Levi Griffin followed his memories of the route to his best friend’s house along gloomy country roads and forty minutes later turned his car onto a paved driveway. A porch light cast an orange glow over the small redbrick house. He pulled to a stop and the screen door screeched open, revealing Margaret Tanner’s silhouette. As Levi climbed the porch step he could see she was wearing outdoor clothes, her handbag still slung on her shoulder.
“Levi, it’s you,” Margret says, her eyes a bit wide, reaching out to him with both fo her hands. Levi let himself get enveloped into a warm embrace. “It’s been so long.” She held him for a long moment, her plump arm around his back. Eventually, Levi felt himself relax. This is Margaret Tanner, he told himself, Mrs. Tanner, your second mother when you were eight.
They moved apart, and he was able to look at her properly for the first time in twelve years. Margaret was clearly old but fighting it every step of the way. Her hair was jet black and the white skin of her face looked too tight. Her lips had been fattened and her eyelashes were false. Levi wanted to tell her to let the years come, that she’d still be beautiful, but he’s aware that she’s possibly sensitive about the topic.
“It’s so good to see you, Mrs. Tanner.”
“Where are you staying for the summer?”
“My cousin outside of the town.”
He stepped into the hallway, exposing himself to the brighter light. Margaret looked him up and down. Her eyes wet, she reached out and caressed his cheeks with the tips of her fingers. “Look at you. All grown up. I can still remember you saying a meek ‘thank you’ whenever I bake cookies for you and Ambrose.”
Levi felt his cheeks go warm. He could remember those days, too, back when everything was simple and innocent, back before they moved away from this small town of Pareyes.
“Come in, please,” Margaret said, gesturing for him to follow. She led him down a hallway lined with framed photographs that Levi was utterly familiar with.
“The house is still the same,” said Levi, and he truly meant it. Yes, some things had changed: the coffee table, a slab of slate held in curled iron rods, was now weathered gray; the couch, a once bright tan color, had been bleached by the sun that streamed in the window. But some things remained the same: dirty mugs crowded the single table, the recycling bin filled to the brim, stacks of letter stood unopened.
“I wanted to keep it that way, even though Ambrose tried to convince me not to,” answered Margaret, a little smile playing on her lips, victorious. “The basement is yours, I said, but the rest of the house is still all mine. I will not change anything.”
They emerged into a deck overlooking a neat patch of garden. All around were rosebushes that were tidily pruned, a sea of crimson blooms. The wooden boards creaked beneath their feet, signaling their entrance to the man standing just outside the hallway.
Ambrose Tanner turned to them, his eyes lighting up as they swept to meet Levi’s. Levi himself broke into a smile.
“Ambrose,” he said as the man pulled him into a hug. Levi rested his chin on his best friend’s blond head, and they stood there for a long minute. Even though Ambrose was five years his senior, Levi had always been the taller one.
“Heavens, I missed you, you fucking idiot.” Ambrose's voice was muffled by Levi’s shirt.
“I missed you, too,” Levi said when they pulled away. “You’re still so pretty.”
“Stop flirting with me, because it’s never gonna work.” Ambrose placed a hand on Levi’s arm. “How are you?”
“I’m doing great. You?”
A troubled expression passed on Ambrose’s features, but it was gone in seconds. “Same here.”
“Yeah. You certainly look the same.”
Ambrose gave a small snort. “Shut up. It’s been twelve years.”
Levi laughed, but he wasn’t just being flattering. The last time he saw his best friend was when Ambrose was thirteen and Levi was eight, and Ambrose had gained weight, his waist was a little thicker now, and the mellow blond hair was now a stunning platinum, but the blue eyes, aristocratic nose, and high cheekbones were all still very Ambrose.
A little while later, they were all seated at the set of wicker chairs, catching up, each of them sipping on their own cup of coffee. Ambrose had been busy after college, coming home with a stack of blueprints and a van of mechanical and electronic devices. This dying town needs an upgrade, he said.
“Nothing here is dying, Ambrose,” Margaret said.
Ambrose looked at his mother and purposefully turned his gaze to Levi. “Have you been to the supermarket, Levi?”
“Right. Because there’s none. No video arcades, no soccer fields, no inns. The several shops on the main road have already closed.”
While Ambrose was inventing new things to help their small town, Levi was working as an operator for a drug company. He was almost reluctant to say it but figured he had nothing to lose anyway. Besides, Ambrose and Margaret were family to him.
Before the talk wandered off to Margaret, she stood to leave, claiming she had to change into more comfortable clothes. Levi could hear her singing tunelessly as she walked away deeper into the house.
“Any problem?” Levi asked. He had been feeling a slight tinge of uneasiness in the air. “I sense there’s something wrong.”
Ambrose waved a dismissive hand, but his eyebrows were drawn together. “It’s our dog, Cap. He’s missing.”
“I didn’t know you guys had a dog.”
“Mom just came from a pet shop out of town when you arrived. She bought dog food. But our Cap is still nowhere to be seen.”
“Have you—oh. Of course, you’ve looked everywhere.”
