Evidence of Life - By Barbara Taylor Sissel

Chapter 1

On the last ordinary day of her life before her family went off for the weekend, Abby made a real breakfast—French toast with maple syrup and bacon. It was penance, the least she could do, given how utterly delighted she was at the prospect of being left on her own for two whole days to do as she pleased. It would sicken her later, in the aftermath of what happened, that she could so covet the prospect of solitude, but in that last handful of ordinary hours, she was full of herself, her silly plans. She set a small mixing bowl on the counter, found the wire whisk, and when Nick came in the backdoor, she brandished it, smiling at him.

He frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Cooking breakfast, French toast.”

“We don’t have time. We’re going to hit rush-hour traffic as it is.”

“It’ll be fine,” Abby soothed.

He came to the sink still wearing the wisp of bloodstained tissue he’d stuck below his ear where he’d cut himself shaving and the rumpled cargo shorts he’d pulled out of the hamper as if he didn’t have a drawer full of clean ones. As if the unwashed pair were the only ones that suited him.

Abby got out a frying pan, aware of his mood, regretful of it. She wished he hadn’t bothered with shaving. She wished she’d done the laundry yesterday. Leaving the breakfast makings, she went to him, circled his waist from behind, laid her cheek against his back. “I’m sorry about your shorts.” The words were right there, but they caught in her throat when she felt him go still.

“Don’t,” he said, and she backed away. She returned to the stove, absorbing herself in the task of separating the strips of bacon and arranging them with care in the bottom of the pan. As if her care made a difference, as if it could keep her family safe when it couldn’t. She ought to have known that much at least. She went to the refrigerator and took out the carton of eggs.

Nick washed his hands.

“I wish you’d tell me what’s wrong,” she said when he shut off the water.

“Why do you always think something’s wrong, Abby?”

“I don’t.”

“You do.”

“Fine,” she said. She would not stand here squabbling as if they were their children.

He hung the kitchen towel over the oven door handle, gave her one of those side-of-the-mouth kisses. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong. I just want to get on the road.”

Abby’s jaw tightened. She knew better.

“Wouldn’t cereal be easier?” he asked.

She broke the eggs into the bowl. “I’d like us to sit down to breakfast together for once.”

“What about the mess? You do realize we can’t stay to help you clean up.”

“I don’t mind.”

He went to the foot of the stairs and shouted, “Lindsey? What’s taking you so long? I could use some help loading the camping gear.”

“Down in a minute, Dad,” she shouted back. “I had to get ready in Jake’s bathroom because the shower in mine is still leaking.”

Nick looked at Abby. “I thought you called the plumber.”

“I did. He hasn’t—”

Nick left. The screen door clattered shut behind him.

“—called back yet,” Abby finished.

She whipped the eggs, fuming. She wished she had taken Nick’s advice and served cereal. They’d be gone faster. She wished she had said it was only lately that she assumed something was wrong. Because there was something; she could feel it. Nick was distracted, moodier than usual. Too quiet. That is, when he wasn’t biting her head off for no reason. And since when did he push her away? Say no to her touch? It wasn’t like him.

Abby added powdered sugar and a splash of vanilla to the eggs. She got out a fork and poked at the bacon, aggravated at the sudden stab of her tears, a duller sense of alarm. Whatever it was, she wasn’t a mind reader; she couldn’t fix it by herself. Why couldn’t he see that?

“I can’t get my hair to do anything.” Lindsey came up beside Abby, her brush and comb in her hand.

Abby composed her face. “Want me to French braid it?”

“Would you?”

Lindsey’s hair reached the middle of her back, a thick mane that blended shades of honey blond with darker shades of reddish brown, colors very similar to those of Miss Havisham, Lindsey’s chestnut mare. Lindsey said she’d rather groom Miss Havisham’s mane than her own, and she conned Abby into doing it whenever she could. Abby didn’t mind; she loved the feel of it through her fingers, like