Chapter One

 

SHERIFF BENJAMIN Mitchell picked up the smaller coffee cup from the holder and handed it to his son, who slouched in the passenger seat.

“Timmy, hold your coffee, please.”

“Timothy.” His son looked up and smiled at his dad. “If you don’t call me by my name, how am I supposed to get anyone else to?”

“That’s on you, kiddo. And sit up straight. You’ll ruin your posture.”

Timothy gulped from his coffee. “You have anything outstanding tonight, or are you actually coming home for dinner?”

“Ha. Ha. I love the fact that you’re acting as if I’m an absentee father.” The sheriff pulled over to the corner and put the car in Park. He waved at Lacey, Timothy’s friend, and held out his fist for his son to bump. “I’ll see you tonight. Are you getting a ride home?”

Timothy smiled. “Not sure. I’ll see if I can get one of the track team guys to give me a lift.”

His father shook his head and grunted. “Incorrigible.” He sighed heavily. “I guess anyone’s better than Ethan.”

“Ethan wasn’t too bad, Dad. Heh. Bad Dad.”

“Laugh it up, Timmy.” He reached into the back seat and handed Timothy a bag lunch. “He was a dick.”

“Dad! Seriously, you’re the worst.”

“Yep,” his father said as Timothy pushed the door open. He leaned over and raised his voice. “I’m the worst dad ever!”

Timothy laughed and waved as he headed toward his friend, Lacey Cutler. Lacey wore a pair of white shoes with red shoelaces and black pants. Her T-shirt was tie-dyed red and black, and she had red and black streaks in her brown hair to match. She was smiling and stayed sitting on the ledge of the steps as she waited for him.

“Hey, babe!” Timothy smiled at her and dropped his bag on the ground. “Nice look today, Little Edie.” He’d named her after Edie Beale from the movie Grey Gardens shortly after they’d become friends because she always wore whatever she wanted, regardless of weather or fashion. They weren’t exactly best friends, but he liked the fact that she didn’t expect him to be the stereotype of a Gay Best Friend. Plus her aunt was gay, and they visited her over in Greenville as often as they could.

“Thanks,” Lacey said as she pulled a bottle of water out of her bag. “My aunt did the streaks last night.” She sipped from her bottle and pointed at his coffee cup. “You’re going to kill yourself with that stuff, especially at this stage of your development. Boys your age are in special need of the proper nutrition.”

“Nope,” Timothy replied, downing his remaining coffee. “Not becoming a vegetarian.”

“Do you have my stuff, Tim?” The new voice was deep and thick with a Southern accent.

“Timothy, Bo,” he replied without looking around. “Not Tim. Not Timmy. Timothy. And yeah, I have your stuff.”

“You’re not in California anymore, Tim. You’re in South Carolina, so now you’re Tim.” Bo Watterley crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Timothy. He was trying to be intimidating, but he wasn’t any bigger than Timothy, so the sheriff’s son simply smiled.

“I have it.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a manila folder. “Here you go. You have my money?”

Bo grabbed the folder and sneered, a quick snort of air coming out of his mouth. “I’m getting this for free, faggot.”

“Look, Bo. You hired me to run a background check on your parents. I did it. We agreed on seventy-five bucks. Pay me.”

“Fuck off.” Bo looked down at the file and started walking into the school.

“You can have that one for free, but the juicy stuff is in the second file.” That sentence stopped Bo, like Timothy knew it would.

Bo walked back to Timothy and Lacey. “Yeah, right.”

“Seriously. It’s good stuff. You’ll love it.”

“You’re lying.” Bo dropped the folder he had on the ground and threw a punch at Timothy, who grabbed the hand long before it reached him. Timothy wrapped his own arm around Bo’s elbow. He brought his leg behind Bo’s and swept him down to the ground, bouncing his head on the dirt. Timothy shot his own fist forward, stopping barely an inch from Bo’s nose.

“Nope. Not lying. Also, a brown belt in Goju karate. You want the new file. Pay me. I take a risk every time I run one of these reports and I don’t like taking risks.” He twisted Bo’s arm slightly and heard a couple of girls snicker as they walked by the scene while Lacey calmly sipped from her water. “The price has gone up to one hundred. Due by tomorrow, at which time I will give you the rest of the report. Got it?”

“Shit. Shit. Shit. Yeah. Yeah. Fuck, man, you’re gonna break my arm.”

Timothy dropped Bo’s arm and took a step back and away from him. “Good.” He bent down and picked up his bag. “And don’t use the word faggot again. It’s rude and hateful. And, next time you do, I will break it.”