Ambrose nodded. “I did. Cap was—is a loud barker. He’d bark at anyone unfamiliar to him. So I drove around the town while mom was gone, trying to hear any barking dogs that might be Cap.”
“I’m sorry. For what’s it worth, I think dogs can find their way back home.”
“That’s the thing, Levi, he—” Ambrose looked back, hesitating “—he was kidnapped.”
Levi stared at him.
“How do you know?”
Ambrose carefully plucked out a crumpled paper from his pocket and gave it to Levi. Levi flattened it on his thigh and silently read:
$10,000 for your dog. The river where people go to every morning. Tonight at midnight.
“Looks like a child has written it,” Ambrose said.
Indeed. Levi mentally agreed to his friend’s comment, noting the harried scrawl and the hard emphasis on every letter’s end. It’s almost as if—
“You don’t think it’s a prank?” Levi asked.
“My dog was kidnapped this morning. It’s getting dark and we still haven’t found him, so I don’t think it’s a prank.”
Levi nodded. “It’s just that this handwriting seems too resolved to me.”
Ambrose leaned in. “What do you mean?”
“I think whoever wrote this ransom note was intently hiding their style of writing.”
Tight-lipped, Ambrose leaned back on his chair. “Which means he or she knew I might recognize it.”
“Have you approached the police? Told them about this?”
The look Ambrose gave Levi was intimidating. “Yes, and no, they don’t give a damn if a dog was missing. Apparently, Pareyes has a lot of things going on with it that are far more important.”
“What do you plan to do, then?”
“Give them the money, I guess. Although . . . there’s still a complication.” Ambrose stood up. His lips were bitten raw. “Whoever kidnapped Cap also stole my special batteries.”
Levi couldn’t say anything so he just nodded. Ambrose took it as a sign of encouragement.
“These special batteries, I altered them so they fit within the prototype of my new invention. They’re . . .” He shrugs. “. . . Well, I’m not going to bore you with scientific details, but let’s just say they’re crucial to my project.”
“Do you have any suspects in mind?” Levi asked. “Anyone who might think you know their handwriting and is trying to sabotage your project?”
Silence stretched out. Levi found his cup of coffee and took a decent swallow. It was already cold.
“I have no idea, to be honest,” Ambrose said. “Clients fill up their orders in a form, so it’s safe to say I can review those and possibly recognize the handwriting on the ransom note. And the residents here, they need me. I’ve helped several of our neighbors. I can’t think of anyone who might want to cut my inventions off.”
Levi sighed. “This person is also interested in your money.”
“Come on.” Ambrose gestured for him to follow. “I’m gonna show you something.”
Ambrose had converted the basement into his laboratory with sleek black tiled floor and stainless steel walls. On the back of the room were microscopes, an arc welder, microchips, wires clipped into circles, and two computer monitors. There was a slight smell of disinfectant.
Ambrose shuffled to one of the large boxes lining half of the wall to the right, carefully picking on them. When his hand emerged, he was holding a bone.
Levi took an involuntary step back.
Ambrose laughed at his reaction. “Don’t worry. It’s fake.” He tossed it to Levi.
It was indeed a false thigh bone. White with a subtle hue of yellow, the bone appeared to be spongy.
“It was meant to placate Cap, I think,” said Ambrose. “But still, that dog would’ve barked.”
As Levi examined the bone, his fingers found a slightly embossed lettering in the middle. He touches it again. “Hold up, there’s something written in here.”
“What do you think does that mean?”
Ambrose shook his head. “No idea.”
“I’ll come with you tonight,” Levi said. “We can get your dog back and catch whoever did this. Let’s just hope they still have your special batteries.”
Fifteen minutes midnight, Levi and Ambrose took off, promising Margaret that they would be careful. The country roads seemed longer now that the dark had settled in. Levi flicked on his high beams and they carved a cone of white light in the gloom. He felt like the only person for miles, aside from Ambrose, who was fidgeting beside him.
The cockatoos were shrieking at each other when Levi and Ambrose got out of the car. Levi was parked out in front of a farmhouse that Ambrose said belonged to the McKinnon’s, an old couple who was being taken care of by one Hadrien McKinnon.
Levi gave Ambrose a knowing look. “I’m sensing a history there.”
Ambrose rolled his eyes. “We’ve fucked once, all right? Once.”
Right now, the house was silent. Every blind was drawn and every door locked tight. There was no light on except the one coming from a room on the second floor. With how Ambrose’s eyes lingered there, Levi guessed it must be Hadrien McKinnon’s room.
They left the house behind them and tramped out across the fields. The property shouldered the river, and up ahead Levi could see a copse of gum marking the boundary. The moon hung low in the sky, a silver-white witness.
They were nearly at the boundary when Levi slowed his pace, then stopped altogether. He wasn’t sure what made him hesitate.
“Levi, what’s wrong?”
The line of trees in front of him stood still, it’s shadows ominous. An uneasy feeling crept up Levi’s neck.
“I don’t know,” he answered. Feeling a little foolish, he glanced back over his shoulder, to the fields, to the McKinnon farm. The empty space stared back at him. “I just . . . never mind. Let’s go.”
