A call at two in the morning was never a good thing. “Justine, sweetie, wake up.”
Justine felt her Mom’s hand on her shoulder, pulling her from her dreams. She opened her bleary eyes to find her Mom standing there in her pajamas, the room bathed in shadows, the alarm clock showing it was 2:13am. One look at her mother’s face and Justine was sitting up in bed. “What is it?” she asked, glancing down to the phone her Mom clutched tightly in one hand.
“It’s Mrs. Martinez. She wants to know if you’ve heard at all from Gwen tonight,” her Mom whispered, covering the receiver as she explained the situation to Justine.
“What? Why would…” It took Justine a moment to get it. Something had happened to her best friend. She suddenly found herself wide awake and reaching for the phone. “Mrs. Martinez? Hi, it’s Justine. What’s going on?”
In all the time Justine had known Mrs. Martinez, and she had known her for over ten years, she had never heard her raise her voice, never seen her upset. Gwen’s Mom was unflappable. Now she barely recognized her on the phone. “I’m sorry to wake you up,” Mrs. Martinez said, as polite as ever, even as her voice trembled. “No one’s heard from Gwen since around 11pm. She went out with her boyfriend, Tejaun, then on the way home, her car broke down. We can’t find her, or the car. We were hoping…”
“I haven’t heard from her. Not since around 7pm,” Justine broke the news to Mrs. Martinez. “But I’ll help you find her. Where was she last seen?” Justine rolled out of bed and headed to the dresser, ignoring her mother’s withering glare.
Mrs. Martinez hesitated. “I know you want to help, Justine. You’re as afraid as we are. I understand, but it’s 2 in the morning and there’s just not that much you can do right now.” Her voice faltered as she struggled to hold it together. “Keep Gwen in your prayers and we’ll let you know the moment we get some news. Just let us know if you do happen to hear from her.”
“I’ll do that,” Justine promised. “Can you at least tell me where her car broke down?”
“Justine, I know you too well to tell you that,” Mrs. Martinez said as gently as she could. “We’ll keep you updated. Could I talk to your mother?”
Justine handed the phone back over to her Mom. She listened in while she turned on the lights and rummaged through her drawers for some clothes. Her room was up on the second floor of her family’s Cape Cod, painted in a tropical blue with Bruce Lee posters covering the walls. Gwen sometimes joked that Justine must have been color blind, but Justine just liked it that way.
“It could be something as simple as her cell phone running out of power,” she heard her Mom say, practical and level-headed. Then again, it wasn’t her daughter that had gone missing. If it was, her Mom would be kicking down doors and interrogating suspects to get her kid back. Justine tried to tell herself that her Mom was right, that it was a misunderstanding, that Gwen would be giving her parents a call anytime, but she knew better. Gwen didn’t stay out late without checking in, Gwen didn’t forget to call. Her best friend was in trouble.
“Hang in there, Gabriela,” her Mom said. “She’ll probably be calling any minute.” No, Gwen would never scare her parents like this, she would’ve found a way to contact them. If she hadn’t called, it was because she couldn’t.
Her Mom hung up the phone and arched an eyebrow as Justine bumped the dresser drawer closed with her hip, her clothes piled in her arms. “You’re not going out,” her Mom said in no uncertain terms. Justine’s Mom wasn’t exactly a big lady, sort of the opposite of Justine. Her Mom was skinny, about 5’5”, with curly brown hair and a narrow face, but somehow she always loomed larger in Justine’s imagination.
“I’m supposed to go back to sleep?” Justine asked. “Gwen would never stay out till two in the morning, especially on a school night, and she’d never not check in. She could be hurt, or kidnapped…” She couldn’t really fight with her Mom, Justine knew she wouldn’t win, but she had to try.
“Or she could be someplace without cell phone service, getting her car fixed,” her Mom said. “I know this isn’t like Gwen,” her Mom conceded, softening her tone a little, “but you can’t launch a one-woman search operation for her. Which is what I know you’re planning to do. Try to get some sleep and we’ll see what the situation is in the morning. We’ll help however we can, but Gwen’s two hours away and you running around South Jersey in the middle of the night isn’t going to do anyone any good. You promise you’ll wait?”
Justine slumped against the dresser. If she disobeyed her Mom on something this big, she’d be grounded for weeks, and then she’d never be able to help her friend. “OK, we wait until the morning then we’ll see.”
“I know it’ll be hard, but try to get some rest,” her Mom said, touching her cheek. “You can keep the phone by you if you like.”
The moment her Mom stepped out of the room, Justine dialed Gwen’s cell. It went directly to voice mail. She tried sending a text message next. No reply. Maybe try the boyfriend, but Justine had never met him, she didn’t even know his last name, much less his phone number.
She stared out the window at the moonless night, wondering what could have happened. Deep down, she knew it was bad. Gwen wasn’t going to be returning her call. That didn’t stop her from keeping the phone by her side. At the first crack of dawn, if her best friend hadn’t turned up safe and sound, Justine would drive down to Avalon, where Gwen now lived, and tear the place apart looking for her.