Lacey jumped down off the ledge, and they walked into the school. “Rough.”

“I know, but he’s been on my case since day one. And I didn’t really hurt him. Besides, I don’t mind a little rough.” He reached the door and held it open for her.

“Is there really a second file?”

“Of course.” He didn’t tell her that he still planned to hold back some information. There wasn’t any need for Bo to know that his dad had an outstanding warrant in Alabama. Bo didn’t need to know that his dad was a deadbeat who owed money to his first wife, who he never actually divorced and with whom he’d had a daughter. Timothy didn’t like Bo, but he wasn’t cruel. And even though he wasn’t doing anything technically illegal, Timothy knew doing background checks on his schoolmate’s parents wouldn’t be looked upon kindly by his dad.

“You’re strangely hard-core for a California gay dude,” Lacey said as she stopped at the fountain by her locker and refilled her water bottle. “Sure you don’t want to hydrate with the good stuff?”

“I’m sure. Coffee is sent from the heavens and water simply comes from the earth.”

“You do realize coffee couldn’t be made without water, right?”

“Don’t ruin it for me.” He walked with her to biochemistry and they sat down in the second row. “Hey, can you give me a ride home after school? My car’s in the shop and Dad’s going to be at work.”

Lacey nodded, and they both looked up as Mr. Ridley walked into class, talking before he put his grade book and coat down. Lacey and Timothy had begun their bonding by being science nerds together, and both looked forward to science class and school in general. The day passed quickly, and by the time they walked into the cafeteria for lunch, the two of them were joined by a few other friends.

For being both the sheriff’s son as well as openly gay, Timothy was actually mildly popular. He wasn’t a bad looking guy. He had dark hair, short on the side and longer on the top. He also had a side business with a few of the girls at school, occasionally hacking into social media accounts to look for cheating boyfriends. The popular girls liked him and kept their boyfriends in check, making sure they didn’t pick on the gay kid. The brown belt in karate he used on a couple of football players when they came after him earned him a grudging respect from the other boys. Mostly he and Lacey hung out and studied and sometimes drove the forty-five minutes to visit her aunt in the nearest “city” of Greenville. And Lacey wasn’t like most of the other girls in school who thought having a gay friend was cool. She liked him for what he was and didn’t expect gossip and clothing advice.

When the final bell rang and students practically ran for the doors, Timothy and Lacey took their time, not wanting to get caught in the small traffic jam as the cars all struggled to go home. By the time they got out to the parking lot, there were the teachers’ cars and a few others, mostly belonging to the students in detention.

As they were walking toward Lacey’s car, a door slammed and a deep voice called out.

“Hey!”

Pulling in a deep breath, Timmy turned around, thinking Bo was coming after them. He didn’t see Bo. Instead he saw a big guy, someone who’d been in his homeroom class. When was it? Maybe two years ago, his first year here.

“Hey, you’re Tim, right?”

“Timothy. Not Tim. Not Timmy.”

“You remember me?” The guy’s voice was deep, sort of raspy, and Timothy could smell the cigarette smoke from his clothes. He towered over Timothy and Lacey, at least six feet two to Timothy’s five feet nine. And worse he had to outweigh Timothy by at least forty pounds. Timothy might be able to take him if he started a fight, but it wouldn’t be easy, and if the guy got in too close, Timothy wouldn’t stand a chance. “I’m Wyatt—”

“Right,” Timothy interrupted, taking as much charge of the conversation as he could. “Wyatt Courtland, right? You were in my homeroom a few years ago.”

“Yep. I gotta talk to you,” Wyatt rumbled. He pushed the brim of his baseball cap back slightly, turned to Lacey, and shrugged. “Private like. Sorry.”

Timothy’s brow furrowed. Polite. How cynical was Timothy that this guy’s being nice was setting off alarm bells? “About?”

“It’s private. C’mon, Timothy. I gotta show you something, and then I’ll drive you back here to pick up your car.”

“I don’t—”

“Please.”

Timothy sighed. He turned to Lacey with a smile. “If my body turns up, remember that this guy”—he jerked his thumb at Wyatt—“was the last one to see me alive.”

Lacey rolled her eyes. “Not funny.”

Timothy turned to Wyatt. “Let’s go. You can drive me home. My parents won’t be back from work and my car’s in the shop, so you don’t have to drive me back here.”

Timothy hoisted himself up into Wyatt’s truck. Wyatt climbed into the driver seat and turned the key.

Wyatt looked over at Timothy, almost apologetically. “Sorry, I don’t have AC.” He leaned his arm on the doorframe and put the truck in drive.

