Patty gallomphed through the woods looking for a little creature to talk to, her pocket full of bread and mixed nuts. She liked squirrels best because they would bark at her for long minutes, sometimes throwing her a nut or two, but she was in the mood for something different. A porcupine maybe or a pileated woodpecker.
Voices chattered past a hummock ahead, so Patty veered left to get behind a cluster of arrowwood and approach them unnoticed. Two young men smoked cigarettes at the base of a giant cottonwood, maybe two hundred feet tall. She didn’t know either of them. One had a butch haircut and a leather jacket, the other in a jean jacket with longish hair and peach fuzz. Both were at least a head taller than her.
The long-haired one pointed his two fingers holding the cigarette at the other. “We’ve got to get our story straight—every detail has to be the same.”
“Nuh-uh.” The butched kid flicked his cigarette to the ground. “You got it all wrong, man. The more rehearsed and exact our stories, the more they’ll think we made it up. We’ll be busted for sure. We get the strong points dead on, but we disagree, even argue about the rest.”
The more they spoke, the harder Patty listened.
“Like how?” asked peach fuzz.
“Like, we both say it was two guys that took her, see. But we disagree what shirts they wore. Like you keep saying one guy had a green shirt with swirly lettering, but I’m dead set on saying it was a blue one with a Penn State logo. See what I mean?”
“Won’t that make us unreliable?”
“That’s the beauty of it—they already know everyone’s unreliable, so if we get little things different, they’ll find us believable on the big things.”
Peach fuzz nodded silently and puffed his cigarette.
Butch pulled out a pack and tapped out another, then lit it. “And we’re going to have to look for her real hard, without rest, even if we know we won’t find her.”
Patty tried to slow her heavy, quivering breaths so they wouldn’t hear her. She tensed her entire body, too frightened to move. She forced herself to listen as long as she could before she would run to town and called 9-1-1.
“Wait a minute,” said peach fuzz. “Now I think you’re wrong. I seen it on TV where criminals try to inject themselves into the investigation, so we should just stay out.”
“Not when it’s a good friend who’s missing,” said butch. “It’ll be natural for us to work hard to find her. Besides, we’ll be looking, not investigating.”
“All we did was take her out for some fun.”
“Against her will.”
“Seems a waste us searching where we won’t find her,” said peach fuzz.
“It’s not a waste. It’s showing them behavior of innocents,” said butch.
Peach fuzz put his cigarette out on the cottonwood. “Can’t we just pretend to discover her and bring her back?”
“Out of the question,” said butch. “We’ll be top of the suspect list. We’ve got to stick with the abduction story.”
“But if we just—”
Patty noted peach fuzz was named Cal, and watched butch point to the sky.
“She’s up their now. We aren’t going to get her back.”
Patty fought tears.
“All right, Jess.”
“One more thing,” said Jess. “Don’t be tempted to find her ourselves. The only way we should find her is if she’s directly in our path.”
“What then?” asked Cal.
Jess shrugged and shook his head. “Then, by all means, ‘find’ her.”
It was more than Patty could bear, so she turned to go back, but slipped and fell.
“What was that?”
She lay at the edge of the arrowwood, so she buried her face in her arms and froze, hoping they wouldn’t come around.
“Are you okay?”
She looked up tentatively. The boys looked down at her, and Jess reached for her, but she scuttled backwards.
“Don’t touch me!”
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Cal. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“What did you do to that girl?”
The boys looked at each other.
“What girl?” they asked.
“The one with the story. The two men. Blue shirt, green shirt.” Patty pushed herself to her feet, ready to run.
“Oh! You mean Chippey,” said Jess.
“Yeah. The team mascot,” said Cal. He pointed midway up the tree they’d been talking under. A monkey lay on a branch chewing on leaves. “Coach is going to kill us if he finds out we lost her.”
The tension released all through Patty’s body. She pulled out her baggies with bread and nuts. “Maybe I can help.”