Liza watched the lush British Columbia coast drift away out the window. The ferry rumbled, numbing her butt and feet, as she said, “My twin brother and his hockey team vanished from Vancouver Island thirteen days ago. I’m going to his last known location to figure out what happened.”
Judy, the elderly woman sitting next to her, had obviously not expected such a tragic answer to “Where are you off to?”
She closed her gaping mouth and patted Liza’s knee. “I saw that on the news. I’m so sorry.”
The news. Ugh. The media said the boys were dead, but where was the proof? The search and rescue team had found the torched bus on a logging road and no signs of human remains. Anything could have happened to them. It didn’t make sense that they’d declared the boys dead, and it didn’t make sense that the police had abruptly stopped the investigation the next day.
Liza wouldn’t give up. Brayson’s absence had haunted her and her parents every minute of every day. He was her best friend, her anchor when life was rough, the person who understood her better than anyone else. The two of them were only twenty and had a lifetime of adventures left to live.
With this ferry departure, she was done shedding tears and feeling helpless. It was time to take action.
Liza swallowed around the lump in her throat, took another taco shell from Judy’s beach bag, and loaded it with fixings from plastic baggies—black beans, refried beans, halved cherry tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, shredded cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole. It was nice of Judy to share. Maybe tacos weren’t the most conventional food to pack onto a ferry, but if there was anything she’d learned about Judy in the ten minutes they’d known each other, it was that she was unconventional. She wore a red gingham dress, a pearl necklace, and round glasses with the thickest lenses Liza had ever seen. Her red hair was in a voluminous poodle haircut that brought Lucille Ball to mind. She was interesting in an eccentric way.
“My twintuition went off the day he went missing,” Liza said between bites, waggling her fingers by her temple. “I knew something was wrong. I don’t know if you believe in that stuff, but that feeling is the one telling me to go find him myself.”
“I do believe in that connection,” Judy said. “Good for you for taking matters into your own hands. I would have done the same.”
“Do you have siblings?”
“A younger sister. That’s where I’m going, actually. She and her husband live in Parksville.”
“Great week to be by the water with family,” Liza said.
Judy nodded. Her bulging eyes lingered, a little teary. Liza pretended not to notice the pitying expression, and instead watched the sparkling Pacific Ocean beyond the windows. She inhaled slowly, trying to loosen the tightness in her chest.
The thing was, she was positive that Brayson was still alive, and not just because of twintuition. It so happened that he had a smartwatch, and Liza had been checking his account. It still registered his pulse and sleep patterns for two days after the boys were pronounced dead.
If only Brayson had splurged for a watch with GPS, she could have pinpointed his location too. But a pulse was a start.
When she’d tried to tell this to the authorities, the man on the other end had gotten snippy and told her to stop calling. He said they’d done everything they could, and she was meddling in something she didn’t understand.
This was another thing that didn’t make sense. They absolutely had not done everything they could, and there’d been a note of strain in the man’s voice as he snapped at her—something like fear.
Well, Liza wasn’t scared. Brayson was alive, and she was going to find him.
She and Judy ate more tacos, earning strange looks from everyone who walked past, and Liza shared the peanut butter cookies she’d packed.
Judy was welcome company after the lonely bus ride to the ferry terminal. Liza never liked being alone, and even though the ferry was packed, the departure had left her hollow.
Yesterday’s breakup probably didn’t help with the loneliness, either.
“Do you have any theories about what happened?” Judy asked gently, taking another cookie.
Liza reached into her backpack for her notebook, glad to talk about her research. She hadn’t talked to a soul about this, and a stranger would be a good sounding board. Her parents thought she’d spontaneously enrolled in summer term and moved back into her university dorm. She told them she wanted to keep her mind occupied—then told her friends the same lie, because she didn’t trust them not to tell her parents out of concern. She was prepared to stay on the island for as long as she needed to.
As for Bec… well, yesterday’s breakup was just the start of another “off” in their endless on-off cycle. Liza needed to focus on finding Brayson, and Bec wouldn’t have let her get on the ferry.
Bec was controlling at the best of times, and when Liza told her what she was thinking about doing, Bec had told her she was selfish for threatening to leave.
Selfish. For wanting to find her missing brother.
Liza’s insides still roiled when she thought about it.
Doing this alone was better. She needed to make her own decisions, and Bec’s looming presence wouldn’t help with that.
