Steve sat on the soft, leather sofa in the living room of his Albany home, staring down at the text message that had just appeared on his phone. A hot flush of shame filled his cheeks. Since his return from West Virginia two weeks before, Steve had, he now realized, been clinging to Melissa as a drowning man might cling to a life raft. He clung to her memories of Ana, alive and unharmed in the convenience store. He clung to the comfort and support she’d given him during those awful first weeks, and he clung to the friendship that had seen him through more than one sleepless night. He’d clung to her so desperately, in fact, that he’d completely failed to realize just how much he was intruding on her personal life.
He understood, with a sudden jolt of shame and clarity, just how rude and irrational his constant text messages must have seemed to her. Of course, she would not have told him so herself. She was simply too kind to turn him away. He realized that now. He knew of the problems Marc and Melissa were having, of her desire to mend the marriage, and silently chastised himself for making matters worse.
As he made to set the phone aside, it began to ring. He was so startled he nearly dropped it. “Hello?” he said, bringing it to his ear.
“Steve?” said a familiar voice. “It’s Frank Becker. It’s been a while. I thought I’d check in and see how you’re doing.”
Steve glanced around the empty living room. “To be honest, it feels like I’m living with a ghost. Her stuff’s everywhere. I feel like I should clean it up, but then…” His voice drifted off.
“We haven’t given up, Steve. You need to believe me. We’re doing everything we can to find her.”
Steve pulled a throw off the back of the couch and caught a whiff of Ana’s perfume. He wasn’t sure if the scent was real or just imagined. It didn’t matter. He buried his face in the soft chenille fabric.
“You still there?” Becker asked.
“I’m still here,” Steve murmured. “I want to believe she’s still out there, but it’s been three months since the sighting in West Virginia. Tell me honestly, what are the chances she’s still out there?”
He heard Becker sigh heavily on the other end of the phone. “If we were talking your average housewife, I’d tell you she’s gone for good. But with the daughter of a major drug lord? There’s always the chance she’s still being held somewhere. I’ve heard of cartel kidnap victims that were returned after months-even years-in captivity. It’s rare, but it does happen.”
“A buddy of mine from work tried to fix me up with his sister the other day,” Steve said. “He thinks it’s time for me to move on, but he just doesn’t get it. Every time I even think about moving on, the guilt is unbearable. What if she’s still out there? What if they’re torturing her? And I’m sitting here doing nothing? How am I supposed to start dating again, when she could be out there somewhere? Sometimes, for just an hour or two, I’ll forget to worry about her, then that makes me feel guilty too.”
“You need to give yourself permission to stop thinking about her for a while,” Becker said. “You’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t. Try to get some rest, or maybe get some work done. I’m worrying about her, Steve, so you don’t have to. If the guilt starts to get to you, remember that.”
Since Becker had been working the case for months with absolutely no results whatsoever, Steve took no comfort in these words. “Thanks,” he said, “I’ll keep that in mind. Let me know if you hear anything.”
After the call, Steve pulled his laptop computer from a bag at his feet and turned it on. His prolonged absence from Albany, and indeed from everything else in his life, had wreaked havoc on his business. It had taken nearly all of his first week back just to clear his inbox. Two of his projects were so far past their deadlines that, had it not been for the understanding and patience of his regular clients, all of whom had read about Ana’s disappearance in the local news, he would certainly have been sued for breach of contract.
He drummed his fingertips while he waited for the computer to power up. The machine was a dinosaur and he’d been meaning to bring it in for maintenance even before Ana’s disappearance. He remembered with a smile how Ana had referred to his laptop as el diablo, the devil, whenever she’d used it. He remembered her cursing in loud, rapid Spanish every time it crashed.
His attention was pulled back to the present when a tiny army of icons finally began falling into ranks across his desktop. The last icon to pop into place was that of his instant message service. The sight of it reminded him of another occasion when Ana had begun speaking Spanish in front of his computer. He clicked the little, blue icon. His pulse quickened. Ana’s contact list opened before him. A circular picture of his own smiling face appeared first on the list. He scanned through the other names, until he found the one he was looking for, third from the bottom. Despite the initial thrill he felt upon seeing the name, he could not help feeling reprieved by the status just below it. Isabel Aldana was offline.