Search For Maylee
Autumn drew in a lungful of California air. Although it was thick, it was somehow refreshing. She looked to her side at the sun glistening off choppy waves on the oceanfront. It sparkled in bright flashes across the horizon. She was really going to miss this stunning morning view. A thin lilac tank-top dampened with sweat in the center of her back. Her feet were growing heavy, but she pushed herself and quickened her stride. Autumn had been running along the beach every day, sometimes a few times a day, for the past three years. She found that running helped to clear her mind, and tiring her body helped her sleep at night.
Every day during this run, the thought of Maylee's disappearance raced through Autumn's mind on a loop. Every intricate detail was recalled, in order, exactly as it happened. She remembered what Maylee had eaten for breakfast, and dropping her off at school that morning. Even the conversation they had haunts her.
"Don't you want some eggs?" Maylee chirped in her perky morning voice.
"Nah, I'll just grab a coffee."
"Whatever Aunt Autumn, you're going to sneak one of those disgusting processed breakfast muffins after you drop me off, aren't you?"
Accusing eyes pierced Autumn’s embarrassed face, forcing her to blush. Strange, how such a young woman could find so much fault over a simple guilty pleasure no bigger than a thin slice of cheese with sausage.
These memories continuously float in and out of Autumn’s mind, circling her like a consuming shadow, just waiting for the right moment to swallow her whole. After reliving the worst day of her life, Autumn would clear her mind, steady her breath, and convince herself to focus on the present. It felt like an impossible task, to stop living in the past. Maylee was Autumn's niece, and she was seventeen years old when she was taken. Maylee was a high school senior with two weeks left until her graduation. She had her entire life ahead of her.
Now, three years later, Autumn was convinced that if she could just remember any tiny detail, something she may have skipped over, the police would be forced to pry Maylee’s case back open. Autumn was more of a mother to Maylee than her junkie sister could ever dream of being -- even on a sober day.
It had been nearly an hour since today's run commenced. Time seemed to escape Autumn as the worn out sneakers laced to her feet moved further down the beach. Her legs were starting to tingle and burn. They weakened, like noodles under her wearying body. The intake of air burned her chest, leaving her throat to feel like a charred tree -- still intact and alive, but the edges burnt to a crisp. She could feel the color of her face darken as fresh oxygenated blood sped through her veins.
Over the course of the last few days, she had pushed herself even further than her usual run. She would be leaving her beautiful home in Northern California and moving to a cramped one-bedroom apartment, right in the center of Denver Colorado. Every detail of her life would change once again, and it was terrifying.
Autumn fell into a deep depression when Maylee went missing, and she became obsessed with the case. The only time she would leave the house was to go to the grocery store or police station. Her life’s purpose became nothing more than to pester Detective Chance, or just Chance, as everyone called him. His full name and title was Detective Chance Rupert Lizhalia III. Clearly, the comfort of being referred to so casually by his first name was developed very early on in his career. The details and progress of Maylee's case were poked and prodded at by Autumn daily. It was a repetitive process until about five months after Maylee had disappeared. At that point, Chance put Maylee's folder on an overstuffed shelf to collect dust.
“We’ve done everything we can,” he told Autumn on that bizarrely hot fall afternoon as he slowly wiped the sweat from his full, perfectly squared hairline.
“So you're going to throw her away? Just like that, you’re done?” Autumn demanded, tears welling.
“Every police station in the country has Maylee’s picture.” Chance reminded her. “If anyone finds her or comes across anything that we can link to the case, then I assure you, Autumn, you’ll be the first to know.”
The short conversation had rendered Autumn mute. She stood frozen in shock as he told her to move on with her life. Chance apologized for the loss in such a way that it was clear -- Maylee would never be found. Then he brushed past her in the hallway of an over-lit police station, and went about his day as if nothing had changed.
Autumn recalled it now as she ran, remembering the emptiness in Chance’s expression. The excruciating heat of that day hadn't even touched the icy daggers he sent jabbing into her chest. Even his outfit was seared into her memory. He wore a dark gray suit, complementing his tan, and an orange tie.
