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Autumn BlueA Novel
Chapter OneIF HE CAME, it would be by the woods. It was always the woods. Even when it had been perfectly safe for him to lollygag along the street in broad daylight, Ty had always preferred a floor of decaying leaves and fir needles and a ceiling of sky or green boughs.
The woodlands behind their house edged a gully formed by Sparrow Creek which meandered all the way to the edge of Ham Bone, wrapping around the town's east side. Tucked between stands of trees were houses and pastures, churches and schools, all snuggled against the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Surely by now Ty knew every square foot of his territory as well as the wild creatures that watched him come and go.
When her son was younger, he returned from his adventures with wildlife specimens: mud puppies, red-legged frogs, little tree frogs with emerald skin as smooth and damp as avocado flesh. Ponds and streams held more treasure for him than fleets of Spanish galleons. He spent countless hours combing his fingers through murky water and mud in search of baby catfish or wading through lily pads, jeweled dragon flies circling above as his keen eyes scanned for bullfrog nostrils breaking the surface of the water. Long ago, she had learned to let him go. Having the instincts of a wild creature, he was certainly safer in his beloved woods than on the county roads. Sidney always knew her son was on his way home when the dog, panting and covered with burrs, preceded him to the back door.
She stood at the kitchen sink, a cereal bowl in one yellow-gloved hand, the other submerged in gray soapy water with a scrub brush. Through the window, her eyes skimmed over the dog run where the grass was as worn as the knees of Tyson's old jeans, searching-as she had for days-the edge of the trees behind the house.
The landlord had not bothered much with landscaping. He simply cleared the lot and plopped a used mobile home in the middle of it with a For Rent sign in the front yard. Some grass just naturally filled in, seeded by overgrown pasture land on either side of them, but had not flourished due to a long, dry summer. The only shrubs were clumps of jagged Oregon grape and leathery salal spilling from the shade of cedar trees that formed the back boundary. The two dead azalea bushes in front didn't count.
Vaguely she heard her daughters' laughter from their bedroom. She felt the dog streak behind her and didn't notice until the girls ran past shrieking with delight that their brother's German shepherd looked like the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a grandmother. He came through again, shaking his head to rid it of a pink doll bonnet, limping every time he stepped on the shawl that had slipped around his neck. They would never get away with that if Ty were home. He had a thing about that dog.
"Come here, Duke." Sidney pulled the wool scarf over his head, snagging the bonnet along with it.
"Mom!" Sissy whined. "Why did you do that? He likes it. Don't you, Duke?"
"Look at his tail, Sis. See how droopy it is? That's how a dog says he'd rather be anywhere but here right now. Rebecca, put him outside, please."
"Should I put him on his dog run?"
Normally Sidney would have insisted on hooking the leash up to the long wire that ran between two posts out back. A dog should not be roaming the neighborhood free, even outside town. Some cars still sped through pretty fast. Besides, it wasn't fair to the neighbors. Old Mr. Bradbury across the street would not be pleased to find his peonies trampled or, worse yet, a pile of dog poop on his perfect lawn. "No. Just let him go."
Rebecca giggled as she opened the back door. "Now look at him! He's happy!" The dog's bushy tail swung like a reaper's scythe as he slipped through the opening and bounded into the yard. The girls went back to their play.
Sidney lingered at the window. If Ty was watching the house from the woods, contemplating coming home for a warm bed and a home-cooked meal, that dog would know it. They were normally as inseparable as twins. Duke bounded across the yard, sniffing and peeing here and there along the wire-fenced edges. Once he stopped, his nose lifted high into the wind. Her hopes rose. Then he turned and wandered off, not toward the woods, but on a haphazard trail with no apparent destination.
She had searched all morning, picking up where she left off the night before when darkness fell about a mile down the course of Sparrow Creek. She wondered as she trudged along trails made by animals and children, thrashing through thick tangles of huckleberry in less accessible spots, if she should have started upstream instead of down. Or if Ty had hidden himself far away from the creek in the deep, mysterious woods of the foothills or beyond.
A thin branch had whipped her face. The sting of it was all it took to bring on a good cry, one that needed to come. She had plopped herself down on a fallen cedar and let her sobs fill the woods. Birdsong fell silent as she rocked with her arms wrapped around her ribs to keep her heart from exploding. It was a lonely thing to raise a fifteen-year-old boy alone.
She rinsed a plate and set it in the draining rack while her eyes swept the terrain outside her kitchen window, across the rolling blue-green stands of evergreen trees to the east. Wherever Ty was, it was too far away. The tension she felt on that invisible cord that every mother knows is not really severed at birth was a constant, almost unbearable pain.
It was harder to cope on a Saturday. At the office, her worries had been interrupted by phone calls, working up insurance premium estimates, and the usual computer work. But today she just couldn't quell her imagination. He didn't even have his jacket.
Ty had been missing now for just over a week. On her lunch hours she had cruised the streets of town, checking the library, behind grocery stores, under bridges. The Winger County Sheriff's Department was searching for him too and promised to call her as soon as they had any information. She hoped to find him first. Her angry, rebellious boy. Was he safe? She had a need to touch him, to apply her love like a salve to invisible wounds, to make everything all right. This need overwhelmed her desire to bend him over her knee for a good old-fashioned spanking. It was too late for that; he had grown almost as tall as she was.
She finished the breakfast dishes and then, without planning to, found herself cleaning out the fridge. She dumped the last of the broccoli lasagna into the garbage disposal. Tyson's favorite. Well, it wouldn't keep forever.
