SIX YEARS LATER
Lindsey looked at her fingernails, frowning. Her mother sold beauty products and had given Lindsey a sample bottle of “Sizzling Pink” polish. The color looked okay, but she hadn’t done the best job of applying it. As so frequently happened, her mind had been on her younger brother.
What’s he up to now? she kept wondering.
Nearly six years after James mysteriously disappeared and then came back, she continued to worry about him.
It wasn’t your fault, her parents had said.
But Lindsey knew it was. They had asked her to bring James, and she had failed.
She often relived the events of that day. The problems had started when Mother fell and couldn't walk down to the car.
I'll have to help her, Daddy had said. Josh can bring the basket and the blanket. And, Lindsey, you bring James.
She'd meant to be responsible. She had called James and seen him start walking toward her. But then Josh had needed help to fold the blanket, and of course she knew how it should be done. And when they'd finished, James was gone.
I bet he went after Mom and Dad, Josh had said.
Lindsey had believed him.
She'd looked around before leaving the hollow. Something bright red lay there on the grass. James's favorite rubber ball. That, she'd grabbed. But her brother? Oh, no. Him, she'd managed to leave behind.
Only upon reaching the car had she realized the truth. James was missing. And no amount of searching or screaming his name had been able to bring him back. Until three days later, that is. Somehow, he'd just turned up, all by himself.
James wouldn’t say where he’d been during those missing days. Not then, and not now. Lindsey felt sure someone had taken him. The Boy Scouts had found James miles away from the Bradens’ picnic spot.
A three-year-old couldn’t have walked that far, she thought for the hundredth time. And when the Scouts brought him back, he wasn’t hungry or tired or dirty. He didn’t even seem upset. Somebody must have helped him. Probably the same person who took him in the first place.
What if James had gone with that person willingly? Kids had been known to do that. They’d take candy from a stranger or help someone find a lost puppy. Maybe that was what had happened to James. And what if that person came after him again?
Lindsey’s greatest fear was that her brother would disappear a second time and never return. Now, whenever she could, she kept an eye on him. She followed him to school each morning and home again in the afternoon. It would be easier if he’d walk with her, but he refused.
I’m almost nine, he'd told her, as if that meant no one could harm him now. Lindsey knew better.
So as James walked to and from school, she trailed half a block behind, ready to yell if a stranger appeared. Though she hadn't seen anything suspicious yet, she'd been puzzled by some of the things James did when he thought no one was watching.
For one thing, he had a way with animals. Every dog on the block wagged its tail when James walked by, and all the cats came to rub against his legs. Shadow, the Bradens' dog, ignored commands from Lindsey or Josh but would do any trick James asked him to do.
Roll over. Sit up. Play dead.
James also sang to their mother’s flowers, the same meaningless words over and over again. Mom said he had a green thumb. Lindsey thought they just liked his singing.
He often muttered in his sleep, too. Something about guns and cavemen. That made no sense at all because Lindsey knew guns didn’t even exist during the time of cave dwellers.
Now he’d joined the Cub Scouts, of all things. That was a real surprise because he’d never liked group activities.
Lindsey did, though. She thought wistfully of the dance class she’d quit because the practice schedule prevented her from watching James walk home from school. She’d dropped flute lessons for the same reason.
It’s not fair.
That’s how she felt sometimes, though she’d never say it aloud. She wished she could just live her own life and give up watching over James. But she couldn’t bring herself to do that.
She knew her parents had noticed. She’d heard them talking.
It’s an obsession, her father had said.
Lindsey liked big words. She had looked it up on Word Bounce, her favorite vocabulary website. She learned it meant “preoccupied” and “unreasonable.”
Dad’s wrong, she thought. I may be preoccupied with keeping James safe, but there’s nothing unreasonable about it.
Her mother understood. She worried about James, too. Still, Mom often urged Lindsey to be patient.
James keeps things to himself, Mom would say. If you ask too many questions, he'll just clam up. Give him time.
Lindsey didn't want to wait.
Why did he choose the Cub Scouts? she asked herself again. And why now?
She concluded that James was definitely up to something.
“When will we go camping?” James asked his den leader.
“That’ll happen after you move on to the Boy Scouts,” Mr. Jessup replied. “We’ll take some hikes, though.”
James had attended several Scout meetings. Mostly, the boys played games or practiced survival skills. James enjoyed those activities, but he'd had another reason for joining the Scouts. He wanted to see Z’Nia again.
He’d never forgotten her. Over the years, he’d paged through dozens of books on animals, hoping to see her picture. He didn’t find her. He also searched among the primates at the zoo, but she wasn’t there, either.
Then, about a month ago, a Boy Scout recruiting flier had caught his eye.
I remember those guys, he'd thought.
A troop of Boy Scouts had “found” him all those years ago. He remembered seeing a newspaper headline that said, “Local Scouts Find Missing Boy.”
Mom kept the news clipping in a book called Dealing with Childhood Trauma. Every so often, James opened the book to look at the article. Though reading it didn't help him find Z'Nia, it did keep his memories alive. And it reminded him that the Scouts sometimes went camping. Maybe they'd camp near Z’Nia’s home.
He called the number on the flier, but it turned out he didn’t meet the age requirement for the Boy Scouts. So he joined the Cub Scouts instead.
When his den practiced tying knots, James remembered a rope he and Z’Nia had woven from vines. When they took turns walking a balance beam, he pretended to inch along a fallen tree to cross a river. And when they learned about birds, he watched for a sparrow with a slightly imperfect left wing. He didn’t see one, but he hoped it still lived. And he hoped Z’Nia continued to watch over it.
