Where is Clayton? The sandbox is empty, the backyard is empty, the gate is open, where is Jenny's six-year-old son? Will she be able to find him in time?
KUDOS for Missing Clayton
Irwin does a brilliant job of portraying her villain. I once heard a psychologist say that no one thinks of themselves as evil. No matter how evil they are, they always justify their deeds to themselves. Well, that is certainly true in the case of the villain in Missing Clayton. Irwin has done an excellent job of making the villain seem real. In fact, all of her characters are completely three dimensional and believable. The plot twists and turns kept me reading to the very last page. I gave up emails, dinner, and television to finish the book. – Taylor, Reviewer
I don’t like it here. It’s dark. It’s cold. Why doesn’t Mommy come and get me? She knows I don’t like the dark.
“Your mommy has to find you,” the man had said.
Where is she?
“It’s a game,” he said.
He grabbed my arm. It hurt. It’s not a good game. He’s not nice.
I called her, but he put his smelly hand over my mouth. I wanted to bite it. Mommy doesn’t like biting. But he’s mean. I don’t like this place. Will she find me here? She will. She’s good at hide-and-seek. I hope she finds me soon.
The boy sat cross-legged in the cave-like space, a mat of blue tweed his only protection from the damp dirt floor. Putting his head in his hands, he felt the mud coating his hair. He’d screamed when the man rubbed it on his head.
“My mommy doesn’t like my hair dirty. She’ll be mad at you.”
The man laughed. Not a nice laugh, either. He sounded like the Joker in Batman. The laugh reminded him of his father when he got angry.
He had to be good. There was no closet to hide in here.
Thick mud covered his blond hair. Clawing at his head, he broke off bits of clay. He remembered that morning and his mother brushing his hair. She said it shone like the sun.
They were going to his new school and she wanted him to look nice for his teacher. If Mommy didn’t find him in time, would he have to stay in kindergarten? He scrubbed at his head until his hands hurt, yet the dirt remained. He didn’t want to cry, but tears slid down his face and merged with the dirt. They ran into his mouth, the mixture stung his tongue, and he spat it out. More tears ran down his face. His mother didn’t like spitting.
He clenched his fists and pounded at the rug beneath him. It wasn’t long before his hands throbbed. He stopped pounding and began tearing at the ragged fringes along one end of the rug. When his fingers slipped beyond the rug, he touched earth—cold and hard and damp. He shivered.
After what seemed like forever, curiosity overcame his fear and he began to investigate. His eyes, adjusted to the dimness, saw a few feet beyond the rug. A dirt wall, like the one behind him, ended the open space in front. He stretched out his right arm and his fingers felt the dampness of another wall of dirt. To his left, the area stretched into a black space.
He peered into the darkness. Several wooden crates—each containing differently shaped objects too blurry to make out—filled the space. Above him, he saw the wooden door he’d been shoved through. He counted four wooden rungs leading up from the crawl space. The trap door allowed only a sliver of light to enter the space.
I don’t like the dark.
Mingling scents of mold, dampness, dried animal droppings, closed in on him. It made his throat tight and he coughed.
He stretched a hand above his head. Sticky strands closed around his fingers. He jerked his hand back, scrubbed the spider webs onto the rug, and retreated to the safety of the woven mat. Maybe it was better not to explore. Sitting Indian-style, he cradled his arms around his chest and rocked back and forth. Beyond where he sat, the cave was jet-black. He tried to hold back his tears. Soft scuffling sounds came from the corners of the dugout. He knew they weren’t human. The rhythm of his rocking increased.
When is Mommy coming? I’m going to curl up here and sleep until she finds me. There’s just enough room. If I close my eyes, I won’t see how dark it is. It will be as dark inside my head as it is on the outside.
He curled into a fetal position. Somewhere close he heard the scurrying of tiny feet. Stuffing his fingers in his ears, he made himself think about playing in the safety of his backyard. Anything to drown out the wild pictures crowding his head.
He remembered building the castle in his sandbox. He was scooping out the moat when someone called his name. The man came into the backyard.
“I have a surprise for you.”
The chocolate was soft and gooey. “More in the truck,” the man said. But he didn’t have any more. He lied.
He remembered the smelly rag being pressed into his mouth. He remembered the bandana tied over his eyes. He remembered the man grabbing him, running with him. He remembered being shoved in the back of a truck.
“We’re playing hide and seek,” the man said. “Your mommy has to find you.”
The smell of gas and oil stung his nostrils as a blue tarp landed on top of him. It shut out the sun. He heard a door slam, an engine start, wheels squealing, and the truck sped away.
How is Mommy going to find me? Maybe he lied about that, too.
Earlier That Day
“Clay, lunch is ready.”
