Welcome to Vermont. Those three simple words shouldn’t have been enough to make every cell in Liam Johnson’s body tense up, but they were. His fingers tightened on the steering wheel, and everything in him screamed to turn around. But that wasn’t an option. Not when a woman’s life was on the line.
His childhood wasn’t horrible, but he promised himself years ago that he’d never return to the minuscule town he called home for eighteen years. A town that was rundown and worn out long before he was born and had no chance of being more than a passthrough on the way to Canada.
But that was exactly where Liam was headed. Back to East Charlottesville. Back to his past. Back to all the memories of why he wanted to get out of there in the first place.
Liam, English to his friends and teammates, took the next turn into the parking lot of the makeshift welcome center. It was almost three o’clock, and even though he wasn’t far from his destination, he needed to stretch his legs.
He parked far from the entrance to the old home that was used as a welcome center and walked out onto the grass. He looked back at the cars drifting by on the small road that wound through Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont. The lake was always a fantasy vacation spot. The kind of place his handful of classmates with money would go. English had never been there, and driving through on his way into Vermont was not as appealing as he’d hoped it would be. Nothing about being back in Vermont was appealing.
English kept walking until he could almost pretend the occasional traffic was the soothing hum of a computer instead of the irritating buzz of vehicles. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He held it, then let it out slowly, willing the tension to leave his body. Each breath soothed the rattled parts inside him. Until his phone buzzed.
“Are you almost there?” Dex. English’s roommate. Soon to be former roommate once he officially moved in with his girlfriend. And English’s friend.
“About an hour to go. Maybe a little less.”
“You doing okay?”
English nodded to himself, hoping the action helped his words to be more believable. “I’m good.”
“I should have gone with you.”
“I’m a big boy,” English said. He was the baby of the group, the one the rest of them treated like a kid brother half the time. He was smart and capable, but he was also young and they acted like he couldn’t be on his own.
“That’s not why and you know it.”
The sympathy in Dex’s voice said it all. He knew English didn’t want to go home. Each of the men on their team had their demons, and because of that, they all understood each other’s.
“I’ll be fine.”
“And you’ll call if you’re not.” It wasn’t a question.
“You don’t owe anyone anything,” Dex said, his voice softer, like he was speaking to a child instead of a grown ass thirty-three year old man.
“It’s a job. That’s all. I’ll be there for a few days and head home. They can’t get into my head in a week.”
“You and I both know that isn’t true.”
English sighed. It wasn’t, but he wanted to believe it. His parents were good people, not monsters, but they never supported his choices and weren’t shy about letting him know that. His dad wanted him to go to work at the factory in town when he finished high school. Hell, he wanted him to work there before he finished high school. That was the way of life in East Charlottesville. Finish high school, get a job at the factory, marry a local, have kids, rinse and repeat.
English never wanted that life. He knew it for as long as he could remember. But he also knew he couldn’t tell his parents until he had another plan in place. Not that it mattered. They were still angry.
“Have you learned anything new about this woman?” English asked. He needed a subject change. And to get his game face on.
“Nothing. We’ve gone through the basics you found, but there hasn’t been much of anything on her. She worked at a church, but I think you know that. She was also a waitress. Lived alone, no family. The friend who reported her missing said it’s not like her to go so long without contact. Her bosses said they’ve had others do this and they usually send in an address to mail their last check. Local PD doesn’t seem concerned. No forced entry at her place, nothing out of place. Her car is gone, so the assumption is she left town and didn’t want to tell anyone.”
“Anything on the friend?”
“Nah. She looks clean. No flags.”
“Is she a local?”
“Yeah, her name is—”
English waited. His team just got a new case that was taking all of them. He should be there to help, but instead, he was looking into the missing person case. “Dex?”
“Sorry, man. Meeting. We’ll talk later.”
“Yeah.” English stared at his phone as it went dark. He was alone. His team was swamped, and English was on his own to find Jeanine Waterford. And face his past.
It wouldn’t have made sense to bring anyone else. Going in alone under the cover of his parents’ party was easy. He knew the town, and he knew anyone else would draw attention. If he was going to get any answers, he needed to draw as little attention to himself as possible.
It was a good thing English was a pro at being invisible.
* * *
The closer English got to his hometown, the more he wanted to turn the SUV around and go home. He pulled over to the side of the road a few times just so he could close his eyes and breathe, but he kept going. There was a missing woman, and English didn’t turn his back on people in need.
He finally reached the edge of town. The stop sign in the middle of nowhere was out of place, but so was everything else there. Going straight would send him into the heart of East Charlottesville. A right would take him to his parents’ house. A left would send him past the high school and the old factory. None of them were appealing.
