"CARMEN?" she heard her mother say into the phone. "Yes . . . Carmen, it's for you."
One of the police officers asked, "Who is that?"
"Oh, it's one of Carmen's friends," explained her mother.
"I'll take it," said Carmen. "In my room." The cop who had spoken tried to follow her in, but she closed the door after giving him a cold stare. She felt bad about that as soon as she had done it, but not long. What good were the cops anyway?
Picking up the phone in her room, Carmen said, "This is Carmen."
Ami's voice answered; she didn't bother to identify herself. "Is it your sister that is missing? Alison Gonsoles?"
Carmen said, "Yes . . . she didn't come home from school. The cops found her bike. Someone must have grabbed her . . . Oh, god, they'll never find her in time, she's probably . . . " Probably dead.
Ami said, "I'll do all I can to help. Do the police have any idea who to look for?"
Carmen said, "Yes, but not much. Why--"
Ami cut her off, very insistant, very unlike Ami. "Tell me what they know. Please, I need to know."
Carmen told Ami about the car some people had seen by Aly's bike, and the man. Someone began knocking on the door while she was doing it. Then her mother came in with a policeman and said, "Honey, you have to get off the line. If Aly has been kidnapped--"
"Just a sec! Please?" Carmen cupped her hands over the pickup and said lowly, "I have to go now. The police say we need to keep the line free."
Ami said, "Wait, do you have your cell phone?"
Carmen said, "Yes, but it won't work here. I'm not subscribed."
Ami said, "Get it ready, if you can. Kurume can get it activated, I think. Don't give up!"
"Thank you . . ." Carmen hung up.
Another man, plainclothed but an obvious cop, came into her room in a few moments, while she was just sitting on her bed with her mother, not saying what she was thinking, what her mother was surely thinking. "Ms. Gonsoles, who were you speaking with on the phone?" the man asked.
"A friend," said Carmen.
"Who?" asked the cop.
"Ami Mizuno," said Carmen.
The cop persisted. "Can you tell me more about her? Have you known her long?"
Carmen was beginning to become irritated with this intrusive cop. "We've been close for a couple of years. Why?"
"Your friend knew your sister was missing," said the cop.
"Well, it's all over the news!" Carmen said bitterly.
The cop said, "Your friend was calling from California. I don't think this story is all over the news there."
"You were listening in?" asked Carmen.
The cop produced a badge: he was FBI. "Yes, we were."
"So you think Ami is involved in this?" Carmen exclaimed.
The FBI man said, "She asked you about what the police knew about your sister's abduction. That is something the abductor would want to know."
Carmen said, "No. No way! Mom, you've met her."
Carmen's mother said, "Yes, I have. She's one of the sweetest, gentlest people I've ever met."
"Maybe," said the FBI man, "But she might have some friends who aren't so sweet. I'd be interested in knowing who this Kurume is, who can activate cellphones. Could I see yours, by the way?"
Carmen spent much of the following hours telling the FBI agent about her experiences with Ami and, of course, Chiba, and the rest of Ami's circle. Her mother and then her father started to listen in. While she was revealing all this to the agent, Carmen felt terrible, but when there wasn't anything else to say, she felt worse. There was nothing but waiting again, with every hour making the odds worse that they would ever see Alison again, alive.
Then it was one day, and then two, and three . . . a week . . . a month . . . two months. No cops, no reporters, no more flyers to put up, for now. Alison's picture on a milk carton in the fridge. A stupid yellow ribbon on the door, another vain hope that no one would admit was such, in case there was one among them who still really believed Alison was alive, somewhere. Sorry, Stanford Hospital, I won't be accepting the residency.
Matt, who had once seemed so strong, moved out, transferred, ran away from their parents, really. Carmen was not a great forgiver, but she saw it was just too much for her brother. She herself was the only strong enough to keep her parents from completely breaking down. Strong enough, so far . . .
Amid all of this pain, there was still more. Ami didn't call, didn't write. Carmen made calls to California. Ami was gone; personal business; she couldn't be reached. Sorry, we can't say. Or don't know. Could Ami be mixed up in Alison's disappearance? Every fiber of Carmen's heart told her "no," but why had Ami dropped out of sight? Carmen even tried Chiba. He knew something, but I wasn't telling. He had ended the call with the same thought Ami had given her: "Don't give up hope."