“Um, Wyatt,” Timothy said, trying not to stare at Wyatt’s thick arm. “Seat belt.”

“What?” Wyatt looked at Timothy as he stopped at the school’s parking lot exit.

“Put your seat belt on, please. My dad’s made me watch about a million car accident videos about people who don’t wear their seat belts.”

Wyatt sighed and half took his foot off the brake while he wrestled the seat belt into its lock. “Happy?” Wyatt had a half smile on his face.

“Ecstatic,” Timothy replied. He looked over at Wyatt’s big shoulder. “Nice tattoo.” Timothy nodded at the yin-yang symbol he’d noticed on Wyatt’s right arm.

“My dad was in the Navy after he dropped out of school. He went over to China for a little bit. Said it was all about balancing and stuff. I got it the day I turned eighteen. Seemed like something to do. Honor my dad and all that, right?”

“Right. Sure.” They rode the rest of the way in silence.

 

 

TIMOTHY’S HOUSE was a small two-story red- and white-sided structure near enough to the center of town that his dad could get to work quickly and easily. The front yard was small but well kept. In the summer, his mom and dad sat on the porch with a beer or a glass of lemonade and waved at the people walking by. That was a little too small-town America for Timothy, so he generally stayed inside on hot summer nights, watching crime shows on TV and practicing his karate forms.

Timothy breathed a little sigh of relief when Wyatt pulled his truck into the driveway and turned it off. He wasn’t too worried about Bo trying to get back at him, but he was always aware that even though the girls of small-town South Carolina might be fine with a gay friend, their parents and brothers weren’t always as open-minded. Instead of leading Wyatt into the house, Timothy unlocked the gate in the fence and brought him out back. The backyard was barely bigger than the front, but it had a picnic table, and Timothy plopped down with his back to the house and dropped his bag on top of the table.

“So, Wyatt, what’s going on?”

Wyatt set his backpack on the ground and looked around the yard. He put his hands on the table and then raised them and wiped them on his shirt. Timothy waited, impatient. He took in Wyatt’s thick arms and broad shoulders coming out of a T-shirt, which had once had sleeves but were now cut off, maybe to allow more room. Timothy sighed. He was not going to fall for a pair of pretty eyes and big biceps again. Wyatt took his baseball cap off and ran a big hand through his too-long dirty blond hair, then put the hat back on.

“Can you help me?” Wyatt didn’t look directly at Timothy as he was speaking. “I think I did something wrong.”

“I can’t fix a traffic ticket, Wyatt.”

Wyatt reached down and grabbed his bag. He hoisted it up, and it clunked heavily on the table. He unzipped it and pulled out a dusty metal box. Wyatt put it in front of Timothy. “I found this.”

Timothy looked at the lock and saw it was broken off. He frowned and looked up at Wyatt. “Did you do this?”

Wyatt shrugged. “It was locked.”

Rolling his eyes, Timothy shook his head. He lifted the lid and carefully flipped it back. Inside the box Timothy saw a pile of papers and photographs. He picked up a few and looked at them. The top one was a photograph of a young teen, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Dark hair and eyes, thin, looking sad and a little scared. Next in the pile was a newspaper article. The date and the name of the newspaper were trimmed off the top, but the article had a slightly grainy black-and-white photo of the boy from the first photograph. The headline above the photo said: Bobby LaFleur, 14, Missing Since Tuesday.

Timothy frowned and looked at Wyatt. “Where did you find this?”

“Do I have to say?” Wyatt looked away, and his jaw clenched.

“If you want me to help you out, the first rule is: don’t lie to me. The second is: don’t hide anything from me. The third is: don’t lie to me or hide anything from me.”

“I found it in a wall.”

“What?”

Wyatt finally looked up at Timothy’s eyes. “Sometimes I do demolition for a friend’s dad. If we find something in the house, he lets us keep it. As long as it’s not a big pile of cash or drugs, he’s cool with it.” Wyatt scratched the back of his neck. “We’re not all gonna get to go to a big, fancy college.” His voice was defensive, and he cut off whatever he was going to say next. He paused and took a deep breath. “I know this kid. He’s my age. Our age, Tim.”

“Timothy.”

“Right. Sorry. Timothy.”

Timothy flipped through the rest of the pages. A few more photographs. One of the boy with no shirt on at a pool. A couple more articles, each one shorter than the one before. The last item sent a strange chill up Timothy’s back. It was a poem written in a swirling, expressive, but precise cursive.

