, and she waved him away. ‘Sit, Noah. I’ll make you a grilled cheese.’
‘Thanks. Where are the kids?’
‘I’ve let them have some TV time.’ He raised an eyebrow: Again?
But she could tell he was too tired to argue. ‘You okay with Swiss?’
‘We not got American?’
‘No. Didn’t get to the store. Boys had hockey practice after school.’ It was only a small lie. ‘You want to talk about your day?’
‘Later.’ He sat and watched while she separated the cheese slices. He’d talk when he was good and ready and she knew better than to press him. She heated butter and oil in the pan, then dropped in the sandwich.The scent of melting cheese and toasting bread filled the kitchen. Ellie thought about making one for herself, but she’d been grazing all day. She’d finished the kids’ waffles that morning, then made inroads into the pound cake she’d bought on the sly at the Stop & Shop yesterday.
The house phone rang. She went to get it, but Noah leaned across and plucked it off the wall. He listened, then said: ‘For you.’
‘Who is it?’
She took it from him, tucking it under her chin so that she was free to flip the sandwich. ‘This is Ellen.’ Probably one of those pollsters, most people used her cell.
‘It’s Chris.’ Ellie couldn’t place the voice. It was low, husky, could be male or female.
‘Excuse me, who?’
‘Chris. Chris Guzman. From Missing-Linc.’
Ellie would be less shocked if Jesus were on the line to her. Noah mouthed: ‘Is it your dad?’ She covered the handset. ‘No. Nothing like that. Can you watch the pan?’
‘Just watch the pan.’ She hurried out, making for the den.
‘You still there?’ Chris said.
‘What do you want, Chris? How did you get this number?’
‘It’s listed. Would have emailed or sent you a Facebook DM but you blocked me.’
‘Do you blame me?’
‘I wasn’t the one who screwed up.’
‘What do you want?’
‘I need to send you something. You got your iPhone or laptop handy?’
Chris’s tone was as bossy as her online persona. Back when they were colleagues, Ellie had tried and tried to get her to FaceTime or call so that they could chat in person, but she’d resisted. She’d never said why. ‘Wait a sec.’
Noah shot her another questioning look as she raced into the kitchen and grabbed her laptop. She gestured at the pan – the bread was blackening. Back in the den, out of earshot, she balanced the device on Noah’s desk. Her insides were on spin- cycle. ‘Okay. I got my laptop.’
‘You still got the same email?’
‘Wait, I’ll unblock you.’
There was dead air between them while she did so. Seconds later, an email with no subject line and a link came through.
‘You get it?’
‘Wait a sec, Chris.’
She clicked on the link – a request for information about a long-lost uncle – and homed in on a cropped, fuzzy headshot of a young man.
‘Well? Is it him?’
She opened her mouth to ask, ‘is it who?’, then took in the shape of his face, his ears, and that indefinable something. ‘Oh. Oh my Lord.’
‘Well, is it? The hair’s different.’
She was about to answer, then stopped herself. She’d got herself into trouble before by being too hasty. ‘I’m not sure.’ She told Chris she’d call her back, then hung up.
Ellie leaned over the desk and breathed in. Next, she checked her reflection in the den’s small mirror. Her cheeks were crimson, her neck blotchy. She flapped a hand in front of her face in a vain attempt to cool it down as she made her way back to the kitchen.
‘Who was that?’ Noah said when she entered the room. The sandwich was sitting untouched in front of him. Ellie drifted to the stove, and took the pan to the sink as an excuse to get her emotions in check. She was getting better at hiding things, but this was too big.
‘Chris. From Missing-Linc.’
‘What the hell did she want?’
‘There’s been an update on the Boy in the Dress. We might have an ID for him.’
‘Thought you’d left the site?’
‘I have. This lead literally just came in.’
‘You said you were through with all that.’ His voice was low, laced with disappointment.
‘I know. But you know what this could mean, don’t you?’
‘I can’t deal with this right now.’
‘You said you were done.’
‘I am done.’
‘No you’re not.’ He got up.
‘Where you going?’
‘Need a nap. It’s been a helluva day.’
‘What about your sandwich?’
‘Lost my appetite. You said you were done, Ellie.’
She couldn’t argue with that. He didn’t know she’d been late collecting the boys from school a couple of times because she’d got caught up checking the photo archives on Lost&Found.com. He didn’t know that she sometimes got up at three a.m. to trawl through the UnsolvedMurders threads on Reddit, or that she’d joined Websleuths. After the upset with Chris, after it had started taking over her life, she’d promised she wouldn’t do it any more. But like a dog returning to its vomit – or like an alcoholic or one of those meth addicts – in the last couple of months she’d regressed.