The Gonsoles family was Catholic, on both sides, but not particularly religious. But now Carmen's parents started going to Mass regularly; she saw her mother working through her rosary. Carmen did not participate, and they did not ask. Carmen had said her last prayer on the third night after Alison vanished. She did not think she would ever say another.
It was Christmas Eve. Carmen was alone in her home. Her parents had insisted on going to midnight Mass, something they had done even when they hadn't been pious. The weather was bad, which was saying a lot in Michigan in December. Frigid gusts; ice on the streets. But Carmen's parents went. Carmen had stayed.
She watched the late news for awhile, but switched off when Alison was mentioned. She thought about checking to see if the yellow ribbon was still on the front door; it might have been blown off. But there might be a camera pointed at the door, at the house . . . she didn't even approach the windows, to look. I'm crazy to think they would do that, in this weather . . . but Carmen did not check the door, did not go to the windows, as midnight approached, and arrived, and passed.
She waited in silence. No radio. Nothing she wanted to hear on the stereo. The wind howled sometimes, but in between the gusts, not even the ticking of a clock. Carmen turned off the lights, except for the tree, and sat in the living room. There were gifts under the tree, for her mother, for her father, for herself . . . and for Alison. Even she had bought something for Alison, a little silver frog, with eyes of green crystal; a brooch. When Alison had been an annoying little nuisance, Carmen had called her "Frog."
Then there was a new sound. A chirping. Carmen was not sure what it was or where it was coming from or even if it was real, for many seconds. Then she remembered. It was the cellphone she had brought from Stanford. She found her way to her room without bothering to switch on the lights--moonlight poured in the side and back windows, and she had been sitting in the dark for a long time.
She had never gotten a subscription for it. She had plugged it into its charger on that first night, after the strange call from Ami . . .
She picked it up and activated it.
"Carmen?" The voice was Ami's.
Carmen said, "Yes . . . Ami? How . . ."
"Are your parents at home?" Ami asked.
Carmen continued to stumble over her words. "No, they are . . . how did . . ."
Ami said, "I have never been to your house. Do you have a pretty big back yard?"
"I guess . . . Ami, what is this about? Why . . . who?" Carmen could hear Ami talking to someone else, in Japanese, and other people speaking, too.
Ami asked, "Can you tell me how far away you are from your back yard right now, and about which direction?"
"What?" This call was so wierd . . .
"Please, just tell me," said Ami.
Carmen made her best guesses, and then asked, "Why? I've been trying to find you for months now. Why do you--"
"Do you have a door in the back of your house?" asked Ami.
Ami commanded, "Go open it. You will understand everything you need to in a few minutes." And then the connection was cut.
It was so crazy, Carmen went to the back door and opened it and stood there shivering for a moment before she began to really think how crazy it was. The back yard was lit bright by the moon; then dark as cloud rolled in front of the moon, then bright again--
Philip and Marie Gonsoles returned to their home at almost three in the morning. They had stayed talking with parishioners who had known Alison. It was almost a wake, bittersweet, but it left them with something more than the familiar hollowness to go home with. By the time either thought about calling, it seemed pointless; they would be home soon, and, anyway, Carmen was surely asleep by now.
The porch light was on, and the livng room lights, set on a dim level. Marie peered in through the windows as they passed by before just before turning into their driveway. "I see Carmen. She's asleep on the couch."
Philip said, "I wonder how long she waited up . . . Geez, the door opener won't work. Probably ice in the tracks again. Probably just blown another fuse, too. Better than the motor . . . You might as well go inside. It'll take a few minutes to get 'er open."
Marie said, "All right. I'll have some hot eggnog ready for you when you get in. Or some chocolate?"
Philip said, "Just some decaf. Nothing heavy."
"All right," Marie said, getting out of the car.
Philip Gonsoles swore at the garage door while he wrestled with the latch, wondering if he would ever find a contractor who would fix the blasted thing or replace it with something that worked. He did this for perhaps a minute when he heard his wife scream. He scrambled into the house, almost falling on an icy patch on the walk.
"What's wrong?" he shouted, before he could take in the scene inside. Then he dropped to his knees.
There, in front of him, his wife was holding someone very closely, someone with long, blonde hair that you might think was Carmen if you expected to see Carmen. But Carmen was standing a few feet away.
It was Alison. She looked over her mother's shoulder, and said, "Hi, Daddy. Can we open the presents now?"