Jenny Kingsley took a loaf of bread from the breadbox. Sunlight streamed through the open kitchen window catching the embossed pattern of fuchsia and sapphire roses on the box’s lid. Her gaze drifted to the matching canister set and she traced the edges of the delicate flowers. She’d spied the set at Stockley’s Variety Store last week and had to have it. It matched perfectly with the wallpaper she’d recently hung. Jenny couldn’t resist splurging on it. She couldn’t remember ever having a matched set of anything.
Buttering the bread, she plastered peanut butter on top. A quick lunch, but they had things to do. They had to be at Manor Park School in forty-five minutes to register Clayton. Jenny couldn’t believe how quickly time passed, couldn’t believe her baby was old enough to be going into the first grade.
As she glanced around the newly decorated kitchen, she smiled. The old wallpaper with its faded olive vines and tarnished brass teapots had been replaced. The chipped and stained cupboards, painted a dull mustard when she moved in, now had a fresh coat of white paint.
Anything was better than yellow. She detested that color—too many reminders of her mother’s kitchen, perpetually painted some ugly shade of yellow or beige. Jenny shuddered. How many times had she entered that kitchen, her mother’s domain, quivering in fear, never knowing what mood she’d be in?
Jenny thought she’d left that behind when she married Ray. But she’d only moved from one black hole to another, even to the apartments they rented—neutral colors she couldn’t change. But no more. No more yellow, and no more living under a veil of fear.
Everything in this house looked bright and cheerful. Just like her life.
She’d made the right decision. Now, she and Clayton had a place of their own, a safe place—a place free of Ray’s fits of anger, his drinking, his abuse. A place where she didn’t have to listen to her mother’s suggestions on how to live her life.
With a population of under thirty thousand, Scottsville was a good choice. It had enough business to provide the inhabitants with work, yet was close enough to Columbus if people wanted more. And at a fifty-minute drive from Dresden, it afforded Jenny a comfortable distance from both Ray and her mother. Not much chance of them popping in to remind her she’d made a big mistake leaving Ray and moving away.
Jenny forced the nagging voice of uncertainty into submission. It had taken months of weighing the consequences to formulate a plan, but it was worth it. Finished with people pushing her around, she could make her own decisions, make her own mistakes. Her fingers caressed the black-and-white photos posted on the fridge. Last week, at the movies, Clay had seen the photo kiosk and begged to have their picture taken. She traced the line of his toothless grin.
Jenny executed a pirouette in the center of the room then laughed at her foolish antics. Picking up the knife, she layered strawberry jam on top of the peanut butter. Yes, it had been the right decision. They were both happy, and out of harm’s way.
After moving into the house three months ago, she’d tackled the kitchen first. Having never painted or wallpapered, it took her countless hours to strip the layers of old wallpaper, and many more to refinish the woodwork. She glanced at her nails. They were still chipped and broken. But it was worth it. She loved it—the Wedgwood walls, the ceiling border of fuchsia and blue flowers, and the white paint on the cabinets. Even the kitchen table gleamed with a new coat of white enamel. Fresh paint, fresh colors, fresh kitchenware—a good first step toward building a brand new life.
Jenny leaned toward the window. “Clay, get in here.”
Crossing the room, she placed the peanut butter and jam sandwiches on the table. While she waited for Clay to run in, she stroked the delicate new tea set. It must be a sign her life was finally changing, finally getting on a positive track.
Everything was falling into place. She’d found this house at an affordable price, and had landed a great job. So what if her accounting teacher had pulled a few strings. Doing the books for Lawson Manufacturing at home meant she didn’t need a babysitter for Clayton. She glanced at the pile of papers she’d been working on earlier. When they got back from the school, she’d finish tallying the accounts for this month’s sales. Maybe Mr. Lawson would recommend her to some of his associates. With Clay in school fulltime, she could take on more clients.
Ray had forbidden her to take the accounting course but, thank God, she’d stood her ground. She’d worked hard and graduated with honors. Once Clay started school, she’d enroll in an advanced accounting course.
Jenny picked up a towel and wiped off the teapot before placing it on the table. She glanced at the clock. Eleven-forty-five. Where is he?
“Clay, we have to eat. We need to go to your new school.” She’d give him one minute to get inside.
Standing on tiptoes, Jenny leaned against the counter and peered through the window. It afforded a partial view of the fenced-in yard. She scanned the lawn. At the back of the property, overgrown shrubs lined the chain-link fence. She saw the swing set beside the fence and part of the red plastic slide. She saw the sandbox where Clayton was building a castle.
It was empty.
Throwing the tea towel over her shoulder, Jenny walked to the back door. She looked through the screen toward the sandbox—the castle abandoned, his red shovel cast off in the shimmering platinum sand. Rusty hinges creaked when she shoved the screen door open.
Jenny swatted at a mosquito attacking her calf. With the July heat, the insects were out in droves. Movement caught her eye. She glanced at the swing. Empty, it swung in the breeze as if recently occupied. Her gaze paused briefly before continuing over the expanse of lawn.
