• Chapter Four
    Wednesday, July 8th, 2010. Downtown Manchester.

    I ride slowly up the street. Slowly because I still don’t want to go. Slowly because I still don’t know what to do. But apparently my skateboard does, because it just keeps on moving. Moving towards where the man told me to meet him.
    I’m not really sure how I feel. I’m nervous of course- extremely nervous- because I’m worried about Del… and myself. But at the same time I still want to go, because I want to find Del and so far this is the closest I’ll have come to doing that.
    I think. I hope.
    So I keep going. I feel… strange without Del or Raleigh beside me. I had to leave Raleigh behind because I knew he would cause trouble, or maybe scare off Graves. And I couldn’t risk that. But now I start to wonder if I should’ve brought him along. I don’t know…
    Soon the East Side Plaza comes into view. It’s a strip mall, with things like Hannaford’s, Pizza Market, a crummy pet shop, Movie Gallery, a post office, a card store and a few empty places with signs in the broken windows ‘FOR LEASE’.
    The entrance is still down the road a little bit, but they made a walking entrance in the corner of the plaza near the side of the bank that’s not connected to the strip mall.
    I hop off my board and carry it down the roughly patched ‘sidewalk’ into the plaza. I don’t get back on my board. I don’t want to go that quickly.
    I walk around to the front of the bank and look at the old clock on the wall. Seven twenty-one. I don’t really know why I checked the clock. I knew I’d get here around seven thirty. Maybe I was hoping I’d be late and he wouldn’t be here. But now that’s doubtful.
    So I start my trek across the parking lot. It’s a little ways before I reach the Card store. All the strip mall stores share a parking lot, which is pretty much deserted at this time of night. A few spaces across the way near Hannaford’s are taken up, but that’s about it.
    Because the card store is at the end of the strip mall, it has an extra parking lot on the side. It’s completely empty, and the lights that have been left unattended to are flickering eerily. I walk slowly over.
    There’s only about eight spaces in this parking lot, four on one side and four on the other. All of them are empty. I take a deep breath and peek behind the strip mall. While the fronts of the stores may be very nice, the backs are filthy. Graffiti covers the back walls where the rest of the paint is peeling off. Huge dumpsters filled with trash line the walls and flies line the dumpsters. It’s really a mess.
    I jump at the voice and whirl around to see a man walking towards me. My first instinct is to run, but then I see the silver Cadillac… It’s him. Where did he come from?
    “Are you Phoenix?” he asks again.
    “Yeah… that’s me,” I answer, trying to sound brave. Trying to sound like Del. I wonder if it fooled him.
    There’s a moment of silence, and I take a second to look him over. He’s medium height, grey hair, looks like he’s in his forties but is the kind of person that you can’t really tell with. For all I know he could be in his sixties. He’s wearing a suit, and a very nice one I might add. He looks like the kind of man who has a lot of money and likes to show it.
    “So who-” I start, my voice catching from fear, “who are you?”
    “My name is Bret Araus, but that’s not important now,” he says. “What’s important is that you know where your sister is, am I right?”
    I nod slowly, trying to ignore how helpless I feel as he asks me. Like he knows where she is and I don’t.
    “Just hop into my car, it’s about a ten minute drive to where she is,” Araus says. He has no idea how tempting that is. How much I want- how much I need- to see Del right now. Without realizing it I start walking towards him…
    All of a sudden gunshots shatter the evening silence. Araus crouches to the ground instinctively, while I stand paralyzed with fear and shock. I see a man coming from the back alley behind the strip mall, and suddenly he fires more shots. I scream and throw myself against the wall of the card shop, cursing myself for being so stupid! How could I not have known this was going to end in disaster?
    Suddenly a bright light shines in my eyes and I turn to see Araus’ car flying out of the parking lot, leaving me here. Not that it would’ve been any better to go with him.
    I hear footsteps coming closer and finally my body moves. I race across the parking lot, not daring to look back. I throw my skateboard down and leap onto it, racing forward. I fly across the parking lot, back onto the street and towards my house. My heart is in my throat as I tear down the road, never stopping to look back.
    As I reach my house I leap off my skateboard, grab it, throw the front door open and slam it behind me. I take the stairs three at a time and fly into the apartment, closing the door and locking it behind me. Finally stopping, I lean against the door, panting heavily. I slowly crumble to the ground, exhaustion finally overcoming me.