If he was only there for the job, English knew the left would make the most sense. Get a feel for the area and see the entire town. He flipped his blinker and made the turn. He wasn’t the same kid he was when he left more than fifteen years ago. He was successful and strong. It was likely he wouldn’t be recognized by anyone because he’d changed so much. And—
“Fuck me,” English mumbled.
The old factory sat to his left, a gleaming beacon on the hill. The sign at the road proclaimed it was now West Textiles. The colorful metal and stone declaration said the new owners took tremendous pride in the factory, and the shiny exterior said that extended to the facility itself.
English took a left, curiosity getting the better of him. He had a vague recollection of his parents mentioning the factory was bought years ago, but he put it out of his head, assuming it didn’t mean much. The look of the place said that assumption was wrong.
English drove down the long driveway to the parking lot, passing signs celebrating ten years in business. At four-thirty on a Friday, there were a lot of people leaving. All of them smiling.
He got a few curious looks, and some narrowed gazes, as he drove through the lot, pretending to be looking for a spot. His brand new Lincoln SUV stood out against the trucks and cars and SUVs that, in many cases, were older than him.
English swung back out of the lot and onto the main road. The factory was the biggest employer in town, but it had never been well maintained. The pay was not great, and the working conditions weren’t any better. But the new look of the place made English wonder if the rest of the town had gotten the same facelift. If the owners had enough money to clean, paint, and spit-shine the factory, it meant more money would be going into the town to do the same to the old buildings there.
Before the thought could fully form, English came up on the high school. The old brick building had green stains from years of skipped pressure washings. The parking lot boasted potholes and cracks that could swallow a small child. Lines were nonexistent on both the parking lot and the athletic fields just past the small school. Kids ran around on the football field and jogged the worn path that served as a track. Just like he remembered.
The factory and the school sitting so close together and looking so different was jarring. Nothing in East Charlottesville was ever fancy like the factory. Nothing. But that wealth clearly didn’t translate to the rest of the town.
English kept driving, down the center of town on C Drive. The old movie theater still stood, with a marquee sign telling him the movie playing was six months old. The diner on the corner hadn’t changed. The small shops were open, but the faded and cracked paint on the storefront picture windows told English nothing had been taken care of in East Charlottesville.
He reached the end of C Drive and made his left to head toward his parents’ house. He was almost there when he thought about Jeanine Waterford. She worked at the diner, but she also worked at the church. English took a quick left and headed toward the border where the church sat.
Holy Trinity Christian Church was one of the oldest churches in the country. It sat on the border of Vermont and Quebec and offered access to both the US and Canada without documentation. A line down the center told visitors where the border was, letting people wander in and out of each country at will. It was only when someone left that they had to show the ticket they received on entry to make sure they went back to the country they entered from.
English parked in the lot and went into the church. A small chapel was holding an afternoon service, but the gift shop and museum were open. Jeanine Waterford worked in the gift shop.
Trinkets sat on shelves next to religious souvenirs. The place was a popular tourist attraction, as much as anything in East Charlottesville could be. The bored-looking woman behind the register chewed gum and watched her phone while English wandered aimlessly. He picked up a postcard with the church on it and a visor clip for his SUV and carried them to the register.
“Did you find everything you needed?” the cashier asked, barely looking away from her phone as she reached for his items.
“I did. I was wondering if Jeanine is working today?”
The woman shook her head, still ignoring him. “Nope. Hasn’t been here in a week or so. She quit.”
“Really? She told you that?”
“No, but that’s what happens. People work here for a few years, sometimes less, then realize this job sucks, this town sucks, and life sucks, so they get out before they lose their minds.” The woman looked up at him, vehemence in her eyes. “That or they go crazy.”
“Crazy?” English asked. He didn’t know what this woman meant. She was younger than him, mid-twenties at the oldest. He didn’t know many women that age, but her clear hatred for her job surprised him.
She shrugged. “There was one woman who worked here like, forever ago. She was crazy. Kept saying she saw people who weren’t there. Or things that weren’t there.”
She shrugged again, her voice fading back to boredom. “I don’t know. I never met her. All I know is I’m not sticking around here long enough to lose my mind. I’m going to New York City to be a star.”
English resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Congratulations.”
She flashed him her first genuine smile and bagged his items. He handed her cash and stuffed his change in the bag with his purchase. On his way out, he took note of all the places someone could hide, or could hide something, before he left.
He got in his SUV and sent Dex a text to look into the church and former employees, especially one who went crazy. Dex texted back that he’d report when he had something.
English put his phone back in his pocket and accepted that he couldn’t stall any longer. His parents’ party was at seven, and it was getting close to five after his detour through town. If he knew his parents, they were going to want to be at the party by six, which meant he needed to clean up fast.
He parked in front of the house he grew up in and turned off the SUV. The yard was trimmed neatly, but the beds around the house were overgrown. The paint on the siding was chipped and peeling. The roof was missing a few shingles. Gauzy white curtains fluttered in the windows, showcasing the lack of air conditioning no matter how warm it was outside for early September.
