“I was teased.” Oh, God, she remembered. Emotions came with the memory—embarrassment, but also pride, because Maddie knew she’d been good. Four or five kids had actually applauded when she finished, and they were some of the cool kids. Her cheeks had been hot when she finished, and she had ducked her head both then and as she was leaving the classroom, when someone had muttered, “Suck-up.”
Someone else—she could almost see his face—had laughed, not nicely at all. “She’s dreaming of being Juliet. There’s a joke. What guy would kill himself over her?”
Her humiliation had been so acute that she had vowed never to draw attention to herself in class like that again.
She gave an involuntary shiver at how vivid that particular memory was. For a second, she’d been fourteen again. She even knew they had read Romeo and Juliet first semester freshman year, not the semester of her disappearance.
Mrs. Chisholm was still dredging up her own memories. “What sticks with me most is that I worried about you. I always have several students who make me anxious for one reason or another, and you were one of them. You had friends, but I wondered if you really opened up to them. You came alive when you read aloud, and sometimes when we had a good class discussion going, but otherwise you were so withdrawn. You always seemed surprised by praise.” Her eyes soft, she sounded apologetic. “I’d met both your parents, and you didn’t seem frightened of them, but...I did speculate. I even hinted a few times that you could tell me anything, and you only looked at me with those sorrowful eyes and said you didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Nell’s throat clogged. “Unfortunately, I still don’t know.”
“As a teacher, it’s terribly frustrating when I know something is wrong and can’t do anything about it.”
Nell smiled tremulously. “Now I know why I remember you and not most of my other teachers.”
“I wish I could have helped then. I’m so very glad to see you here. I can’t tell you how sad I was when I read in the newspaper about your bike being found in the park, and the blood, and you simply gone. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but I felt as if I should have intervened somehow.”
“The assault might not have had anything to do with why I was so shy,” Nell felt obliged to point out.
Mrs. Chisholm raised her eyebrows. “Do you believe that?”
Nell hesitated. “I wish I knew,” she said finally.
She asked if Mrs. Chisholm remembered who her friends were and learned that she had had two best friends, Emily and Hailey. “Allen!” the teacher said triumphantly. “Hailey Allen. My goodness. I’m surprised I remember that. I know Emily went off to college, but I don’t recall ever hearing what became of Hailey. Emily recently got married, you know.”
Why couldn’t she remember her best friend?
“No, I haven’t tried to track her down yet.”
“Oh, she’s still here in Angel Butte. In fact, she became a teacher. She’s at one of the elementary schools, I’m afraid I don’t remember which. Her husband is a newcomer, a pharmacist.”
“Do you remember his name?”
She chuckled. “I’m afraid not. The notice of their wedding wouldn’t have even caught my eye had it not been for Emily’s name and the photo.”
They chatted a little more, and Nell promised to come back for another visit before she returned to Seattle. When Mrs. Chisholm rose to her feet, Nell surprised herself by reaching for an impulsive hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice choked.
Her former teacher gave an audible sniff. “You have turned into a fine young woman despite everything. I’m proud of you, Maddie.”
Nell came very close to breaking into tears as she backed away, then hurried out of the room.
* * *
COLIN EXPECTED TO catch hell from Duane, and wasn’t surprised when, midmorning, he burst into Colin’s office without knocking.
Face stormy, he slapped his hands on the surface of Colin’s desk and leaned forward, his face suffused with anger. “You’ve been feeding me a load of shit this past month.”
Colin leaned back in his chair comfortably and grinned. “Not as long as a month.”
Apparently, his good humor only pissed off Duane. He snarled, “Helen says you’ve known for weeks.”
Colin’s smile faded. He could understand how betrayed Maddie’s uncle felt. Duane had not only been his mentor, but Colin also considered them to be friends. He’d justified his decision to keep Nell Smith’s existence a secret until she said otherwise, but he still suffered some guilt for it.