He keeps me safe at night and day

He keeps the cruel, cruel world at bay

He is strong and gentle and lovely and kind

He is always on my mind

But he hides

From himself

From me

From the world both here

And the world to be

Will he ever

Just be here?

“I knew him.” Wyatt’s voice was quiet.

Timothy looked up from the poem, across the top of which was written I like your subject matter. Poetry should be personal, but the structure needs some more work. Extra credit if you rework it. TM.

“Sorry, what?”

Wyatt nodded to the photos. “I knew him. Him and me, we’re the same age. The last time I saw him was four years ago.” Wyatt kept an eye on the photos and brought a hand down on top of the pile. “I knew him.” He stood up and rubbed his face. “You mind if I smoke?”

Timothy shook his head, seeing Wyatt was close to anger. No, not anger. More of an overwhelming something else. He opened his mouth to say something sarcastic but decided against it and went to the steps to pull out the small bucket of dirt his parents kept for the cigarette and cigar smokers who came by. So far, it was only Wyatt and Deputy Mike. He crossed the small yard to where Wyatt was standing, flicking his lighter until the cigarette caught. Wyatt took a deep drag and exhaled heavily. As Timothy stood up from dropping the cigarette bucket at Wyatt’s feet, the two of them locked eyes. They stared for a few seconds and Timothy felt uncomfortable, standing in front of Wyatt, startled at how much bigger he actually was. Wyatt’s stare wasn’t intrusive; it was almost curious.

Timothy swallowed and broke the silence. “So, what do you need my help with, Wyatt?”

“I thought it was obvious,” Wyatt said with a smile. “I want you to find him.”

“What?” Timothy stuttered. “I’m not Batman, Wyatt. If you found this, we can show Dad and—”

“No!” Wyatt’s voice was sharp, and even though he didn’t advance toward Timothy, he still took a step back, away from the bigger man. “Sorry,” Wyatt said, apologizing quickly. “No. We can’t tell your dad.” Wyatt stepped over to the table, cigarette balanced in one hand, and stuffed the pages into his backpack.

“Wyatt.” Timothy smiled carefully, and without realizing it, he reached out to gently touch Wyatt’s arm before he stopped himself. “Dad will have a ton of resources I don’t have. I’m a student, not a cop.” Timothy smirked and spoke under his breath. “As my dad keeps reminding me.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Timothy shrugged, paused for a second, and then narrowed his eyes. “Is there a reason you don’t want me to tell my dad? You said you did something wrong?”

“What? No. No way would I hurt Bobby. He was… he was a friend, and I wouldn’t hurt him. I swear it. I meant… I don’t know what I meant.” Wyatt dropped the cigarette in the bucket but didn’t grind it out, and the two of them watched the last of the smoke curl in the air. “Do you think he’s okay?”

Timothy looked away for a minute before he found himself able to look at Wyatt. “It’s hard to say. To be honest, despite what TV shows say, if this was a kidnapping, those are pretty rare, and pretty likely to be solved. If he ran away, well, I know lots of times where runaways get in contact with friends, even if it’s only to say they’re okay. You haven’t gotten any hang-ups or anything on your cell phone, right? No weird texts?”

Wyatt shook his head. “Nope. Nothing like that.” Wyatt sat down at the picnic table, facing Timothy, who was still standing by the bucket. “You sound like one.”

“One what?” Timothy picked up the bucket and looked at Wyatt. “Do you want another one?”

Wyatt shook his head. Timothy noticed a bead of sweat falling down Wyatt’s neck. “You sound like a cop. Is it what you want? To be a cop?”

“Not according to my dad.” Timothy rolled his eyes and put the bucket back down. “I’m not”—he raised his fingers in air quotes—“right for the job. I guess it doesn’t matter what I want.”

“So help me anyway. Prove to your dad that he’s wrong.”

Timothy’s mouth curved up in a smile. “You’re smarter than you let on.”

Wyatt smiled back, and Timothy saw a row of bright white. The cigarettes hadn’t begun to yellow his teeth yet.

Timothy shook his head, thinking Wyatt had won the genetic jackpot. “I’ll think about it. Let you know in a couple of days, okay? It’s the best I can offer right now.”

Wyatt nodded. “Want me to leave everything with you?”

Timothy nodded back.

Wyatt passed him the papers and headed toward the gate. He stopped right next to Timothy, placing his hand on Timothy’s arm.

Wyatt’s hand was rough and callused, bigger than Timothy would have imagined. “Thanks, Timothy.”

Timothy waved in response as Wyatt walked into the driveway and out to his truck.