THE HOUSE ON CANDLEWICK LANE

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CHAPTER 1

The phone rang as I was gulping down my second cup of coffee, ready to head out the door to work. 

"Hi. Is this Ellie's mom?"

"Yes."

"This is Maureen from the primary school office, just calling to confirm that Ellie is out today."

"No," I answered, setting the coffee cup down with a clunk. "She should be there."

"Okay. Mrs. Dennis probably just marked her absent by mistake. I'll call down to the classroom and get back to you."

"Thanks." I hung up, frustrated with Mrs. Dennis. This wasn't the first time she had been careless about marking Ellie absent when she was sitting right in front of her. And now I had to wait for the office to call back and was going to be late for my class.

I had folded half a load of laundry before the phone rang again.

"Dr. Dobbins? This is Maureen again. Mrs. Dennis said Ellie wasn't in the classroom, so I went down to check. She's not there."

"Is she in the bathroom?"

"Mrs. Dennis says there's no one in the class bathroom. I checked the bathroom in the hallway and she wasn't there. She's not in the nurse's office, either. The custodian is checking the other bathrooms and the gym to see if she's there."

It wasn't like Ellie to leave the classroom without telling the teacher. "Let me call my neighbor. She walked Ellie to the bus stop with her kids this morning. I'll call you back."

I hung up and dialed Dottie, my neighbor across the street. 

"Hi, Dottie. It's Greer. Did Ellie get on the bus okay this morning?"

"Yeah. Why? Is something wrong? Is she sick?"

Dottie was known by all the moms in the neighborhood as a rabid worrier, and Ellie had been frequently sick this fall. The divorce seemed to be affecting her more now that she had started going to school.

"No, no," I hastened to assure her. "They marked her absent because she's not in the classroom."

"Oh. She's probably in the gym." Ellie's fondness for Mr. Leicester, the gym teacher, was legendary.

"You're probably right. Thanks, Dottie. Talk to you later."

I called the school right back. Maureen answered on the first ring. "My neighbor put her on the bus," I informed her. 

"She's not in the gym, and Mr. Leicester didn't see her this morning. I was just going into Mrs. Ravell's office to see if Ellie's in there." I couldn't imagine why Ellie would have to see the principal.

"Call me back as soon as you've checked."

"Of course."

I finished folding the laundry and put my coffee cup in the dishwasher. I double-checked my makeup in the mirror and was standing in the front hall gnawing on my thumbnail when the phone rang again. It was Maureen.

"She's not in with the principal. I made an announcement on the PA system asking her to come to the office."

"When was that?"

"Right before I called you."

A small, cold pit of worry was beginning to settle inside my stomach. The school wasn't that big—even if Ellie were in the farthest reaches of the building, she should be at the office in under three minutes. "Can you just  put me on hold until she comes to the office?" I asked Maureen.

"Sure." I heard a click, and my ears were assaulted by the very loud radio station the school used as its hold music. I held the phone several inches from my head while I waited. I bit a hangnail on my index finger, then shook my head. "Stop it," I told myself. I paced the kitchen and living room while I waited for Maureen to come back on the line.

About five minutes passed. I had practically worn a hole in the living room carpet when I heard another click, followed by Maureen's voice. 

"Dr. Dobbins? She's not here yet. Are you sure your neighbor put her on the bus?"

The cold feeling in my stomach began to grow. "I'll call her again and double check, but she said Ellie got on the bus this morning, just like she normally does."

I dialed Dottie as quickly as I could. "Dottie, you're absolutely sure Ellie got on the bus this morning?" I blurted out before she could even say hello.

"Of course." She sounded a little hurt. "I remember specifically because I noticed as she climbed the steps onto the bus that her hair ribbon had come undone." I'd tied a dark blue grosgrain ribbon in Ellie's hair. "They haven't found her yet?"

"No."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Not right now. I've got to call the school back." I gave her a perfunctory good-bye and hung up, my breath coming a little faster.

When I called the school again, Maureen put me right through to the principal.

"Dr. Dobbins, I don't want you to worry," she said soothingly. "I'm sure we'll find her. But do you mind coming down here? If she's hiding because there's something bothering her, it might be a good idea to have you nearby just in case."

I called the department chairman on the way to school and spoke to his secretary. I didn't tell her the real reason I was going to be late, opting instead to blame my tardiness on the alarm clock. She said she would relay the message. The chair wouldn't be happy to have to teach my class, but he would have to deal with it. 

As I drove, my thoughts began to churn in sync with my stomach. What if Ellie had fallen asleep on the way to school? What if she were stuck on the bus in some parking lot, scared and crying? What if she were sick? Did the bus drivers check for sleeping kids when they finished their routes?

Worst of all, what if she had been kidnapped?

***

There was a bus in the parking lot when I got to the school. Walking past it, I tried to peer in the windows for a glimpse of Ellie. But I wasn't tall enough to see anything. I pressed the buzzer to be admitted to the main office.

Maureen sat at her desk, frowning at her computer screen and talking on the phone. She waved me right into Mrs. Ravell's office.

