Three days later, Rama was wiping down tables in the restaurant when she heard Jessica’s name. She’d been hearing Jessica’s name repeating on a loop in her head for days, but to hear it spoken aloud was startling.
She looked up from her work and fixed her eyes on the television over the bar, which was constantly turned to the news. Most of the time, the sound was muted, but her father had turned it on before going to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner. Rama didn’t know what the news report was about, but as soon as she heard Jessica’s name, the television had her undivided attention.
Since she’d had the strange encounter with Jessica in the forest, she wondered whether she’d imagined everything she’d seen—if it was the result of a head injury after all. She hadn’t been satisfied by Jessica’s strained explanation and erratic behavior, and she’d been looking everywhere for signs that she wasn’t going crazy.
When she heard Jessica’s name on the news, she knew that she’d seen something.
“Mr. and Mrs. Spurlock reported that their daughter left for school on the morning of the fourteenth and never made it home that evening,” the newscaster announced. “They didn’t bring the case to the authorities until two days had gone by without any word from Jessica.”
The camera cut to an exterior shot of the Spurlock’s home, a two-story Victorian, with Roy and Maureen Spurlock standing on the porch. A reporter held a microphone up to Maureen’s face.
“We thought she might be spending the night with her boyfriend,” Maureen said. “She did that sometimes.”
“Does that,” Roy corrected.
Rama put down the rag. It felt like someone had taken a seat on her chest.
Maureen sniffed. “We just… we’ve lived in Aldale since before Jessica was born. This is one of the safest towns in the world—most people don’t even lock their doors around here.” She looked to Roy. When he nodded, she continued. “Whatever happened to Jess… we just want her back here, safe and sound. Whether she ran off on her own or what, she’s welcome to come back here, no questions asked.”
Roy leaned over to speak into the microphone. “We love you, Jessica. We always will.”
Tears shone in Maureen’s eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but she was overcome by emotion and had to turn away from the camera, the reporter, and the microphone.
“If someone’s taken her—” Roy started.His voice broken on the last word, and he dissolved into a sob. He took a minute or two to compose himself before wiping his nose with a handkerchief. “She’s our only daughter. We just want her back. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure she comes home.”
Rama’s ears roared. Her face was on fire. If that was the real Jessica she’d seen in the forest, what the hell was she doing out there? Why was she torturing her friends and loved ones like she was? Didn’t she have any idea how her absence was upsetting them?
“Rama, turn that up, please,” her father Dhayal called from the kitchen. He stood in the doorway, gazing intently up at the television. “Don’t you go to school with her?”
Rama went over, grabbed the remote control from behind the bar, and turned the volume up so that her father could hear it. On screen, the Spurlock’s home had vanished, replaced once again by the familiar newsroom.
“Jessica Spurlock’s whereabouts are still unknown,” the newscaster said. “Anyone who has seen or heard anything related to her disappearance is encouraged to go to the police or call our toll-free hotline at the bottom of the screen.”
Rama debated writing the telephone number down. She had seen something related to Jessica’s disappearance. Then again, she still wasn’t sure whether it had been real.
What could the police do with a teenage girl’s hallucination?