Late in the summer, the Cub Scouts finally planned a hike. He was excited to hear they’d be going to a state park near his family’s old picnic site.
Maybe I can sneak away from the other guys long enough to find Z’Nia, he thought.
But his parents refused to sign the consent form.
“It’s not like we’re going by ourselves,” James said. “Mr. Jessup will be with us the whole time.”
His mother was sorting the beauty products her customers had ordered. Dad was using the Internet to research reviews of a new Sci-Fi movie.
Hey! Listen to me! James wanted to say. Knowing his parents probably wouldn't appreciate that, he tried to be patient.
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen– Where’s that other lipstick?” his mother mumbled. She wrote something on a note pad. Then she looked up at him and shook her head.
“Not this time, James,” she said. Apparently she'd been paying attention after all.
“But Mom, Dad—”
His father looked away from the computer screen. He held up one hand to end the discussion.
“No, James. That’s final,” he said.
James knew his parents worried that he’d disappear again. He’d heard them talking late at night.
How much does he remember? It feels like he's holding something back, one of them would say. It’s almost as if he has a secret.
And the other one would answer, Yes, but he’s safe, and that’s what matters.
James wished he could tell his parents about Z’Nia, but he couldn’t. Not once in all this time had he mentioned her to anyone. And now, because he’d kept his promise, his parents didn’t trust him to go on the hike.
He tried again. “Mr. Jessup said we'll see lots of great rock specimens up there. I'll be the only one who has to miss it.”
His parents looked at each other. James had been collecting rocks for years now, and they had encouraged him. He held his breath. Maybe they’d give in after all.
“We’ll take you,” Mom said finally.
“I can show you the rocks,” his father said.
James couldn't argue that point. His dad was a high school science teacher and probably knew a lot more about rocks than Mr. Jessup did. James pulled Shadow onto his lap and let the dog lick his face while he thought about what to say.
“I'd like to go with my friends,” he said finally.
Dad shook his head. “You go with us or not at all. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
Reluctantly, James agreed. At least for now, he had no better hope of seeing Z’Nia.
On a bright September Sunday, they took a picnic up into the hills to the place his dad still referred to as “the hollow.” Josh had baseball practice, and Lindsey was at a party, so James and his parents went by themselves.
Good thing, James thought. When Lindsey’s around, it’s like having two moms. She watches me all the time. And Josh would want to play catch the whole afternoon. I have other things to do.
Mom had wanted to bring Shadow, but James feared the dog would detect Z’Nia’s scent. So when Mom invited Shadow to get into the car, James had whispered, “Stay here, boy. I'll take you for a run later.”
Shadow had stubbornly refused to leave the yard. James promised himself to make that run an extra long one, but he still felt guilty.
It's what I had to do, he thought as he nibbled at the fruit and sandwiches his mother had packed. Excited because Z’Nia might be somewhere nearby, he could hardly swallow.
“Have a brownie,” Mom said.
James thanked her and choked it down, not even tasting the extra chocolate chips he knew she had added just for him.
As he ate, his gaze constantly roved across the hills. Once he saw something move, but it turned out to be a bird. Then he spotted what seemed to be a tuft of hair rising from behind a rock. He soon realized it was just a branch swaying in the wind.
Z’Nia would never come this close while Mom and Dad are here, he thought.
He stretched his arms above his head and said, “I’m full. I think I’ll take a walk.”
Dad got to his feet. “Good idea. I’ll join you. We can look at those rocks you wanted to see.”
James had no choice but to let his father come along. He tramped up the hillside and stopped next to Z’Nia’s boulder. Beyond it, the hills dipped and then rose again toward a rock-covered ridge line.
“Do you remember this place?” Dad asked.
James squinted at a birch grove. His mind filled with a hazy picture of Z’Nia hiding there.
“Those trees—” he murmured.
He caught himself just in time. “I like them. I wish Grandpa would grow some birches.”
His father sighed.
This will never work, James thought. He won’t let me out of his sight.
“Let’s go,” he said. He started back toward his mother.
Dad stopped him. “What about the rocks?”
His dad began talking about some rock formations he found especially interesting. He even took pictures with his cell phone.
James soon stopped paying attention. He thought he heard another voice, one that seemed to be inside his mind. Was it Z’Nia’s, or had he imagined it? He couldn't be sure.
“You're not listening,” his father said. “What's the matter? You said you wanted to see these rocks.”
“I thought I heard something,” James replied. “But I guess not.”
Disappointed, James remained alert for that other voice while his father pointed out samples of limestone and shale. He kept listening even after they had gone back to help Mom pack up the leftovers. He didn't hear it again.
Soon it was time to leave. James paused for one last look at the hollow. He saw a lush meadow with gentle hills rising all around. On its eastern side, the grass ended abruptly at an exposed rock face. Beside it, the path wound up the slope to that line of boulders at the top. Nothing more. No Z’Nia. He turned away.
When they got home, James saw Lindsey kneeling in the flower bed, looking for dead blossoms on the geranium plants. He knew she wouldn't find any. Mom picked them off each morning.
She's really waiting for us, he thought. Probably just wants to check up on me.
Lindsey told Mom the party had broken up early. She stared at James as if attempting to read his mood. He stomped up the front walk, not even trying to hide his bad temper.
“Did you have a good trip?” Lindsey asked when he walked by.
He ignored her. He didn’t want to talk.
“I asked you—”
James turned to face her.
“Fine,” he said. “Just great. Now leave me alone.”
As he went into the house, he heard Lindsey ask their mother whether anything unusual had happened.
“No,” Mom said. “Nothing.”
James slammed the door.
She’s right, he thought. Nothing happened. Not one thing. I guess I’ll never see Z’Nia again.