The principal sat behind her desk, also on the phone. Two women sat opposite Mrs. Ravell. I recognized one of them right away as Ellie's bus driver. It must have been her bus I saw in the parking lot. I nodded to her. 

Mrs. Ravell put the phone down and motioned me into a chair between the other women. "Dr. Dobbins, I'm sure you know Mrs. Bennett, Ellie's bus driver." I nodded. "And this is Mrs. Garcia, this week's bus monitor," she said, indicating the second woman.

"Hi," I greeted her as I sat down. She flashed a worried smile at me. 

Mrs. Ravell began speaking. "Mrs. Bennett has double- and triple-checked the seats, and the bus is empty of children. Mrs. Garcia is a first-grade teacher whose responsibility this week is to monitor the children getting off the buses. She got here only a moment before you did." She turned her attention to Mrs. Bennett.

"Did you see Ellie Gramercy get off the bus this morning?"

The bus driver shrugged. "I assume she did since the bus is empty, but I'm not sure that I paid attention to her getting off the bus specifically. There's a lot going on when the kids are getting to school, so it's hard to notice one particular child."

Mrs. Ravell nodded. "I understand." She turned to me. "Once they get off the buses, the kids line up and go into the school single file." She looked at Mrs. Garcia. "Did you see any child getting out of line this morning?"

Mrs. Garcia shook her head. "I didn't notice anyone out of line, but there was a commotion involving two kids getting off the bus behind Mrs. Bennett's. I suppose I could have missed something."

"Is there just one teacher out front to supervise all the buses unloading?" I asked.

Mrs. Ravell shifted in her seat, looking uncomfortable. "Yes. We've never needed more than that. I stand in the vestibule and greet the kids as they come in, but there's only one member of the staff out there. Plus the bus drivers, of course.

"That's another thing we can check. There are security cameras mounted by the front doors to the school, and they capture the buses loading and unloading. I'll have our AV tech pull those up and we can have a look at them." She picked up her phone and spoke to Maureen, asking her to find the tech and send him in.

Shouldn't that have been done already? A surge of anger flooded through me.

Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Garcia left, leaving me alone with the principal. I caught myself biting my fingernail again and foreced myself to stop by interlacing my fingers. "You've checked the nurse's office?" I asked Mrs. Ravell.

She sighed and nodded. "No one has seen Ellie this morning."

There was a knock at the door and it opened slowly. A bearded peered into the office. "You called for me?"

Mrs. Ravell motioned in my direction. "Gus, this is Dr. Dobbins, Ellie Gramercy's mother. We can't seem to find Ellie in the building, and I'd like you to pull up today's video of the buses unloading to see if we can figure out where Ellie went after she got off the bus."

"Sure." Gus fingered his tie nervously.

Mrs. Ravell moved out of the way as Gus went around her desk and signed into her computer. I walked behind the desk and stood with the principal, watching Gus pull up the video from earlier that morning.

The screen was divided into quarters. Black-and-white images of children jerked across all four boxes. I recognized some of them as kids in Ellie's grade.

Ellie's bus pulled into view, and Mrs. Ravell asked Gus to slow down the video. I watched, unblinking, as kids piled off the bus one by one. I saw Dottie's three children and two other kids from down the block. A tall boy stepped down, and then I spotted her. My little girl was making her way in black and white down the bus steps, her big backpack slung over her shoulder. 

"There she is," Mrs. Ravell and I said simultaneously. Gus slowed the video to an agonzing crawl. 

We watched as she made her way toward the front of the school. I could see Mrs. Garcia in the background, hurrying over to the bus behind Ellie's to assist with the scuffle she had mentioned.

I kept my eyes on Ellie. She turned her head. She seemed to be looking for something. Then she kept walking across the screen in slow motion.

Then she turned her head again. It looked to me like her eyes narrowed. She stopped walking. The kid behind her walked into her. She looked at the boy, then back again at something off the screen. 

She stepped out of line, looking behind her. I could see her eyebrows knit together as she shifted her backpack to the other shoulder. 

"What is she doing?" asked Mrs. Ravell.

I shook my head, too intent on watching the video to answer.

"Gus, can you advance the video one frame at a time?" Mrs. Ravell asked. 

The video stopped, then moved forward one frame as he pushed a button on the keyboard. Ellie was in mid-step, moving away from the line of students. 

Another frame, and she set her foot down on the pavement. Another frame, and she moved again, this time farther away from the line. 

Another frame, and now a dark image appeared in the corner. I couldn't tell what it was. But frame by slow frame, Gus moved the video forward, and we could all see that a car was pulling in front of the bus while Ellie walked toward it.

I started taking deep breaths. Mrs. Ravell must have thought I was going to faint, because she gestured to Gus and took my arm, lowering me gently into the chair Gus vacated. I sat down without ever moving my eyes from the screen.

"Do you know whose car that is?" I didn't even know who asked the question.

I didn't answer. I was watching my daughter approach the passenger side of the car as Gus continued to tap the keyboard slowly. The window on the passenger side was rolled down. Ellie leaned into the window and, frame by frame, she opened the car door and got inside. The car drove off.