Ambrose was about to prod him further, but he appeared to have thought better and instead led Levi into the woods. They both clicked their flashlights at once. Levi, still having a feeling of foreboding in his chest, listened to the rhythm of his steps against the hard ground and the bird calls echoing from the trees.
Ahead of them, into the depressing dark, a bark went off. Then another. Levi glanced at Ambrose and took off at a run, with his friend at his heels.
He plunged into the tree line, pounding along the well-worn trail, ignoring the whip and sting of the occasional overgrown branch. A staccato of barks resonated through the woods, but it stopped as suddenly as it began. Finally, Levi reached the riverbank, breathing fast, and pulled up short at the edge.
The river flowed with perfect consistency, an artery of blue and sparkling white in the night. The dog was nowhere to be seen.
“Do you think this is the right place?” asked Levi.
“This isn’t exactly where people go to every morning. But this trail here,” Ambrose said, pointing to a well-trodden path where they broke into, “is a jogging route. Even I myself jog here from time to time.”
Levi looked around, his eyes sharp. “Do you recognize the barks?”
Ambrose paused for a moment, then shook his head in frustration. “Shit!”
“What is it?”
“It’s not Cap,” said Ambrose. “It’s Hadrian’s dog, Harper.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“When . . . when Hadrian and I were still together, he once took me here to look for Harper. He said something about the dog escaping every night to run around and across these woods, and when she doesn’t come back after an hour, Hadrian has to come and find her.” Ambrose looked back as if Hadrian might be lurking there, waiting for the right time to catch his dog. “Besides, those barks we just heard were too deep.”
The trees were whispering and rattling overhead as the wind tore through them. Levi was standing, hands in his pockets, leaning down on one of the trees. Ambrose was beside him, toying with the handle of the attaché case that held the ransom money. Gust whipped up the dust and grit, forcing them to squint and shield their eyes.
They waited for more than an hour.
Levi was cold, a bit hungry, and had had enough. He glanced at Ambrose. “I don’t think the kidnapper is gonna show up.”
Ambrose said nothing, but his face collapsed, his eyes staring intently on his shoes.
“Is there any other place that fits the description in the ransom note?” asked Levi.
“Yes, but . . . it’s not usually used now. It was a riverside park for a couple of years, but was taken down when a group of kids drowned there.”
Levi nodded, suddenly energized at the prospect of a new lead. “Do you remember where it is?”
“I do. It’s near the Benjamin Carter-Viray Drama Center where mom used to work. Let’s go.”
Levi remembered that building from his childhood clearly. “Wait.” A new wave of cold hit his shoulders. He looked at the quiet river, at the trees, then back at his friend’s confused eyes. “What does your new invention does?”
Ambrose looked surprised at the question, but he answered anyway. “It’s a device that lets a person look into his enhanced reflection. It’s kinda like a mirror, except the mirror shows you what exactly to do to be your aesthetically better self. I was planning on selling it to Mrs. Patel for her salon—”
“This was all a smokescreen,” said Levi.
“This whole kidnap-the-dog-for-money, sabotage-the-invention thing. It was never about the batteries or the dog.” Levi pulled out the fake bone from the laboratory and pointed the flashlight to its embossed letters. FR-BCVDC-STOR.
“I think,” said Levi, “this meant For Benjamin Carter-Viray Drama Center storage.”
“So the kidnapper is someone who works there?”
“Or someone who used to work there.”
The false lips and eyelashes. The black-dyed hair. The too-tight skin. Nothing here is dying, Ambrose, Margaret had said. She wasn’t just talking about the town of Pareyes. She was also talking about herself.
It was a long drive back to the campus. Behind Levi, the town was miles and miles away. The wind was up, and the sun was moving steadily.
Three nights earlier, him and Ambrose arrived at the Tanner farmhouse only to find Margaret at the basement, weeping, her form a picture of absolute sorrow. In her hands was the prototype of her son’s newest invention, the special batteries inserted and plugged into a machine. The device mirrored her face but was also showing a lot of wrongs, lines and crosses and patches of glowing red all across her skin. She said she’d never be beautiful again. Ambrose told her to knock it off and that for him and Levi, she’ll always be beautiful.
The dog, Cap, was a good boy, and was found in Margaret’s bedroom where he was munching on processed dog food and steak. He never once barked because he knew Margaret very well, enough for her to take him into the bedroom without a fuss. The fake bone, a prop from the drama center, was for the back-up plan. The ransom note, written by Margaret herself, was a clever ruse to disguise her real plan, which was to use Ambrose’s invention on herself, even though Ambrose had apparently told her multiple times not to for it could trigger her anxieties.
Everything was settled now. They even had a dinner the night before Levi was to leave the town. Water under the bridge and all that.
The farms had gone and the passing roads welcomed Levi into the dense modern buildings and multi-colored houses. Behind him, the town was miles and miles away. But in his backseat was a gift from Ambrose, something wooden and square. When you miss us, he had said.
Levi pressed a button to open the windows of the car. He smiled. The breeze was warm.