"I must have taken a wrong turn after the river, Dad."
"Hold on, honey, I'm trying to find it on the map."
"You're starting to break up some."
"I don't see any dirt roads in that area. I'm hearing another voice on the line. It's like a whisper, can you hear it?"
"No, I'm just hearing you and static."
"hang... now... mine..."
"Did you hear that?!"
"Did I hear what, Dad?"
There was a sudden, intense burst of white noise from the earpiece of the phone. Roger winced in pain and sharply pulled the phone away from his head. Tentatively bringing the instrument back to his ear Roger heard a thready whisper.
"Daddy, help me…it's cold and dark. I can't see, I can't find the way out. Help me Daddy."
"Hello? Abby? Hello…hello?"
The only sound that came from the phone was a soft clatter of rustling. It sounded unpleasantly of chitinous legs running through dry dead leaves.
Cursing softly, Roger disconnected the call and speed dialed Abby's number, once more scrutinizing the map.
It was the first week of a sultry August; in a scant month Abby would be a freshman in college. A group of friends had rented a cabin in the mountains of western Maryland for the weekend and had urged Abby to join them.
Roger had been against the idea, Abby was still 17, the youngest of her crowd, she would not legally be an adult until December. He was a bit hesitant about his only child driving alone in an area that was unfamiliar to her.
"But Dad!" she had wailed. "I can't go when the others do…I promised I would work that Friday! I can leave early Saturday morning and still be there by afternoon. It's only a two hour drive"
Abby had known he was wavering and with the innocent cruelty employed by youth bent on having their own way, thrust a verbal knife.
"I'm a big girl now. You can't always be there to protect me."
Then she gave the knife a twist.
"You couldn't protect Mom after all."
Roger, still holding the phone to his ear expelled the air from his lungs, attempting to force out the pain the memory of her words caused him.
He realized abruptly that the phone was still ringing.
Maybe she was out of the service area. Unlikely, but possible. Roger had made certain when he bought the cell phone three months ago that Abby had nationwide coverage and the company boasted that there was virtually nowhere that his daughter would not be able to "hear him now".
Breaking the connection again, he decided to forego the speed-dial feature and pressed the memorized numbers that should summon Abby's voice.
"Daddy?" A childish quaver. Abby at six.
A cold roaring rush of fear.
"Abby, what's wrong?"
The rustling insect noise answered him again.
Roger violently shook the phone as though he could make it work by sheer force.
"Help me Daddy…I can't see and I'm so cold…"
Ohmigod, ohmigod. Not Abby too…not after losing Caroline. Roger willed himself to be calm. The map fluttered to the floor unheeded.
"What happened baby? Did you wreck the car? Talk to me sweetheart…Abby?"
A pause in which Roger thought his heart might actually stop.
"There was an old lady, just standing by the side of the road. I-I was going to ask for directions, but when I stopped, it wasn't an old lady at all…Oh Daddy, it hurt so bad…and now I'm all alone, scared…cold. Daddy, please help me. I'm afraid."
Abby started sobbing, the hopeless hiccupping cries of childhood.
The line echoed with static.
Roger was bent almost double in pain, panting, face filmed in sweat. A silent howl of agony built behind his teeth, which were clamped so tightly it could not escape. His knuckles throbbed whitely with the force of clutching the phone.
"Abby." He whispered into the starkness of the phone.
Suddenly she was back on the line.
"Dad? Dad, can you hear me?"
Her voice sounded buoyant with the excitement of her first "road trip".
"You broke up pretty bad there for a few minutes. I couldn't hear a thing but static. Did you have any luck with the map?"
Roger groped behind him for a chair, legs suddenly boneless.
"Honey…are you alright?"
"Sure dad, I'm fine." Puzzled impatience. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Roger fumbled on the floor for the map and cleared his throat while smoothing the map with shaky hands across his legs.
"Just checking." He gave a weak laugh. "I've got the map honey…"
Abby's voice cut across his suddenly.
"Dad, wait, there's an old woman up ahead by the side of the road. I'm going to pull over and ask her for directions."
Fear boiled again like bile in Roger, cold fingers clutching at his throat making speech difficult.
"Abby, no!" he rasped. "DO NOT STOP! Abby keep driving!"
"But..." bewildered, her voice dwindled. "Dad, she's waving for me to stop…"
Roger could hear the indecision of a young woman raised to be polite to her elders.
"For God's sake Abby, keep driving!" he was nearly screaming now. "Abigail, do NOT stop that car!"
"Ok, dad, ok!" Frightened by his vehemence, Abby obeyed.
"I want you to drive till you find a place to turn around, I don't care if you drive over somebody's crops and come back home now."
"Abigail, I know you don't understand. I will explain this all when you are home. But you don't argue, listen and get your ass back home NOW! And whatever you do, don't stop to talk to anyone."
"Don't stop for anything."
Roger stayed on the line with his daughter until she pulled in the driveway.
The next day Roger scoured the online news services.
He wordlessly pointed out the headline to Abby.
"Serial Killer Strikes For Sixth Time."
"The body of a young girl was found in the woods of a secluded Maryland area…"