English grabbed his duffle from the front seat and stepped out. He closed the door and locked the vehicle out of habit. He was halfway to the front door when it opened to his mom drying her hands on a dishtowel.
“Oh, my God, Liam? Is that you?”
“William! Liam is here!”
His mom waved English closer, holding the door open while he closed the distance between them. She was in a blue dress he had seen her in before with a white apron around her waist. Her hair was up in her signature bun at the base of her neck with gray streaks throughout. English made it to her and leaned down to hug his mother, inhaling her pencil shavings and freshly baked bread scent.
“Oh, Liam, I’m so happy you’re here. Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”
English chuckled. “Then it wouldn’t be a surprise visit.”
“This is the best surprise ever.”
“I was hoping. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home.”
“Too long,” his dad said from behind them. “Your mother’s been upset.”
“Sorry. I should have visited. You guys can come to Niagara Falls sometime. I think you’d like it.”
“You know we aren’t city people,” his mom said quickly.
“Yeah, but it’s beautiful there.”
“Can’t beat here,” his dad said roughly. It was the same old argument. Everything a person ever needed was right there in East Charlottesville. Why would anyone ever want to leave?
English simply nodded, not engaging with his dad. He knew it wouldn’t end well since neither of them would change their minds. It wasn’t worth the fight.
“Good to see you, Dad.”
“You’re gaining weight. Sitting in front of that computer all the time isn’t good for you. Don’t you know sitting is the new smoking?”
English almost laughed at his father’s words. Sure, English knew it, but he was surprised his father knew the latest medical advice doctors were sharing. English agreed with it, but that was why he made sure to get in a run every day, lifted weights, and used the punching bag in the office. He was not hurting for exercise. And he hadn’t gained weight since he left the military.
“I’ll be careful,” English told his dad, knowing it wouldn’t silence him but was the best he could do.
“If you’d have come to work at the factory, you’d be using your hands and would be on your feet all day. You wouldn’t have a chance to get fat.”
English resisted the urge to show his father the six-pack under his shirt and simply nodded. “Is it okay if I stay here while I’m in town?”
His father grunted, but his mother was quick to pull him inside and agree. “We wouldn’t have it any other way. Would we, William?”
His dad grunted again and stepped back to let English pass. “We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be ready. I’m going to take a quick shower and get changed.” English didn’t wait for a reply before he headed down the short hallway toward the bedrooms. His parents’ room was at the end of the hall with a private bathroom. His room was to the left with a full bathroom on the opposite side.
English put his stuff in his room and groaned internally at how little had changed. His science awards and movie posters still decorated his room. The space themed bedding he picked out when he was nine covered the bed. The same thin curtains that were in the front of the house covered the closed windows in his stuffy bedroom. He was already suffocating. But he had a job to do.
English grabbed the clothes he packed for the party and went across the hall. He showered quickly, getting out in less than five minutes. He dressed in the clean clothes and grabbed his dirty ones. He put his phone, keys, and wallet into his pockets, then went back across the hall to drop off his clothes and grab his boots.
It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since he walked into the house, but his parents were at the front door waiting for him anyway. His dad made a point of looking at his watch when English walked out. “Glad you could join us.”
“Sorry I kept you waiting,” English replied, his tone just as frustrated as his dad’s.
“That giant vehicle you parked in the driveway is blocking me in.”
“I thought the truck was yours.”
“It is, but since there are three of us now, we need to take your mother’s car.”
“Why don’t I drive?”
“That big, fancy thing?” The disdain was more than clear in his tone. He wasn’t getting in English’s brand new Lincoln if his life depended on it.
“I’ll park it on the street.”
His dad shook his head and mumbled something about being late to their own party when English walked by. He backed his SUV out and parked in front of the house. His dad backed out right behind him and barely stopped long enough for English to fold himself into the backseat.
“Everyone is going to be so happy to see you, Liam. They’ve all missed you.”
“It’ll be good to see everyone,” English lied. “Hey, speaking of missing, I read about a woman who went missing last week. Jeanine Waterford. Did you know her?”
His mother shook her head. “Jeanine was a little bit of a wild one. She probably took off with someone driving through town.”
“Without telling anyone?”
“She wasn’t really a part of this town. She didn’t work at the school or the factory,” his mom said. For a town of less than a thousand people, it amazed English that there were still classes. If you worked at the school or the factory, you were part of the in-crowd. If you didn’t, you might as well not exist.
“I heard she worked at the church. I stopped by there on my way into—”
“That woman skipping town is nothing you need to concern yourself with, Liam. She was nobody, and there ain’t nobody looking for her. The town’s better off without a woman like her trying to get half the married men into trouble.”
Well, that was something he hadn’t read about the woman online. And it just gave him a pool of subjects. All the married people in town.