Hide and Seek
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Emma turned onto a dark, slick road, and the Super 8 loomed into view. VACANCIES, a sign announced at the entrance. But the V and C had burned out, and the N had tipped over.
Emma pulled Sutton’s car around the back and angled into a parking space. Only a lone red truck shared the lot. Was it Raven’s? She squinted hard at the Arizona plates, the big tires, the naked-girl mud flaps. Would she really drive something like that? Then again, she knew nothing about the woman. She could be anyone, into anything.
Emma stepped out of the car and locked it behind her. Rain pounded the premises, and an earthy smell rose from the desert beyond. She wound around the front of the motel and followed signs for room 105. Most of the windows were curtained, but the few that were opened revealed neatly made beds and tired-looking wood bureaus. A wrapper for a Filet-O-Fish lay crumpled in the corner. A spiderweb glistened from the eaves. Her sandals rang out loudly on the pavement, so she angled up onto her toes, trying to soften her footsteps.
Finally, she approached room 105 and stopped, her heart thudding so fast she thought it might implode. Yellow light streamed through a crack in the dingy pea-green curtains. Peeking through, she saw that a television was on.
Fear twined through me. Was this it? Was my sister going to figure out what happened? I knew exactly what Emma was hoping for: a confession and hard evidence about my murder. But how likely was that?
Emma moved to the door and knocked gently, wondering what the hell she was going to say when Raven answered the door. A long moment passed, but she heard no footsteps inside. She knocked harder. Still nothing. She pounded the door so hard that the latch caught and the door inched open with a long, loud creeeeak.
Emma froze. A bedside lamp was on. The bed was neatly made with a yellow-and-green-striped comforter and two thin pillows. There were no suitcases on the hassock or clothes hanging on the small metal garment rack. The TV flickered cheerfully, showing a sitcom so old Emma didn’t even recognize it. But the room was empty.
Okay, so then leave, I thought nervously. Get the hell out of there.
Emma glanced behind her, then stepped inside. A faint smell of cigarettes and stale bread filled her nostrils. “Hello?” she called softly. “Is anyone here?”
Her whole body shaking with nerves, she moved past the television to the bathroom door, which was closed. “Raven?” She pressed her ear against the door, straining to hear movement.
“Raven?” Emma pushed the door open. Tiny bottles of motel shampoo and conditioner lined the sink. An unused bar of soap sat on the ledge next to a disposable razor. She moved to the shower and, with a flash of trepidation, tore the curtain aside. Nothing. She opened the plywood cabinet beneath the sink, hoping to find some sort of makeup bag or personal item stored there, but other than a plunger and spare roll of toilet paper, it was empty.
She padded back to the bedroom and searched the closet. There were unused hangers and an iron. The dresser drawers were just as bare.
She’s not here, Emma thought with disappointment. Running her fingers through her hair, she sat down on the bed, trying to get her bearings. Her gaze fixed on the cream phone on the nightstand. The message indicator light wasn’t flashing. Did that mean Raven had gotten her message? Had she taken off to avoid learning the “information” she’d promised about Mr. Mercer?
There was a low rumble of a passing car outside, sending a shock of fear through Emma’s system again. Pushing off the mattress, she tiptoed toward the door, pausing to shut off the TV as she passed. It was then that she noticed a matchbook sitting on top of the TV, its cover flipped slightly open and several matches pulled away. THE HORSESHOE, it said on the front. Scrawled in black pen on the inside were two words. Meet me.
Emma’s heart leapt. She reread the words, her mind scattering in a million directions. Was this message from Raven? Maybe she didn’t think meeting in the motel was safe. Maybe she worried about getting caught or maybe there was someone—Mr. Mercer?—watching.
Stuffing the matchbook into her clutch, she tore from the room and slammed the door behind her. She ran fast down the sidewalk, eager to get to her car. The Horseshoe diner was so close—she’d passed it on the way in. She’d be there in no time.
She was halfway across the parking lot when the glowing beams of headlights shot to life. Emma halted and shielded her eyes. Parked in one of the middle spaces was an SUV that hadn’t been there when she’d gone into the room. As her eyes adjusted, a hard pit formed in her stomach.
It was Mr. Mercer.
The car door jerked open before Emma could run. She backed up against the wall of the motel as Sutton’s dad climbed from the SUV. His face was a twisted mask of frustration and fury. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” he shouted.
Emma tried to scream, but nothing came out. Images of what Mr. Mercer could do to her flashed through her mind. “Leave me alone!” she said in a small, weak voice.
“Get in the car!” Mr. Mercer barked.
Emma inched along the side of a windowsill, feeling her way with damp fingers. Maybe she could slip into the shadows and then run. Go to The Horseshoe, talk to Raven, call the police…
“I said, get in the car!”
Emma turned on her heel and started to sprint. There was a slam behind her, and she heard footsteps. Emma’s feet slapped the pavement hard, and when her left ankle turned, she winced but kept going. The footsteps were gaining on her, though. When she dared to glance over her shoulder, she could see Mr. Mercer just a few feet away.
