The next morning, Justine sat cross-legged on her family’s blue couch in a sleep-deprived haze, her long brown hair tucked into a messy bun to keep it out of her face. In her hands she clutched a steaming hot mug of coffee like it was a life preserver. On any other day, in any other situation, her mother would have made some comment about the coffee. When Justine had started drinking the stuff a few years ago, her Mom had warned her that it would stunt her growth. Of course, once Justine hit her growth spurt, her mother switched to merely giving her disapproving looks. This morning though, Justine and her Mom had other things to worry about.
Justine listened in to her mother’s conversation with Mrs. Martinez as the morning sun filtered in through the windows. She couldn’t hear what Gwen’s Mom was saying, but she knew it wasn’t good. Still no word from Gwen, still no sign of what had happened to her. It was as if she had vanished off the face of the Earth.
Her Mom’s tone of voice had changed too. She had given up on trying to convince Mrs. Martinez that Gwen would be checking in any minute now. “It’ll be OK,” she kept telling Gwen’s Mom in a gentle whisper. Justine knew Mrs. Martinez must’ve been crying. “We’re here for you. Anything you need. I think Justine would be more than OK with coming down to help. She can be there this afternoon if you like.” Justine glanced up, taking a moment to reflect on how awesome her Mom could be.
Her Mom hung up and walked over, sinking into the chair across from Justine. Despite her insistence last night that there wasn’t much to worry about, the dark circles under her eyes told a different story. “I assume there’s no way I can convince you to go to school?”
Justine shook her head, ready for the question. “I haven’t missed a single day this semester, and how could I concentrate on my schoolwork anyways?” There was no way Justine was going to let her Mom talk her into going to school, not when her best friend was out there in trouble.
As it turned out, her Mom didn’t need a whole lot of convincing. “I figured as much,” she said with complete understanding. “Here’s the deal,” she said, leaning forward. “Gwen’s parents have checked the hospitals, talked to all her friends, and filed a report with the police. There’s been no word from her since last night. The police have recommended that her parents blanket the area with fliers in the hope that someone’s either seen her or knows something about her disappearance. I know you’re worried sick, and so am I, but so far there’s no evidence of foul play. The police just think it’s best to be aggressive in the search for her. If you want to help with handing out fliers, you can take today and tomorrow off from school. With the three-day weekend coming up, that’ll give you five whole days to help look for Gwen. Hopefully you won’t even need all that time. How’s that sound?”
Justine knew she wouldn’t get a better deal from her Mom, but she could see what she was doing, she was channeling all of Justine’s fear and anger into a safe activity. For some inconceivable reason, Justine’s Mom seemed to be afraid Justine would do something risky. It’s almost as if after sixteen years on this planet, her Mom could predict exactly what Justine would do. “Thanks, Mom,” she said, truly grateful. “That sounds good.”
“I’ll write you a note, but you need to be back in school by Tuesday,” her Mom continued. “Mrs. Martinez said you’re welcome to stay in their guest bedroom if you like. Or you could stay with your father…”
Justine made a face, as if her coffee had suddenly turned into acid.
“Or you could stay with the Martinezes.” Her Mom stood up and gave Justine a kiss on the head. Justine was too tired and too worried about her friend to squirm away. “You let me know if there’s any news about Gwen, OK?”
“I will,” Justine said. “Do they have any better idea of what happened last night? I mean, where was Gwen last seen, things like that?”
Her Mom pursed her lips into a thin line and leveled her gaze at Justine. “You’re not the police, you are not to act like the police. You stay out of their way and do whatever you can to help Mr. and Mrs. Martinez out.”
Justine looked up at her mother with big, innocent brown eyes.
“I mean it,” her Mom said. “We’re worried sick about Gwen, we do not need to be worried about you as well.”
“I know,” Justine said with a little sigh. The whole plan was to make things better, not worse, to find her friend and not muck up anything else in the process. “Would it really hurt though if I visited where Gwen was last seen? If I didn’t cause any trouble? Just poked around?”
To her surprise, her Mom gave in. “Well, you’re going to find out anyways, but on one condition: You get some rest before you head out on the road. You got, what, three or four hours of sleep last night, max?”
As far as conditions went, that wasn’t a bad one. Justine wanted to head out on the road right away, but she couldn’t help her friend if she fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident. “OK, one way or the other, I’ll make myself take a nap before I go,” Justine promised.
