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The Vanished Ones


FIRST

excerpt-1

THE WOMAN SHIELDED the child from the downpour, hugging her beloved before placing the toddler in her car seat and buckling her in. She slipped into the driver’s seat with a slight foreboding. After driving a few miles through the neighborhood, set among lofty sequoias and families of deer, her gunmetal-gray sedan began to rattle and cough as she entered a secluded part of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Surrounded by trees and darkness, she felt the rumblings of panic rise in her. She glanced at her cell phone and realized she had no reception. She was alone, and she felt it like a deep ache. As she rounded a corner, the car lurched angrily and began to sputter.

“Shit,” she whispered, slowly maneuvering the sedan to the side of the road. Once stopped, she turned the ignition over and over, hearing only a slight ticking with each futile attempt. A minute later, a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows pulled up next to her. She rolled down her window, dodging the raindrops that forced their way inside.

“Need some help?” asked a middle-aged man with a thick goatee and disordered eyebrows.

“I think so… My car won’t turn on. It was running perfectly fine a few minutes ago, and suddenly it just died.”
“Pop the hood, and I’ll take a look.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Happy to help a woman in distress.” He tipped his Stetson forward.

He parked in front of her, hood to hood, and jumped out of his SUV. He appeared more fully in the headlights, his bristly facial hair glistening as the rain fell hard on him. He then disappeared behind the rising hood of her car. Five or six minutes went by without a word from the stranger.

“Find anything?” she yelled over the howling wind.

No response. Her heart pumped a little faster. She stuck her head out the window, trying to get a look, but rain flew into her eyes, forcing her back into the car.

“Hello? Can you tell me what’s wrong with the car?” she hollered again as she flicked water from her face.

Silence.

She looked back and said to the little girl, “I’ll be right back, honey.” The tot was half asleep, hugging a stuffed bear. The woman struggled to push the door open against the strong gale. When she stood, she was met with a deluge. Shivering, she pulled her hood over her head.

“Hello, sir,” she said again as she walked to the front of her car.

The mysterious man was nowhere to be seen. She looked back inside her car to find her little girl now fully asleep, and she let out a deep sigh of relief. An ominous warning crept across her skin though she did not understand why. She zipped her jacket up farther.

“Sir, where are you?”

The man did not answer back.

She cautiously walked toward the rear of his car. The rear gate had been lifted open. She could hear nothing but the tempest whipping in unison with her worry. She stopped and looked back at her little girl once more. But remembering her phone was of no help and she was marooned on a dark, desolate road, she walked on. As she came around the corner to the back of the man’s car, she found him standing frozen, as if in a trance, seemingly unbothered by the water pouring off the front of his hat.

“Uh, hi. Did you figure out what’s wrong with my car?” she asked, her voice wavering slightly.

The man said nothing while staring intensely at her. The woman nervously shifted her weight from left to right as she wiped rain from her face.

“Maybe I’ll just go back to the car and wait for you.”

“Do you believe in fate?” the man asked.

With a quizzical look, she replied, “I don’t know what you mean, and I’m really cold, so I’m going to wait for you back inside my car. I appreciate your help.” As she spoke, she instinctively stepped backward.

“I mean, do you believe we, you and me, were meant to meet?” he asked with a nefarious smirk.

Her neck tightened, and she began to bite her nails. She had no idea what the man was talking about. She peered down the street, hoping to see another car’s headlights.

Something doesn’t feel right.

“Sir, I appreciate your help—really, I do—but I’m going back inside my car.”

She turned quickly and walked back to her sedan. As she opened the driver’s door, she let out a tortured scream.
“Oh my God, where is she? Where’s my little girl!”

She whipped around and found the man standing before her. He grabbed the back of her head and pressed a damp rag hard against her nose and mouth.

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