    Raleigh immediately runs over to me, licking my hand lightly. I’m too stunned to respond. All I can hear is the pounding of my heart in my ears, and all I can do is sit there.
    After a little while my heart slows down to a normal pace. I take one last deep breath and rise up from the ground. As I look around the apartment, I realize for the first time that, except for Raleigh, I’m all alone.
    An empty feeling in the pit of my stomach takes a hold of me as I stumble slowly through the apartment. Everything I look at, everything I touch makes me think of Del. As I walk into our room I sit on the ground with my arms on the windowsill and look up at the stars in the midnight black sky.
    Where are you Del? I think to myself.
    Slowly my mind returns to the events of this night. What really happened? My hands start shaking at the very thought of it all. All of this is so beyond me, and I have no idea what to do.
    Maybe I shouldn’t do anything, I think to myself. And for a moment I believe it. I almost got killed tonight, like shot, and I’m no closer to finding Del than I was before. I feel like giving up, and giving in to my raging emotions.
    But part of me- like a 99% part- still needs to find Del. Without my wanting it to my mind starts thinking about the problem.
    Bret Araus said he knew where Del was; that he would take me there. He seemed genuine enough. And someone else started shooting at him when he invited me to see Del. The other man must’ve kidnapped Del…but it did seem like Bret Araus had the ability to take me to Del, and that would make sense if he kidnapped her. Or maybe the both of them were in league together… I have to find them, I have to…
    Suddenly I stop myself. I know in my heart it’s impossible.
    Frustration and fear finally start taking their toll, and I stand up from the windowsill quickly. I kick my bed angrily, fighting the fact that I have to do something. Butwhat? I sigh, sitting down on my bed and putting my head in my hands. This whole thing seems like something from a James Bond movie or something. I mean, shooting, kidnapping, mysterious calls? This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in real life, does it?
    But graveness of the situation and the burden now laying on my shoulders just slams into me the fact that things like this can happen in real life. And they are happening.
    A sudden feeling comes over me. It feels like a switch has been flipped in my head. A sudden coldhearted calmness comes over me. I know what I have to do. And I know I have to do it.
    Something, deep down inside me, is still fighting it. But suddenly I’m ignoring it. Because I’m doing it for Del.
    I reach across my bed and turn on my laptop. After a few minutes I open the web browser and type into a Google search ‘Bret Araus’. After a couple seconds, the search comes up with lots of Facebook, Myspace and Twitter pages, and some newspaper clippings; obituaries, births, a couple arrests for DWI. I look at a few of the pages, but after the fourth one I stop. This isn’t what I’m looking for. I mean, even if I did find him, he wouldn’t be posting ‘kidnapped a girl named Del Asher today and she’s here and this is where the key is’ on his Twitter. Unless he was a real idiot, of course.
    I’m disappointed. I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, or what I was expecting to find, but it certainly wasn’t there. But I’m still feeling determined, so I keep going. If I stop I don’t know what I’d do with myself.
    So next I type in Bret. Stupid idea. All that shows up are more Facebook and Myspace pages and all that. I look at the number of results; 17 million some-odd. I guess there’s a lot of people named Bret in the world, I think to myself. I don’t stop to look at any of them.
    Finally, I type in Araus. As I scroll down the page I sigh as more Facebook and Myspace pages show up. It’s hopeless, I think, about to exit the page.
    But suddenly I stop. My eyes are glued to the screen, and I wonder if I’m imagining this. Trying not to get my hopes up too high, I click on the link that says ‘Araus Inc., Jewelry Specialists’.
    The homepage of the website features different jewels and necklaces and rings and such. I sigh, wishing I knew if this was the right thing or not. But as I look at the different links on the page, I see: ‘meet our specialists’. I immediately click on it, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
    I catch my breath as I look at the picture of a bunch of different people, the ‘specialists’. Because in front is the man I saw tonight. In front is Bret Araus.
    My heart starts beating faster again, but once again I sigh and put my head in my hands. What does all of this mean? Nothing makes sense to me anymore. And besides, even if I did know what was going on what could I do about it?
    For the millionth time I wish Del was here to tell me what to do. She would know, too. She would have a whole plan figured out and she’d be like ‘oh, we’ll just do this this this and this and then the problem will be solved!’. But that can’t happen now. I’m on my own.