A howl came from the TV room. She stormed through to find the twins tussling on the rug. Potato chips crusted the gaps between the couch’s cushions, and the air was thick with the funk of popcorn and boy socks.
She pulled them apart. ‘Stop that right now, you hear?’ They both crossed their arms and pouted.
‘Where’s Dad?’ Philip whined.
‘He’s having a nap. You’re not to disturb him. We had a deal. I said you could have an extra hour of TV time if you behaved.’ Sammy wriggled out of her grasp. ‘But Philip won’t let me watch Adventure Time.’
‘It’s not his turn, Mom.’
‘It is, you liar. Liar, liar, you’re a goddamned liar.’
‘Sammy! No cursing.’
Another pout. ‘Sorry, Mom. But it’s my turn to choose.’
‘Okay, okay. How about a compromise? You want one of your movies? How about Sing? You both like that.’
She bribed the boys with promises of ice cream after supper and games on the iPad if they kept it down, and spent the next ten minutes getting them to compromise on a movie. Bad parenting 101, but she’d deal with the guilt later.
Back in the kitchen, she made a decaf with extra sugar. How long was it since she’d been on Missing-Linc? Had to be months.The boy wasn’t her first case, but it meant more to her than the others she’d worked on.
It was as painful as visiting an ex’s Facebook page and seeing they were happier without you. But she couldn’t put it off forever. Chris was waiting. The case was archived, and it took several seconds to scroll through to it. Re-reading it brought on a mixture of sorrow and guilt – she’d abandoned the Boy in the Dress after she left the site. Dumped him. She dragged Noah’s plate towards her and picked at the sandwich, not quite ready to compare the photograph with the composite drawing. The boy wasn’t her first case, but it meant more to her than the others she’d worked on. Meant more to her than the first case that got her hooked, the mystery of Steven and Miranda Shepherd, the couple who’d disappeared while they were camping in the Catskills. She’d read about them on one of the news sites when she and Noah were living in Roseville, a few months before Noah got the job at St. Cloud correctional and they’d moved here. The Shepherds were a seemingly happy couple who’d disappeared without a trace while on vacation. When a couple of hikers came across their tent, their dog was tied up outside it and their camp stove was still alight. Looked like they’d been taken by aliens. That case woke something up in her. She was on forums day and night swapping theories and digging into the couple’s online profiles. Noah encouraged it at first. She’d been down for a while after the boys started school, and he reckoned it was good for her to have something to do other than look after the house. It was the Shepherds who’d brought Ellie and Chris together. She’d joined Missing-Linc and, later, applied to be a moderator. That was back when the site also did sleuthing. That was back before it started taking over her life.
Ellie didn’t hear about the boy online, but via Lisa, one of the moms at the boys’ karate class. She and Noah had just moved into the area, and she was saying how nice it was to be in a small town with one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Lisa said,
‘Uh-huh, I know, right? Last big murder I heard about was that boy who died back in the nineties.’
‘That gay boy. They think he might’ve been a drag queen like that RuPaul.’
‘Body was found wearing a prom dress. Weird, huh?’
‘They find out who killed him?’
‘Couldn’t tell you. They might’ve, but I don’t recall reading about it.’
The second Ellie got home she’d started digging. There wasn’t much, but she tracked down a couple of archived articles about the case. She’d flagged it to Chris, who agreed to feature it on the forum. But it was always her case. And not just because she found it: the boy was personal. He’d been dumped in the reserve where she took the boys after church. Five miles from their home.
She’d built up the content, taken photos of the dumpsite where the boy was found and uploaded them, and after the sheriff ’s office shut her down, it was she who’d unearthed a photograph of the dress from the Herald’s archives at the library.
She shivered. The sandwich was finished, and she hoovered up the last of the crumbs with her finger. She scrolled down past the description page. No one had commented on the case for almost a year, and her username jumped out at her, a window into the past. Old Ellie. Happy Ellie. Thin Ellie. Rainbowbrite Ellie.
Thread dated: July 17/2016
Rainbowbrite [moderator]: Could everyone share the pic of the prom dress on social media? Might help lead us to the Boy’s identity, or to whoever did this horrible crime.
Zanzibarb: Done! Is there a clearer picture of it?
Rainbowbrite [moderator]: Thanks Zanzibarb J I’ll keep asking the county if they can provide us with a better one and more details about material, size etc. I’ll also check with the Herald and try and locate the original pic.