David Bell

The Hiding Place


What do you remember from that day, Janet?

Janet remembered the heat. The way it shimmered in waves in the distance, making the edges of the trees, the cars in the parking lot blurry and indistinct. Wherever she stepped, the grass crackled or the dirt puffed. The heat rose from the ground and scorched her feet through the soles of her cheap plastic shoes.

She was seven years old and in charge of her baby brother for the first time ever.

Janet watched Justin. She thought of him as a dumb four-year-old, a silly kid with a bowl of blond hair and a goofy smile. He sat with the other kids in the sandbox, scooping piles of sand into mounds with his hands, then smoothing them over. Back and forth like that. Sand up, sand down. Dumb and pointless. Something little kids would do. She watched him. Carefully.

But no, that wasn’t right. That wasn’t right at all…

Justin wasn’t silly. And he didn’t smile all the time. He was a quiet kid. A loner. He sat in the sandbox alone that day. And he didn’t smile much. Not much at all. No one in her family smiled much, not when she looked back on her childhood…or even her life now.

What did she remember from that day? What did she really remember? It was so hard to-

Michael showed up.

She remembered that.

Michael showed up, her seven-year-old playmate, the boy from the neighborhood and school. Their parents were friends. They played together all the time. Her boyfriend, she liked to think and giggle to herself, although they never touched each other. Never hugged or kissed or held hands. They were too young for that, too young for a lot of things.

But Michael showed up wearing denim shorts with a belt like a long rope and sneakers with holes in them. His hair hung in his face, and he brushed it out of his eyes constantly. He lived on the other side of the park. And so Michael called her name, and when he did her heart jumped and she turned away from the sandbox and the swings and the other kids. And she followed Michael wherever he went. Across the playground, over the baseball diamond, over by the trees. She followed him.

Is that all she did? Run across the playground?

It was enough. She let Justin out of her sight. Dad was at work and Mom was at home, and Mom let them go to the playground alone that day for the first time ever, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. The park was near the school and the church and the other kids would be there, other kids they knew and even some parents. And all Mom said on that day when they left the house was, “Janet, don’t let Justin out of your sight. He’s a little boy…”

But she did. She let Justin out of her sight.

Did she see the man?

Janet can’t say anymore. She’s seen his face so many times. At the trial. In the newspaper. The mug shot. His face stoic, his eyes round, the whites prominent. His full lips, his black face. Not really a man. Now when she looks at the face, she sees a kid. Seventeen when he was arrested, but tried as an adult. He would have looked like an adult back then, that hot day in the park…

But she doesn’t know if she saw him.

Other people did. Adults and kids. He was in the park, talking to kids at the sandbox and the swings. He carried Justin, according to some of the witnesses. He paid special attention to her brother, they said. Walked around with him. Talked to him. Lifted him on his shoulders.

For years, Janet thought she saw that, thought she remembered that. The young black man with the frizzy hair and the dirty clothes carrying her brother on his shoulders. Justin’s blond head up high, almost as high as the top of the swing set. Justin parading around like a champion. Being tricked by this man. And then being taken away.

But she doesn’t really remember that, does she?

She thought there was a dog. A puppy. It ran through the park, and Justin ran after it.

Is that what happened? Is that how Justin got away?

What do you remember from that day, Janet?

She can’t be sure anymore. Not after twenty-five years.

She isn’t sure she saw the man that day. But she wishes she had. She wishes she knew.

And she really wishes she had kept her eye on Justin, like she was supposed to.

She didn’t see the man and she didn’t see Justin.

And when it was time to go home, when Janet finally did look around and try to find her brother, he wasn’t there. The adults became hysterical and the police arrived and people asked a lot of questions, but none of it mattered.

Justin was gone. Long gone.

Chapter One

Janet hid the morning paper from her father. She saw it when she’d come downstairs, and even though she knew it was coming-knew for close to a week that an interview with her brother’s murderer would be on the front page-the sight of it, the sight of his face, hit her with the force of a slap. And then she thought of her dad. His anger, his roiling emotions at the mere mention of Dante Rogers. She folded the front page in half, with Rogers’s face inside the fold, and slipped it beneath a chair cushion.

Janet heard water running in the bathroom down the hall, then her father’s feet on the hard wood. She was breaking her own rule. When she’d moved back in with her father after he’d lost his job, she’d made a silent vow not to be his household servant. She wouldn’t become some version of a substitute wife to him-cooking, cleaning, laundry. But on certain days, she made exceptions. She took out eggs, cracked them into a skillet, and watched them sizzle. Summer work hours at the college left her just enough time to do it-and it might take the old man’s mind off his troubles.

“Where is it?”

Janet turned. Her father, Bill Manning, filled the entrance to the kitchen. He was still tall-over six feet-but since being laid off he had gained about twenty pounds, mostly in the stomach and the face. He’d been out of work for nearly two years, ever since the recession had hit and his company, Strand Manufacturing, “went in a different direction,” which meant laying off anyone over the age of fifty. Twenty-seven years working in product development and then an unceremonious good-bye.

Janet recognized the foolishness of trying to hide the paper. She pointed to the chair. Bill picked up the paper and sat down. Janet put the eggs in front of him.

“I thought you said you wouldn’t wait on me,” he said.

“I felt like it.”

“You felt sorry for me,” he said.

Janet didn’t answer, but there was some truth in what her father said. Years ago, he’d lost his son and then his wife. Then came the recent job loss, and Janet moved in to help make sure he didn’t lose the house. Her father might be reserved and distant-difficult even-but she never outgrew the desire to protect and help him. And that desire only became stronger as her father grew older. He was sixty-two and starting to look his age.

“Jesus,” he said. He folded the paper, snapping the pages into place with a flick of his wrists, and leaned close to read the story. “Not even at the top…”

Janet knew what the story said. Her brother had disappeared twenty-five years ago that day, and the local

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