There was no denying it, Chance was a very attractive man for his age. The stress of the job was surely the culprit of a cluster of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, although they only added to his enticing façade. Chance was the kind of man that you could take one look at and just know, without a doubt, he could defend himself. His build was strong enough to be noticed, with broad shoulders and a flat stomach, but his eyes were key. They were light grey and deeply piercing, always with a sharp gaze -- like an eagle ready to swoop.
The afternoon Maylee’s case was practically declared unsolvable and doomed for a cold shelf life, all hope drained from Autumn. Her car was left in the parking lot, and dragging feet carried her home. She moved in a blurry haze. Amidst the draining three mile walk to her front porch, the heat transformed into gloom, and before Autumn knew it she was engulfed in rain. The weather was unforgettably odd.
The door swung open, and she collapsed onto the floor, unable to take in air. Anxiety surged through her body in waves, and salty tears streamed down her face. God only knows how long she lay paralyzed on the floor before she got up and ran out the door. Pushing herself through the stinging oversized drops of rain, she rounded a corner and made her way to the beach. Giant deadly ocean swells had never looked so inviting, but she refused stop, continuing to run faster. Step after painful step in the sand, she pushed forward.
Oxygen eventually stopped reaching her lungs, and her legs gave out. Several times Autumn collapsed to her knees and stared into the water while she wheezed and struggled for breath. Each time the slosh of wet sand sounded beneath her fallen body, she would pick herself back up and continue to run. By the time she returned home the sky had turned black, and there were no stars to be found. Autumn was completely surrounded by darkness, a perfect match to the way she felt inside.
A haunting recollection of her own swollen, bloodshot eyes staring back at her from the hallway mirror now left an imprint in Autumn's mind. On that traumatizing day she become a ghost – an empty shell of her once prominent self. Maylee's absence was officially real, there was a sense of finality, a permanence that made Autumn sick.
That night after her first run, the world went completely black. As soon as her head hit the pillow, exhaustion and grief took over, blocking out whatever was left of her subconscious. For the first time in those five miserable months, her body gave up. She had slept an entire night through, deep and dreamless. It was the first night without nightmares and cold sweats since Maylee went missing.
Since that painful day, Autumn continued to repeat that same beachside run. Slowly over time, she’s made an effort to put her life back together. So far that effort has proven unsuccessful.
This would be the day Autumn was going to take what could possibly be the biggest step of her life. Giving up on Maylee was not an option. This move was bound to uncover something. It had to. The winding road came upon a corner and revealed a small deserted parking lot. She was close to home now, with only a few more blocks to go before the first ‘For Sale’ sign came into view. The signs were pointing in the direction of her striking oceanside condo.
Autumn slowed her stride to a heavy footed jog until she reached the lawn in front of her newly sold home. No sooner than her sneakers sunk into the freshly cut grass, she bent at the core and clutched her knees tightly, knuckles whitening, to catch her breath. Autumn glanced up to notice the front door had been opened a crack. She squinted over the top of her right shoulder, then abruptly to the left, peering down the road as far as she could see. There were no cars out of the ordinary aside from the large U-Haul sitting a few yards away.
Paranoia was common for Autumn. A constant nagging fear weighed in her chest at all times, she was forever burdened by this. It had taken a full year to convince herself to sell all of her belongings and take this giant leap. She had to be strong, and she had to leave California, for Maylee. With caution in each step, Autumn slowly made her way up to the condo. She peeked into each window, then tilted an ever listening ear toward the crack in the door.
"Oh, for hell’s sake Autumn, you're such a weirdo! You’re going to pack up all your shit and take off on some ‘save the world trek’, and you can’t even walk into your own house without panicking!"
The voice was shrill and mocking. It belonged to Candace, Maylee's mother. Autumn exhaled and walked inside. The sight of her sister leaning against the bar that connected the kitchen to the dining room was a lot to take in. Candace was tall and skinny. Too skinny, Autumn noted. One bony leg was crossed over the other and a thick string of smoke lifted into the air from the cigarette burning between her fingertips. She rolled her eyes at Autumn dramatically, and then flicked a long ash onto the floor.