    Slowly, I turn back to the computer screen, trying to take my mind off that painful subject. Maybe if I look at this more something will start to make sense…
    The next thing I know I’m sound asleep on my bed, dreams of gunshots and silver cars rushing through my mind…

    The next day seems to fly by. I don’t do much of anything; search for more clues online mostly. I go to the library and look for a book on Araus Inc., but I can’t find one. Again and again I find myself frustrated with the situation, but instead of wishing Del were here I start to ask myself what she would do if she were here. That’s the only thing that gets me through the day.
    Around nine o’ clock that night I’m sitting on my bed with Raleigh, petting him absent mindedly as I try to figure out all this jewelry stuff on the Araus Inc. website.
    Suddenly I hear a sound outside… a car? At first I don’t really pay attention to it, and try to ignore it as I keep looking at the webpage. But something inside me tells me to go look. I don’t know why, but I do. Slowly, I hop off the bottom bunk and walk over to the window, Raleigh following just as slow. At first I don’t see anything, but then I see someone with crutches on the sidewalk…
    Even as I blast through the apartment to the door I’m denying it in my head. It can’t be, it just can’t be, I think to myself. I jump the steps instead of walking down them and fly out the front door of the building, Raleigh hot on my heels.
    It takes me less than a second to know that it’s her.
    “Del!” I shout, rushing forward. Del turns and looks at me, and I see the fatigue on her face. But her whole expression changes as she sees me, and she tries to go as fast as she can on the crutches. We rush into each other, Del’s crutches clattering to the ground noisily as we cry heavily into each other’s shoulders.
    Neither of us care. We just hold each other like we’ll never let go. I never want to let go. I never want to lose her again.
    Raleigh, his tail wagging a million miles an hour, jumps up onto Del and starts licking her face. We both laugh and I help Del stay balanced as she hops on one foot. We laugh and we cry and we hold onto each other like we’re never going to let go.
    “I can’t believe it’s you!” I sob.
    “I can’t believe it’s you!” Del replies.
    “I… I thought you were dead,” I say, holding Del’s shoulder to keep myself up just as much as her. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
    Del just smiles. “Surprise!” she says, and we both laugh and hold each other again, never wanting it to end.
    After a while we both calm down and stop crying, and I help Del get the crutches and get back into the apartment. Raleigh jumps up the stairs and waits for us at the top, his tail every wagging. I have so many questions, but I have no idea what to say. Every five seconds I turn around and hug her just because.
    When we finally make it upstairs, we immediately call our parents. I can’t even describe Mom’s reaction. I can’t really hear what she’s saying because she’s crying so hard, and after she hangs up on us we decide she said she’s coming home.
    After sitting on our bed and hugging for a while again, I finally ask her the question that sums up everything else I want to ask: “What happened?”
    “Well I went to the jewelers, but no one was there,” Del answers immediately. “I waited for a really long time, but he didn’t show up. So I was on my way to the library and I got hit by a car.”
    “Oh my goodness you’re kidding me!” I say.
    “No, I’m not! It was awful, the guy just took off! He left me in the middle of the road with a broken leg, and a bruised and scraped everything else. I went into a coma, and when I woke up I was in the hospital. This guy just came that night and took care of everything money-wise. Paid for the whole thing, and I never even got to meet him!”
    “Wow, that’s sounds like something out of a movie!” I say in wonder.
    I see something behind Del’s eyes as I say that. I can’t quite place it, but it almost seems like doubt or… worry? But that doesn’t make any sense… does it?
    I’m about to ask, but we’re interrupted by the apartment door flying open and Mom rushing in to hug Del and never let her go. Dad emerges a few seconds later and walks into the room slowly. He actually pats Del and the back and smiles at her! I can see the joy on Del’s face as he does, and I’m so happy for her. She deserves it.
    Raleigh jumps around happily and even barks once! I smiles muss up his fur. For once I feel like we could be one big happy family.
    After a few minutes, Del repeats the whole story to Mom and Dad. I listen to it ever diligently, ever trusting. But, as she tells the story, I see something in her eyes that only I could ever see. Del and I are closer than close, and if something was going on with one of us the other can’t help but notice. And that something in Del’s eyes… it’s starting to get me worried. As Del tells the story she’s getting more and more anxious, and I can tell that something’s wrong. As she finishes the story, Mom and Dad accept it as truth immediately, but suddenly I come to a horrible realization.
    I think Del’s lying.