TWICE: the serial
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Anna had started composing her reply to Matt’s email as soon as she’d gotten off the phone with Dusty. She was respectful of other people’s wishes by default. But she’d never felt required to equate respect with compliance—especially when other people’s wishes were absurd.

Anna had cared about Matt very deeply, if not in quite the way he’d wished back then, and she was rather startled now at how intensely his bolt from the blue had revived that care. Matt could talk all he wanted about ‘risks,’ but she had not sprung up with autumn’s last mushroom. If ‘they’ were really watching his email that closely, then his message to her had already tripped those wires. And people who cared about each other did not just ‘walk away’ when one of them was in trouble—even if asked to. Had he forgotten who she was? Well, she had not forgotten him. Matt’s first claim when she’d found him starving on the street a decade earlier had been that he was fine and needed no one’s help. How little some things changed, for all the passing years. Stubborn boy.

She also knew better than to suppose the bland Gmail address he’d written from was anything but a temporary blind, but, despite all his chivalrous rhetoric, she was hoping he’d check it for replies before deleting the account. Rushing to get in under that wire, she read quickly through her response one last time to make sure everything that wanted saying was there. She felt far from certain of another chance—whatever his assertions about writing her again.

 

Matt!
Please forgive me for ignoring your request. I will not contact you again without permission, but I couldn’t walk away without acknowledging how much your letter meant to me, and how much more I’m sure it will mean to Dusty.
As it happens, he is legally my son now. My husband and I adopted him just after we were married five years ago. In fact, this weekend is our anniversary.

 

She had no wish to rub salt in old wounds. But on the slim chance Matt’s adolescent crush was not long forgotten by now, it seemed best to nip that bud off right away.

 

Dusty has really turned his life around. He’s at the university now, believe it or not, studying to be a social worker. You heard me right. Three semesters from completing his master’s degree, and currently near the top of his class. He’s even engaged to a marvelous young woman he met at school.

 

Though Dusty had clearly already been found by them, Anna was careful not to include Colleen’s name—for whatever good that might still do.

 

What a difference seven years can make, huh?
Frankly, I could make little sense of your email, but if you’ve been hiding all this time for our sakes somehow, please stop now. I feel certain that whatever you’re dealing with can be better addressed with our help than on your own. You are cared for here, as much as ever. Know that. 
Anna

 

She leaned back, took a breath, and clicked ‘send.’

The ball was in his court now. She’d learned long ago how powerless she was to fix the world—or any person in it but herself. She could only leave resources where they might be found and used by people ready to accept the help.

She stood up to stretch her tight back and shoulders, then went to stare out of her office windows at the still-worsening storm just as a jagged bolt of lightning lit the distant riverfront. Its thunder arrived a minute later, rattling the wall of glass in front of her.

Before Matt’s email had appeared, she had thought Dusty’s paranoia unjustified. Now, she felt less sure. Who were ‘they?’ What lie had Matthew been living all this time—even before he disappeared, if she understood that bit correctly? Until now, she’d have sworn Matt Rhymer couldn’t lie to save his life. And how did he know about those letters so quickly? Or at all?

It all sounded far from safe—for him…and possibly for them. Was being a ‘dead end’ sufficient to get her and Dusty dealt back out of whatever game was being played here?

She couldn’t banish lurid thoughts of drug cartels and terrorist cells. But neither could she imagine Matt remotely capable of involvement with such people. Matt had always seemed that rarest of creatures: both far too intelligent and clever for his age, yet also far too innocent to engage with any kind of criminal enterprise. More likely, he’d tried to right some wrong, or expose some injustice—somewhere—without realizing in time that he was pulling a tiger’s tail.

But…had Matt brought that tiger to their door as well? There still seemed nothing here worthy of police involvement, but she didn’t relish the idea of just sitting on her hands until there was. Yet, what could she or Dusty do?

Another flash of lightning lit the sky, followed by a long, rolling peal of thunder.

She wanted so badly to talk this through with Thom, but he had still not returned her call.

Because they found him too.

She shoved the thought away—again. His own misadventures aside, Thom had never known Matt at all. What could he know that they might find useful? Nothing. Still… She reached into her pocket for the phone, to try him again—and almost dropped it on the floor as it rang in her hand. A bark of laughter escaped her as she saw Thom’s name scroll across the screen. “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear,” she murmured, touching the call open. “Well, it’s about time. I thought you were working at home today.”

“Well—yes, I have been. But they’re saying this storm just gets worse all night, so I went out to get some batteries and things at the grocery store before the power goes out.”

“And didn’t turn your ringer on, as usual,” she sighed. “What’s it going to take to get you to—”

“Actually, I forgot to take it with me,” he said sheepishly.

Anna rolled her eyes. “Have you talked with Dusty yet, by any chance?”

“We just got off the phone. Seems I picked a very poor time to go shopping. Sorry. They’re coming up here for dinner tonight. And staying for a while, it sounds like.”

“Staying? …Until when?”

“I’m not sure. A couple days, maybe? A few weeks? Until this craziness gets sorted out, I guess. I got the impression he had already talked with you about this.”

“No. ... He did say he didn’t want me leaving work alone, but nothing about them moving in with us. Do you think that’s warranted?”

“Well, I clearly know less about all this than you guys do, but, honey…” He faltered to an awkward pause. “Previous experience does suggest that…caution can be called for?”

“Well—I mean, sure. Given your—what happened…of course, but…” She felt so stupid. So tactless. What must all this be dredging up for him? She was relieved to hear him chuckle softly.

“Relax, love. I don’t assume the sky is falling either. But I have no problem with a nice long visit from our son and his fiancée. Do you?”

“No. Of course not. But this all just seems to have escalated so quickly—into I have no idea what. Couldn’t this just be some silly peccadillo between Matt and…I don’t know, a loan shark, or something?”

“Sure. That’s probably what it is, and since neither of you has the answers these people seem to be after, they’ll probably just vanish now as quickly as they appeared. Weird but harmless, if I had to bet.” He paused, but Anna’s mind seemed stuck between gears. She could find nothing to say. “Would you prefer we tell them no?” Thom asked at last.

“No! Absolutely, tell them yes. …Do we have anything there to feed four people?”

“As luck would have it, I’ve just been to the grocery store.” She could hear Thom’s patient smile through the phone. “And I’m told they’re bringing up a big sirloin steak and a bottle of Syrah. I think we can handle it.”

“Right. Good. Dusty said he was coming here to pick me up. When you guys talked, did he mention when he thought that might be?”

“Oh. Right. Glad you asked. From Colleen’s apartment, Dusty’s a lot further from campus than I am. So we agreed I’d pick you up instead. When would you like me there?”

“As soon as possible,” she sighed. “My head feels stuffed with packing peanuts. I’ll get nothing useful done here anymore today. And if we’re having company, I should do at least a little cleaning up at home.”

“They’re not company, Anna. It’s Dusty and Colleen. Relax. I’ll be on my way in five minutes.”

“Thanks. But don’t rush. Not in this weather.”

“Does some part of ‘relax’ confuse you, dear?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Sorry. I’m a mess.”

“Love you.”

“You too. Bye.”

She hung up and pushed the phone back into her pocket, feeling adrift in a murky ocean full of large creatures passing close enough to feel, but not to see, or name.

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