"What's for lunch, Mom?" Seven-year-old Sissy crawled onto a tall stool, plopping her pudgy forearms on the breakfast bar. She peered through long brown hair, uncombed as usual. She was still wearing her T-shirt from yesterday with flannel pajama pants that exposed her belly. It was not a fashion statement.
"Didn't you just eat?" Sidney had left fruit and cereal out for the girls in case they woke up before she returned from her search, which she had started just after dawn.
"That was a long time ago." Rebecca joined her sister at the counter. Her lighter hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, a style she wore often since getting her ears pierced. All the other girls in the fourth grade had their ears pierced, according to Rebecca, and Sidney had finally succumbed. She was learning to choose her battles wisely. Some things just didn't matter in the long run.
"Okay." Sidney began rummaging through the fridge. "How about egg sandwiches?"
"With tomato and avocado!" Sissy said.
"And onion," Rebecca added.
Sidney felt like a short-order cook, but didn't mind one bit. The only thing missing was the third face that should have been lined up at the breakfast bar. It was their gathering place-the center of her family's world, it seemed, where the day's stories and silly jokes were told, problems discussed, while Sidney sliced, chopped, sautéed, and stewed. Ty loved to taste-test her concoctions, especially muffins straight from the oven and too hot to hold.
"Mom, don't forget the fair tomorrow."
Sidney wiped her hands on a towel. "Oh, Sis ..."
"We have to go. Tomorrow is the last day! And you promised!"
"A long time ago. Don't you remember?"
"But your brother might come home." If he wasn't home by then, she knew she had to be out combing his usual habitat, maybe above the bridge next time.
Rebecca shrugged. "If he comes home, he can just let himself in and we'll see him when we get home."
"He probably followed a wild animal way up to the mountain," Sissy suggested innocently. The girls didn't know the true circumstances of Ty's disappearance or their serious implications. Sidney didn't want to frighten them. "Don't worry, Mama. He's just having an adventure. He always comes home."
Sidney busied herself with frying eggs, slicing tomatoes, and toasting bread. She tried to banter with her daughters, but every sentence fell flat. Would he come home today? Or slip into his bedroom during the night where she'd find him safely curled beneath the covers of his own bed in the morning? She could only hope.
The girls chattered about the fair while they ate their sandwiches. Sidney couldn't say yes, but then again she struggled with saying no. She'd been neglecting them lately. When they finished lunch and scooted off to their room she felt relieved.
With a deep sigh, she blew a strand of blond-streaked hair from her eyes, dropping her head back as if hoping to see the answers to all her questions through an open window to heaven. Instead she saw the dark crack that ran along the peak of the double-wide mobile home's ceiling. The house was coming apart at the seams-literally. And yet, she couldn't complain. It was better than their apartment in the old Victorian mansion in town on the corner of Elm and Prentice. At least here she had her own washer and dryer and the kids had a big yard to play in. They owed the move to the dog. The decision was actually made by their former landlord in response to complaints of a constant pounding-the sound of Duke's heavy tail beating against the wall in Tyson's room.
Sidney had been thrilled to find this house. Miraculously, it didn't cost that much more than the apartment and it was better for all of them, only a couple of miles from town and with a new stretch of woods for Ty to explore right from their backyard. The house itself would never grace the pages of Traditional Home despite Sidney's talent for interior design. That was her intended major in college, before she got pregnant and dropped out to have Ty. No, about all she could afford to do with this place was keep it clean and try to have matching towels out for company when they came.
She should have married Jack Mellon when she had the chance. That might have changed everything. Surely it would have. Jack and Ty had really hit it off, right from the start. Had it been two years since she broke up with Jack? He used to take her son to baseball games and taught him to fly remote-control airplanes in the pasture across from the elementary school. There were other boys Ty's age there too, mostly with their dads, and they all met down at the Pizza Barn afterward. Jack was a nice guy, a butcher. Looking back, Sidney realized there had been a sparkle in her son's brown eyes that she couldn't remember seeing since.
The thought had been nagging at her for months now. So what if she hadn't felt any chemistry with Jack? Was that a valid reason for depriving her son of what he needed more desperately than protein or vitamin C or a good night's sleep? What was it about her that wouldn't allow the chemistry to happen? Was she waiting for another bad boy to come along? A man like Dodge? Someone who would keep her living on the edge? She shuddered. If she had it all to do over again, she'd marry Jack in a heartbeat.
She remembered Tyson as a small boy, the delightful sound of his giggles, the way he adored his baby sisters. He had been content to play alone for hours. Even while other children played tag nearby, Ty seemed to prefer the cavelike hollow beneath the big rhododendron outside their kitchen window, where she could hear the boy-sounds of rumbling truck engines while she peeled potatoes for dinner. Once she had waited for him at the edge of a stand of trees while he followed a brown rabbit into the underbrush. She heard him thrash through the dry leaves for some time and then a momentary silence before his tiny voice wafted through the low branches. "Mommy, where are me?"
But Tyson was really lost this time. It was as if he had been swept out to sea beneath her very nose. It all happened so gradually that she hadn't noticed how dangerous the undercurrent really was. By the time she realized how far her son had drifted, there seemed to be no lifeline long enough to reach him. He had slowly become a mere speck on the horizon-and then she couldn't see him at all.
Excerpted from Autumn Blue by Karen Harter Copyright © 2007 by Karen Harter. Excerpted by permission.
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