The police found no evidence of foul play. No sign, other than her absence, that she had even left the room. No one in the neighborhood saw her leave. Since her clothes were left behind, she would have run away naked. How no one had noticed a naked, fit woman in her early twenties running around the suburban streets baffled the police, and Dale when he stopped to think about it. But it wasn’t like she could have vanished into thin air. That was just stupid.
After a long, difficult night of providing the officers with photographs (“she doesn’t usually smile this much,” Dale said, as he printed out and handed over a picture from their last day at the beach) and all other pertinent information on Melissa, Dale lay awake until a quarter to six in the morning. Then he just paced the room, thoughts racing. He couldn’t wrap his head around any of it: the sudden disappearance, the unseasonable chill in the air. He thought about how upset she had been. And the scream.
He wondered what his next step would be. Will it hurt more if I stayed here or if I went back to base? Both places contained reminders of painful things. Home, his father and other fractured family relationships, relationships he couldn’t imagine trying to rebuild now as he panicked over Melissa’s disappearance and fought to hold off the grief from her potential permanent loss. On base, the reminder of her would be constant. For the first time in his military career, he considered going AWOL. He could hitchhike across the country and look for…for what? For myself? What a cliché.
He decided to go back to base and immerse himself again in training and work. At least that would give him something else to think about. Throwing himself into his on-base activities had worked before. Surely, he thought, it would work again.
Still, as he booked his ticket back to San Diego, his hands trembled. Tension pressed into his neck and shoulders. He hovered the cursor over the COMPLETE ORDER button, took a breath, and clicked. He considered leaving without saying ‘goodbye,’ thought about writing a note and setting it on the island in the kitchen, or maybe just sending a text.
Best to face Katie, tell her in person. You owe her that much. Probably a lot more.
He waited until she woke. He didn’t expect Jake to be there, but Jake came by that morning to check on her. They sat down to another mostly quiet breakfast. This time Katie cooked. Halfway through the meal, Dale worked up the courage to break the news.
“I changed my flight,” he said. “Think it’s better if I go.”
Katie looked up from her plate and frowned. “When are you going?”
He hesitated, felt poised to jump off a precipice so high that he couldn’t see the bottom. “Tonight.”
Jake slammed his fork down, but said nothing. Dale stared across the table, but Jake wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“I just,” Dale began.
“You don’t need to explain anything,” Katie said. “Just…do what you have to do.”
“No, you’re not,” she said.
He opened his mouth to say more, thought better of it and sighed. He downed the rest of his food, barely tasting it. No one else said a word, not until it was time to say goodbye.
Katie and Jake walked him to the door that afternoon. He brought the guitar with him. Katie lowered her gaze, gave the guitar a once over, and looked up at Dale, her eyebrows raised. She hummed, something close to a grunt of approval, but not quite.
“Yeah,” Dale said. “Thinking of playing again. Got Dad’s songs on my MP3 player and thought it might be cool to learn them.”
“That’s nice. That’s really great.”
They embraced, then released each other. Dale and Jake made eyes at each other. They stared without speaking. Katie glanced between them, sensing the tension.
“Let me help you with your things,” Jake said.
Dale nodded. He didn’t need help, but from Jake’s look, he guessed his sister’s boyfriend wanted to talk to him about something. He handed Jake his suitcase. Katie stayed by the door and watched them walk to the car.
Dale popped the trunk to the rental car. “So what’s up?”
Jake stayed mostly quiet, but Dale could hear his uneasy breathing behind him. Dale turned. Jake chewed his lip.
“Don’t suppose you could stay?” he asked.
“Katie needs you, man. Hell, I could use some help with her too. She’s been kind of a mess lately.”
Dale loaded his guitar in the trunk. “I can’t.”
“You run out of leave?”
“It’s not that. I just…it hurts too much to be here.”
Dale shut the trunk, opened the back door and took the suitcase from Jake.
“I can’t blame you.” Dale stuffed the suitcase in the back seat, kept his back turned to Jake. “It’s what you’re best at.”
Dale spun to face Jake. “What the hell did you say?”
Jake withered, looked like he already regretted his words, but Dale wasn’t about to let him off. He took a step forward.
“You don’t know a fucking thing about me.”
“Look, all I’m saying is…”
“I heard what you said, asshole, and I don’t fucking appreciate it.”
Jake held up his hands. “Hey, listen…”
“No, you listen.” He stuck his finger in Jake’s face. “Just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I don’t care about my sister. You don’t fucking ever…”
Jake slapped Dale’s finger out of the way. Something broke inside of Dale. He lunged forward, tackled Jake to the ground. Katie yelped, or maybe it was Jake; Dale wasn’t sure in his moment of perfect, blind rage. He reared back, rammed his fist into Jake’s nose. Felt the mash of cartilage, the spray of blood, and just like that, his rage dispersed like fog in front of a fan. He rose to his feet, heart thrumming, guilt welling.
Katie started to cross the yard. “What the hell are you doing?”
He looked up, opened his mouth to answer, but Jake’s heel smashed against his kneecap. He pitched forward, landed face-first against Jake’s shoulder.
“Fuck,” he groaned.
Dale rolled over, clutching his already swelling eye. Jake rolled on top of him.
“Jake, no. Stop it.” Katie hooked her forearm around Jake’s throat and pulled him back. Dale got up to lunge forward, but Katie stuck herself in front of him. “Both of you, just…hasn’t the last couple of days been hard enough?”
Dale and Jake glared at each other over Katie’s shoulder, but her presence had done its job. No more punches would be thrown. Jake pressed his shirt against his bleeding nose. Swelling forced Dale’s eye shut. Both men sucked in deep, seething breaths.
Katie took Dale by the arm, turned him away from Jake.
“Come on, let me get you some ice.” She glanced over her shoulder at Jake. “You too.”
Her voice was husky, tired, defeated. Dale felt like the biggest asshole in the world and couldn’t decide if that would make leaving easier or harder. He followed her inside, head down and got some ice for his eye. The second time he went out the door that day, no one said a word. He drove off, wounds tender and chilled.