The thing you have to know about going to Madelyn Sexton’s house is that it’s like walking into the TV show version of what a family is like. And now, in their show, the daughter is missing and they’re all handling it with as much strength and grace as they can muster.
I went over there this weekend. My fears about them blaming me were apparently unfounded — her mom, Gloria, and I hugged and cried for like five minutes when she answered the door. Everyone was in the house, like a bunch of sad ghosts in their pajamas. Her older brothers are home, Josh from college, Luke from his gap year in Europe. Her little sisters had moved all the mattresses downstairs into the living room and were watching Gravity Falls. The sadness in the house was suffocating.
“She’ll be home soon,” her mom said as she puttered around, shakily making me tea. “She only needs a break from the pressures of her life. She’s been so strong, such a force of nature, it must be so exhausting. But she’ll come back. She’ll be back.”
Before I left my house I came up with a bunch of questions I wanted to ask, but faced with the reality of her family’s devastation I forgot them all. What was I supposed to do, interrogate Maddie’s terrified mother? I drank my tea, agreed with Gloria whenever it was appropriate and did my best to appear hopeful.
When she had made our tea and sat down at the table across from me, she did ask if I knew anything about where she went. She must have noticed me tense up because she added, “I won’t be mad, I know how close you girls are. But if I knew she’d said something to someone then I could be sure —” she broke off. It was clear she was asking me for the same reassurance that I was there for: if only there’s some other proof that she’s out there, some evidence that she’s lying on a beach in California smoking pot and playing the ukulele, something more than that stupid letter — then all of this gets easier. Then we can be angry and relieved and move on to hunting her down.
But Madelyn didn’t tell me a god damn thing, which is what I told her mother. “I was hoping she might have left behind some evidence here.”
Gloria’s chin dropped onto her chest. She’s a pretty woman in her late forties. I stared at the silver streaks in her hair as she fought to compose herself.
She said, “She didn’t leave anything. Her journal didn’t say a thing about any plans, her internet history is totally clean. There’s no record of her phone being active since the day she disappeared. Apart from that letter there’s just nothing.” She started to cry again, but then fought it down hard. “But I’m sure she’s being careful. She’s so smart. She’s so, so smart.”
I was going to ask her if her internet history had been cleared or if there was just no evidence of her planning a trip on it, but before I could find the right words someone knocked on the door.
Maddie’s little sister Luisa answered it.
Gloria said, “The police say they’re doing everything they can. I have faith.” She was obviously trying to reassure herself.
“Mom!” Luisa shouted from the other room. “The FBI’s here!”
Gloria lurched to her feet. “Give me just a second Shiloh,” she said, already on her way towards the front door.
I didn’t follow, figuring she didn’t need an audience if the feds had more questions, but Gloria brought them into the kitchen. Gloria began to apologize to me for the intrusion, but I was already standing up to leave.
As I stood up I saw over Gloria’s shoulders who the FBI agents were.
They were dressed in suits but they were unmistakably Julian and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“You!” I yelped.
They exchanged a glance.
Julian recovered first. “Good to see you Shiloh.” He was the image of cool professionalism. He wasn’t Nice College Julian, he was Trusted FBI Agent Julian. He wore it flawlessly. If I hadn’t already met Scary Shotgun Julian and Nice College Julian I would have believed he was with the bureau.
Gloria must have noticed I was all freaked out. She said, “Shiloh? Everything alright?”
I mumbled something about coming back later and went out the kitchen door. I had to fight the urge to run.
Nathaniel Hawthorne caught me halfway up the block.
“Shiloh!” He looked sort of ridiculous jogging after me in his suit. Fuck me, he didn’t look ridiculous, he looked like a goddamn model. If he’d been selling men’s suits I’d have bought one in every color.
He said, “I know it looks bad.”
“Damn right it looks bad.” I didn’t break stride.
“We’re looking for evidence,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out what happened.”
“Why?” I demanded.
He shrugged. “It’s our job.”
I stormed on down the street. It’s our job. Bullshit. They’re not cops and they’re sure as hell not FBI.
“Look,” he snapped, slightly impatient, lurching to catch up. “You don’t think the girl’s skinny dipping in California. Do you you?”
I had to look away. His eyes were too green and I was about to cry again. “No,” I admitted.
“No,” Neal agreed. “That’s where the cops are looking though. We’re the only ones who think she’s still here. So, you can either tell us what you know or you can hope she’s working on her tan.”
It was too much. I grabbed my hair by the roots and shrieked through my teeth. “I don’t know anything! Alright!”
“Okay,” he said quickly, waving his hands to try and quiet me down. “Okay, cool it.” I scowled at him, clenching my jaw to keep it from trembling. “You really loved her a lot, didn’t you?” he said.
“Loved?” I said. “Love-ed? Past tense?”
His face registered how much he fucked up.
“You think she’s dead,” I realized. “What the fuck.”
I sat hard on the Reynolds’ lawn.
“Okay, I fucked this up,” he said. “Usually Jude handles these interpersonal issues, but he’s dealing with mom…” he scrubbed the back of his neck with his hand again. “Look, we don’t know what we’re up against here. It’s totally possible that she’s totally fine and waiting for rescuing —”
“Rescuing?” I yelped. “Rescuing from what?”
Neal made a thoughtful face. “Yikes,” he said. “Yikes, I’m gonna stop talking before this gets any worse.”
“It can get worse?” I shrieked.
He smiled weakly. “You have no idea,” he said. “Look.” He knelt to look me in the eye. “I know you don’t know me, or trust me, I get it. But we’re here to help. We’re gonna find her. It’s what we do.”
And maybe I was bamboozled by those like obnoxiously green eyes, or maybe was just unprepared for his earnest expression, but I believed him.
I said “okay.”
And he said, “okay,” with a weak smile and clapped my shoulder. “We’ll let you know if we need anything from you. Until then why don’t you go ahead and head home.”
And I just nodded, and I went. I’m still not really sure how that happened. I’m sitting here at my computer trying to figure out why I believed the guy who was impersonating an FBI agent, and I’m coming up short. But I mean really what am I supposed to do?
Whatever maybe tomorrow I’ll call the cops.
Fuck this is all getting stranger and stranger, but none of that fucking matters. All that matters is that Maddie is out there somewhere, and if she’s in California she needs to be found and if she’s still here somewhere, she needs to be found and I don’t really care where she’s found or who finds her at this point.
Happy spook season