Go! I screamed. Run!
Emma’s throat burned as she gasped for air. Black shadows danced along the walls of the motel. She was so close to Sutton’s car—only a few more yards before she could lock herself inside it. She rounded the corner to the back lot and raced across the final distance. Mercifully, she managed to get the door open and the key into the ignition before Sutton’s father reached her. The sound of the motor revving filled her with relief.
She backed out from the parking spot and peeled toward the exit. In the rearview mirror, she saw Mr. Mercer drop his hands to his knees. He looked like he was heaving, having a hard time catching his breath. Good, Emma thought as she sped from the motel’s parking lot.
She turned left onto the main road and crushed the accelerator to the floor. She pushed the car to its max and gripped the steering wheel. The diner loomed ahead, and she made the final turn and screeched into the parking lot. This place had to have the answers she needed. Raven had to be there. Because if not—what was her next move? She couldn’t go back to the Mercers. That much she knew for sure.
Deal with all that later, I thought. Just go.
The diner was long and thin with a dull, gray exterior, hedges that needed trimming, and windows that showed patrons eating fried potatoes, slurping coffee, or perusing menus. Dim lights flickered over the doorway, and wilted cacti lined the sidewalk. Emma pulled around to the parking lot behind the diner—she didn’t want Mr. Mercer to see Sutton’s car from the road on his way home.
The rain had let up when she stepped out of the car, and she hurried toward the entrance. A tiny bell jingled on the door, and the smell of eggs and greasy bacon was overwhelming. A line of short-order cooks behind the counter flipped burgers, and waitresses flitted between booths with coffee pots and ordering pads.
“Can I help you?” A sleepy-eyed hostess with crimped hair leaned on the hostess stand. She looked Emma up and down curiously, surely wondering why a girl in an expensive pink party dress and smudged makeup was at a down-and-out diner on a Friday night.
“Um, I’m meeting someone,” Emma mumbled. “I’ll just seat myself.”
The hostess shrugged. “Whatever.”
Barely any of the booths were taken, and the ones that were had multiple occupants: three teenage girls, an elderly couple who held hands over the table, and two guys in bright red mesh trucker hats drinking coffee. No one looked remotely like a woman Mr. Mercer would have an affair with—and furthermore, no one was looking at her cagily, preparing for a confrontation.
Emma moved past the tables, her heart thudding fast. A door marked LADIES beckoned at the end of the aisle. Emma pushed through it, her nose wrinkling with the sharp smell of lemony air freshener. “Hello?” she called through the room, her voice echoing off the pink tiles. “Is anyone in here?”
She peeked under the stalls, looking for feet, but they were empty.
She turned to the sink and splashed water onto her face. Had Raven left the note for someone else? Had someone else written on the matchbook and given it to Raven? Had she hit a dead end again?
She peered at her reflection and saw both herself and her sister staring back at her. I won’t let you down, Sutton, Emma said silently.
She exited the bathroom and stopped at the register. An overweight lady with thin blond hair was punching numbers into a calculator. “Can I help you?” she finally asked in a bored voice.
Emma straightened to full height. “My name is Sutton Mercer.”
“Good for you,” the woman said, unimpressed.
Emma wound a piece of hair around her finger, feeling like an idiot. “Um, I was supposed to meet Raven Jannings here. And it seems she’s gone already. So I was just wondering if she’d left anything.”
The woman’s expression suddenly softened. “Raven?” She glanced up at an oversized clock that hung above the entrance to the kitchen. “You’ve just missed her.”
Emma’s throat went dry. “She was here?”
“Yes.” The woman nodded. “And you were supposed to meet her?”
I waited, breathless.
The woman held Emma’s gaze for a moment, as if deciding if she was telling the truth, then reached under a stack of twenties in the register and pulled out an envelope. “She left this for you.”
Emma’s stomach fluttered. “Thank you,” she said, grabbing it from her. She looked around, feeling eyes on her back. The teenagers at the booth were staring at her. So was an old man at the counter. This place was entirely too public to examine whatever Raven had left. She had to go.
She shoved open the door and felt the humid, post-rain air swallow her body. Once she was in Sutton’s car again, she tore open the envelope, her fingers shaking. Inside was a note with a Polaroid photo pinned to the top. At first, when Emma looked at the face, she blinked hard, certain that something had misfired in her brain. The quality wasn’t perfect, but Emma recognized the narrow face, the slanted nose, the high cheekbones, and the jet-black hair. She turned on the overhead light and stared harder, but the features were the same. It couldn’t be.
I gawked, too, and my mind sparked and expanded. A new memory pieced together, and I found myself zooming back in time.
A FATEFUL GOODBYE
My father’s SUV tears across the earth, kicking up rocks and roots and cactus spines. I trip over mini hills and stray plants, wheeling my way into the darkness. What if my father has completely snapped? Things have been so tense lately, but I never realized it could come to this.