"Candace, do you really need to do that? You know I don’t let anyone smoke in my house. You think it’s okay to just ash all over the place?”
"Who cares, you sold it anyway."
Candace walked over and ran what was left of her smoldering cigarette under water and dropped it into an otherwise spotless ceramic sink. The condo was empty, making it seem even bigger than usual. Autumn looked around her home, holding back the tears that were soon to inevitably flow -- it was only a matter of time. The floors transformed from a dark marbled tile to white carpet in the living room. The ceilings were vaulted and the countertops were black with marbled granite.
Autumn had married at a young age and lost her husband in a car accident shortly after. She’d only known Keith for seventeen months total. A vow was made to herself when he died, she would never love another, and that was final. It’d been eighteen years since the accident, and so far she’d stuck to her promise. Autumn went back to her maiden name, Brown, in an effort to help herself move on from the trauma of his death. Keith had come from money and left Autumn a rich young woman at the time.
Initially, she bought the condo along with a dependable used car. Then she placed what was left of the settlement into a steady monthly income that was meant to last 20 years. Since then, the car had been traded in for a newer model, an end of this cash flow was rapidly approaching, and the condo sold. Autumn was trudging unfamiliar ground as her entire life was growing foreign, and that didn’t even include her job.
After the loss of her young love, the years passed and the cost of living grew. Her fixed monthly income was barely enough to pay the bills and keep her fed. Enjoying nights out with her girlfriends, or buying new outfits were rare. A few years after Keith passed, Autumn picked up a job working as a waitress in a small crab shack just down the road from her condo. Surprisingly, she adored it. It didn’t bring in much money, but it was enough for the little extras, and it kept her busy.
As Autumn stood across from Candace in her emptied kitchen, her mind wandered to the saddened look of shock on her boss's face when she’d quit. Autumn walked away from the steady job she loved, just over a week before. Candace cleared the tar blockage from her throat, pulling Autumn back to reality.
"How did you get in here?" Autumn asked. "And did you get me that address? I’m leaving soon. I only have a few more things to pack, so I need it. You promised."
"You always leave that window in the back unlocked,” Candace said with another roll of her glassed over eyes. “And yes, I have your damn address."
Candace dug a wrinkled piece of damp paper from her pocket, along with a chunk of dirty pocket lint and a couple of pennies. The goods were slapped onto the empty countertop. Candace then shifted restlessly on her feet, her eyes darting from one side of her head to the other. The look of a wild animal had taken over her face, as if assessing the possibility of an unexpected dash for the door. Unpredictable and permanently on edge, she finally continued in her scratchy smoker’s voice.
"I still don't think you should do this. Craig’s not a bad guy, he just gets a bad rep because of his record. Maylee's gone because she never paid attention to anything going on around her. It’s probably her own fault she was taken, I'm sure Craig had nothing to do with it."
Aside from the obvious itch to leave, Candace was without emotion, utterly careless about Maylee. She spoke as if Maylee wasn't her daughter at all, but a random girl she’d met on the street. It made Autumn’s stomach wrench hearing her sister talk this way about her own child, her flesh and blood. How could she?
The thought of the opened back window in the condo was intentionally brushed aside. Autumn didn’t even want to know exactly how her sister was privy to that information. The place would be deserted in a few hours, left for the new owners to deal with. The only thing that mattered now was how clearly strung-out and coldblooded Candace was. A surge of anger flowed through Autumn.
Autumn couldn’t stand Candace for the evil woman she'd grown into. The fact that Candace cared more about herself and getting her next fix than she did about her own daughter was sickening. Autumn stormed over to the bar and snatched up the piece of paper. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary if Candace were to change her mind, steal back the address, and make a dash for the door. Frankly, it came as quite a shock to Autumn that her junkie sister had followed through on her promise to retrieve it in the first place. Once the address was safely in hand, Autumn finally spoke her mind.