Her mother finally seemed satisfied. “Do you know where Stone Harbor is? It’s just south of Avalon. According to her boyfriend, Gwen called and said her car broke down on 96th Street. Use that knowledge for good, not for evil. You hear me, young lady?”
“I’m just going to take a look. I need to see for myself,” Justine said. Four hours ago, everything had changed and her best friend, one of the only friends she had in the entire world, had gone missing. She had to find out what happened.
Justine jumped into the shower and got dressed. She wasn’t exactly a big fan of the educational institution known as ‘high school,’ so she wasn’t too broken up about missing a day or two. She liked the learning just fine, especially history class, it was the other kids that she hated. She had forever been branded ‘the fat girl’ by her peers. The fact that she excelled in cross country and had a black belt in jujutsu didn’t seem to count for much in her basketball and football-obsessed school.
Justine’s family was Polish, her last name was Kwiatkowski, but she must have had a great-great-grandmother in her family tree who was a Viking warrior. There wasn’t much else to explain how Justine had gotten to be 6 foot and built like a linebacker. Well, there was her father, who was 6’2” and built like a linebacker, but Justine didn’t like to dwell on the thought that she might take after him. When she had been younger, she had been tormented mercilessly by the other kids for being fat, but the cross-country helped with the weight and the jujutsu took care of the bullying. With the exception of her ex-boyfriend Steve, nowadays most of the kids in her school steered clear. She liked that arrangement just fine.
Justine came back downstairs to find her mother had laid out a huge breakfast for her on their white kitchen table. Her mother was far from an expert chef, mac n’ cheese with orange powder was a fairly regular staple of their diet, but the breakfast looked like a feast. “Eat, sleep, then get on the road,” her Mom said, concern clearly etched upon her face. Justine could tell she was still in shock about everything that had happened, then again, so was she.
Justine sat down and piled eggs, bacon, and several wedges of cantaloupe onto her plate. Part of her just wanted to get going, but her Mom was right, she needed to take care of herself before she could help look for Gwen.
“Mornin’,” her little sister Rachel said with a yawn as she shuffled into the kitchen wearing fluffy purple bunny slippers. Three years younger than Justine, Rachel was like a trimmer, cuter version of herself. With big brown doe-like eyes, she was also far more adorable than Justine had ever been. Rachel took one look at the breakfast spread laid out before her then one look at the tired and worn expressions both Justine and her Mom shared and knew something was up. “What’s wrong?”
“Gwen didn’t come home last night,” her Mom told her sister as gently as she could. “No one knows where she is. Hopefully all this worry is for nothing and she’ll turn up soon safe and sound.” Justine was thankful her Mom was there to explain it. She didn’t know what she’d say.
Rachel took a moment to let the news sink in, perhaps wondering if it was all a dream and she had never really woken up. “Gwen? Missing? She wouldn’t run away…”
Justine offered a solemn nod of her head. “Yeah, which is why we’re all worried. But like Mom said, hopefully she’ll turn up OK. I’m going down for a few days to help hand out fliers.”
Rachel pulled out a chair and stared at the piles of food, having lost any appetite. “She’s missing?” she repeated to herself. “How worried are you?” she turned and asked Justine.
Justine winced at the question. “Really worried,” she said after searching a while for an answer.
“But it’s too early to be leaping to conclusions,” her Mom said, leaning in to give Rachel a hug. “I’m sure Gwen will turn up.”
Her little sister made a big show of trying to avoid the hug, complete with a roll of the eyes for good measure. Justine remembered being thirteen, it wasn’t that long ago.
Rachel glanced over. “Gwen has to know you’ll be looking for her. I bet that makes her feel better.” Justine didn’t know quite what to say, but she was pretty sure at that moment that she had the best little sister ever. She shrugged her shoulders and looked down at her breakfast. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Think you might run into Dad while you’re down there?” Rachel asked after a pause, realizing that if Justine was headed down to Avalon that she’d be close to their father’s place.
“Wasn’t planning to,” Justine said. “With everything going on, it’s not really a good time.” Not that she’d want to anyways.
“Well, if you do, tell him I say ‘hi,’” Rachel said, ever the optimist. Her little sister didn’t hold grudges quite the same way Justine did. At the moment though, that was the farthest thing from Justine’s mind. She had to figure out what had happened to her friend.