It has been dead for so long that Zach can hardly even make out what it used to be. A fox perhaps, or maybe a dog? Its corpse is so mangled by passing traffic, its appearance so far removed from anything alive, it is impossible to tell. He carefully manoeuvres the car around it and continues down the highway.
“Scratch out all your prayers,” a voice croons on the radio. “Tie ‘em up with barbed wire and push them down the stairs.” Some raspy old booze hound that tickles a crook in Zach’s memory. The name is on the tip of his tongue when the car hits a pothole and it is gone again. He curses under his breath. Then, upon remembering he is the car’s sole occupant, he swears loudly. The entire day seems to be conspiring against him. The hot-as-balls Southern weather, the glare of the sun that manages to permeate his convenience store-bought aviator sunglasses, the endless fucking road ahead of him.
He eases his foot off the accelerator slightly while he checks the map. Unless he has gone seriously wrong somewhere, he should reach Bellevue in a little over two hours. After a whole day in this fine vehicle, a rental with air conditioning that gave up the ghost a mere forty minutes after he started his journey, two more hours sounds like an eternity.
“Then with my double barrel shotgun,” the radio taunts, “and a whole box of shells...”
The words get to Zach in a way that they shouldn’t. He punches the radio and the station switches to evangelical choir music. He lasts half a minute before turning the stereo off altogether, resolving to spend the rest of the drive in peaceful, meditative silence.
His stare never veers from the straight I-75 before him, but in the corner of his eye he cannot help but see Georgina. Her picture lies atop the maps and documents that have spilled out of his folder onto the passenger seat. It must be the heat, or fatigue, or some combination of the two that makes Zach think she is looking back at him. He bites his tongue twice to prevent himself starting a one-sided conversation with the photograph. It’s the most recent one of her that Georgina’s parents could find, taken just days before her twenty-first birthday.
“Isn’t she pretty?” Her mother had asked, when she handed Zach the photo. He had wanted to laugh in her face, at the sheer ridiculousness of the question. For her to ask him whether he thought her little girl was a keeper, after what had happened. For her and Georgina’s father to be asking him for help finding their daughter, after everything she did.
But something in Mrs Forrester’s eyes had stopped the words from coming. He wanted to tell her how much he hated Georgina, that he was glad that she was missing and he hoped she died a horrible, painful death. But the faith the mother has in the daughter is a curious, powerful thing. Georgina’s mother hardly seemed aware of the facts surrounding her daughter’s disappearance, and what little she did know, she used in her own unique narrative that cast her girl as the innocent.
“Please, Mr Hall,” Quentin, the father, had said, taking him into the conservatory of their home in Florida. “You and I both know...” His voice trembled slightly, but he maintained his composure. The famous military background Zach had heard so much about.
“You and I both know,” Quentin said, “that my daughter is probably dead. But her mother –”
“She thinks Georgina is alive?”
“She doesn’t just think it, Mr Hall. She is convinced. Obsessed. Eleanor has always had a somewhat... frail nature. Recent events have only served to exacerbate her already anxious condition.”
In short, Eleanor Forrester was a fruitcake. Zach wanted to enquire as to whether this sort of thing ran in the family, but stopped himself. It would be cruel, not to mention hypocritical.
“I’m not sure I understand,” he said. “Recent events? It’s been over a year.”
“Yes,” Quentin said, more than a little defensively. “The worst year of our lives.” Zach flinched, and he grimaced in regret. “I apologise, Mr Hall. You must think me insensitive.”
“Just a touch,” Zach replied coolly. “But your astounding insensitivity aside, I honestly do not know why you called me.”
“A little over a month ago, Eleanor and I started receiving phone calls. Whoever is on the other end doesn’t say a word; they simply wait for a few moments and then hang up.”
Zach felt his patience thinning.
“Prank calls?” It came out slightly louder than he intended, and his next words were hushed for Eleanor’s benefit. “Are you serious? You got me to come over here, because some kid is yanking your fucking chain?”
“My wife believes Georgina is trying to pass on some kind of message,” Quentin lowered himself wearily into a wicker armchair. “She has come to anticipate each call, even look forward to them.”
“And this involves me because...?”
“I have a friend in the sheriff’s office who has been able to trace the area code of the incoming number to a town in Tennessee. Bellevue. A call has been put in to the police department up there, but I don’t think there’s any great degree of urgency to a year old disappearance.” Quentin didn’t say anything for a moment, and for the first time Zach heard the way he struggled for breath. Neither he nor Eleanor were old, but what happened last year aged them. Withered them both in different ways, from the inside out.
“William often spoke of how you majored in investigative journalism,” he finally said, and it was so out of the blue that Zach didn’t immediately know how to respond. Until now, neither of them had said William’s name out loud.
“That’s right,” he nodded. “Why?”
“Let me be frank, Mr Hall. As much as it breaks my heart to say it out loud, I hold very little hope for Georgina’s safe return. And I certainly do not believe that it is her calling us at all hours of the night. My wife, however, cannot let her go. If somebody were to go to Bellevue and investigate these calls, find out who is making them, it might finally force Eleanor to believe that Georgina is not coming home.”
“And you want me to do this for you.”
“I understand if you do not want to, given everything –”
“That’s something of an understatement,” Zach said, and he knew that his temper, already riled, would not lie still for much longer.
“I am, of course, willing to offer a substantial fee for doing this favour, Mr Hall.” The anger in his stomach twisted and knotted around itself; Quentin was playing that oldest of Forrester cards. Money. It had always been made crystal clear, for as long as Zach had known Georgina, who had it and who didn’t.
“I am aware of certain debts you have incurred over the last year, Mr Hall. I am giving you the chance to start afresh, with a clean slate and a handsome sum. Do this one final thing for my family, prove to me that Georgina is not still alive and tormenting her mother from a backwater town in Tennessee, and I will be eternally grateful.”
Zach felt the loathing he had long nurtured for the Forresters suddenly turned upon himself. It was truly an offer he couldn’t refuse. Not simply for the money, but also for a chance to lay Georgina to rest, and expel her from his mind forever.
In the photograph on the passenger seat in Zach’s rental car, Georgina is smiling. She is, as her mother rightfully claims, very pretty. A button nose and heart shaped mouth, stretched into a smile. One edge of the photograph is slightly perforated. Somebody next to Georgina has been very carefully been cut out of it, most likely by Eleanor Forrester. A young man. Handsome, twenty-four years old. The same hazel eyes as Zach. The same whole damn face, for that matter.
William. His twin. Dead for over a year now.
“Turn around, Zach,” he mutters to himself. “Just turn this car around and go the fuck home.”
Except he’s no longer sure he has a home to go to. Any sense of belonging he may have once had went up in smoke thirteen months ago, on the same day that William died and Georgina went missing. Home had always been where his brother was, and it is only now that Zach realises how good it feels to get out of the swampy grave that Florida has become since Will’s death.
When he finally passes a sign welcoming him to Bellevue, the name of that song on the radio comes to him, as does the crocodile-voiced singer. Tom Waits. ‘Wrong Side Of The Road’. He laughs humourlessly.
“Tom, you have no idea.”