She expected Clay to run in and demand his lunch, demand they go now to his new school. Jenny called again. The yard was silent. There was no demanding child. Her voice mushroomed several octaves. “Clay, where are you?”
Stepping onto the porch, Jenny let the wooden screen door slam behind her. She used the tea towel to swat at the onslaught of mosquitoes taking advantage of the open door. She hurried down the three worn plank risers to the grass. Was he hiding at the side of the house? The tea towel swung on her shoulder as she skirted the vinyl-sided building. Her voice rose, partly in annoyance, partly in concern. “Clayton, come here now!”
I hate playing hide and seek.
She thought of how Clayton would hide behind some bush or piece of furniture then jump out to scare her. She’d scold him. “It frightens me when I can’t find you.” He’d giggle at her panic. With pouting lips and downcast head, his mischievous blue eyes would peek out of his angelic face. He’d promise never to do it again—until the next time.
The side of the house was empty. She looked behind and inside the shed. A wheelbarrow stood in the middle of the lawn where Weigelia bushes awaited planting. Maybe he was hiding behind it. Jenny circled the wheelbarrow, but he wasn’t there. Could he fit under it? He wasn’t very big. She moved one of the bush-filled buckets and looked underneath. Nothing.
“Darn it, Clayton, where are you? This isn’t funny.”
Jenny hurried to the back fence, her heart beating faster with each step. Branches scratched her forearms. She thrust them out of the way. He wasn’t hiding there. A lump clogged her throat. She gasped for air. It hurt to breathe. She scrutinized the fence skirting the perimeter for holes Clayton might have slipped through. There weren’t any.
She turned and inspected every inch of the yard. It was as vacant and desolate as an uninhabited planet. Hot air escaped her lungs, the lump in her throat shifted, going deeper into her chest. Jenny rushed to the porch.
He’s here. He’s just hiding, playing one of his tricks on me. “Clayton, come out, right now!”
She was screaming, but she didn’t care. Nothing mattered as long as Clayton heard her and came running. She just wanted to see his towhead popping out from under a bush, or from behind a tree. But she’d already checked every bush, every tree, every possible hiding spot.
Do it again, whatever you need to do. You have to find him. Under the porch. You haven’t checked there yet. He wouldn’t be there, he’s afraid of the dark. Check it anyway.
Racing to the wooden porch, she scrambled to her knees and peered into the darkness. Nothing. No small shape, no hiding child. Only darkness. The tea towel fell from her shoulder. Involuntarily, she picked it up and wrung the linen between her sweat soaked palms.
Check the front yard. He’s not allowed to play there. Check it anyway.
She darted toward the front of the house. Dirt and grass clung to the bottom of her floral sundress. The front yard lay before her, manicured, peaceful, deserted. Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes.
A freshly painted, white picket fence enclosed the small, neatly mown lawn. But the yard held no bucket, no shovel, no play cars, no tricycle, and no blond-haired little boy. Something caught Jenny’s attention. A movement. A sound. She turned.
The white gate, the gate that kept the world at bay, was open—a gaping hole to another sphere. She watched in horror as the gate swung gently back and forth, back and forth. It screeched on rusted hinges, trying to latch with each sweep.
She felt as if she’d fallen into a bottomless abyss—twirling out of control, spinning in a place where light no longer existed. Her breath wedged in her throat, like a swollen seed, engorging, distending, obstructing her wind-pipe. She felt as if she might never take another breath. It seemed a lifetime before a strangled cry edged its way out of her constricted throat.
Her gazed darted up, then down the street. No Clayton. She raced to the corner and checked both directions on Willow Street, then ran back down Elm, peering into every backyard as she made her way to the next block.
All along Chestnut Street she saw pristinely painted houses with manicured lawns—a perfect, safe neighbor-hood—not one where a child would go missing out of his own backyard. Jenny searched the rows of sedate houses. The streets were empty except for three boys doing wheelies in the middle of the road.
“Have you seen a small boy go by here in the last few minutes?”
One of them spun his bike close to the curb. “Nope.”
“He’s about this high.” Jenny held her hand a few inches above her waist. “He’s blonde.”
As if picking up on her hysteria, they skidded to a stop and leaned tanned arms on their handlebars. After darting glances between them, they shrugged. “No, ma’am. We haven’t seen him.”
Her knees wobbled like Jell-O, but she forced them to keep moving. Maybe he’s still in the backyard. Maybe he’s playing hide and seek. Jenny rushed back through the open gate, screaming his name. Again she checked behind every bush, every tree. Her mind tormented with inconceivable possibilities, she raced to the front of the house. She looked up and down the street, screaming her son’s name.
Silence the only response.
Jenny sagged against the fence—the barricade to their safe haven. Her body went as limp as the damp dishtowel she clutched in her fingers. Shattered words slid over her parched lips.
“Clay...Clay...where are you?”
Thanks so much for sharing your first chapter, Bev! A mother's worst nightmare. We wish you the best in your upcoming novel, WITHOUT CONSENT!