“I haven’t ruled out any possibilities,” she told Judy, flipping through the notebook. “The last official sighting was in Qualicum Beach, where witnesses saw the team stop for dinner. I also called everywhere along the east coast of the island to ask if anyone saw anything, and I have a lead in Cougar Woods.”
It was a lead that the authorities weren’t interested in hearing about. They insisted they had the investigation under control, and then they’d hung up on her.
“Cougar Woods?” Judy asked, sitting taller. “You think they might have gone there?”
Liza nodded. “A pub owner told me he saw the hockey team there after they were seen in Qualicum Beach.”
She waited, but Judy was quiet, her expression unreadable behind her thick glasses.
So Liza turned the page, which she’d written with Bec looking over her shoulder. A pang went through her chest. As much as she wanted to move on from Bec in a huff of anger, the breakup had been rough—Bec crying, threatening to burn everything Liza had left at her place, shouting that Liza wouldn’t find anyone better and would die alone. But Bec always got emotional and said things like that when they fought. She would wake up today and be okay.
Maybe, like all of their previous breakups, this one would end in them tumbling back into bed. If they were meant to be—if they were soulmates like they’d sworn—they would. If not, and if three years of great sex was the only thing keeping them together, then this time apart would be good for them to heal and move on.
Judy sat patiently, waiting for Liza to continue.
Liza drew a breath and shifted in her seat. “There’s kidnapping, murder, that sort of thing… I also wonder if they got lost on a hike, and then vandals torched the empty bus. I’m ready to hike to search for clues.”
“Hence the enormous backpack,” Judy said. “That’s ambitious. Bring bear spray.”
“Check.” She patted her backpack, where she’d packed bear spray and other hiking essentials, then turned the page. “I’ve got a few pages with less likely theories. Running away—Brayson would never do that. A government cover-up—I won’t rule out conspiracies, but I doubt the government would purge the boys who might go on to play for Team Canada. Alien abduction—another far-fetched conspiracy but I wrote it down.”
Judy hummed thoughtfully. “I wonder…”
“Yes?” Liza prompted, her heart skipping. She could hug Judy for taking her seriously.
“If they decided to spend the night in Cougar Woods…” The woman’s magnified eyes narrowed. “Well, the place is notorious for disappearances.”
Her tone brought to mind the way Liza’s grandma gossiped about the people in her lawn bowling club.
“From cougar attacks, right?” Liza asked, her pen poised over a blank page. “That’s the reason for the town name?”
Cougars, not bears, were the main reason she’d packed bear spray. Though as Brayson once told her on a hike, “If you see a cougar, it’s too late, because it’s already been stalking you for a while.”
Still, the spray would give her a fighting chance.
Judy tilted her head. “Yes, but as with any place that has an unusual number of disappearances, speculation starts happening. Just look at the Bermuda Triangle.”
Liza jotted a note to research places with a lot of disappearances. Maybe those theories would spark inspiration.
Judy angled closer, her legs crossed, letting the near-empty bag of refried beans slide to the floor. “Now, Cougar Woods could have a serial killer responsible for all of this, or there could be a natural phenomenon at play. Energy fields, magnetism, sinkholes, that sort of thing. There are also supernatural phenomena…”
She fiddled with the sleeve of her gingham dress, a flush in her pale cheeks.
“Like what?” Liza pressed, scribbling notes.
Judy hesitated. Nearby, a group of kids shrieked about something beyond the window. Maybe a seal.
Judy dropped her voice a notch. “There are local stories about creatures who haunt the woods. You’ve heard of the Sasquatch, I’m sure. Then there’s the Kushtaka, which is a Tlingit legend. These creatures have the ability to shift between human and animal forms—usually an otter.”
Liza chewed her lip, having a hard time imagining her brother getting killed by a shapeshifting otter. “You believe the legends?”
Judy glanced around as if to check for listening ears.
“Before coming here, I decided not to discount any possibilities,” Liza said. “Any theory is worth considering. Even supernatural ones.”
She was a logical person—a science undergraduate, after all—but belief in the supernatural and belief in science didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. She could take university chemistry classes and also believe that she saw a ghost in a graveyard once.
“When I was about your age,” Judy said, “I was hiking on the island and I saw a woman in the woods. She was beautiful, and I mean Hollywood gorgeous, like a vision.” Judy spread her hands as if to praise this unseen goddess. “At least, I thought that was what I saw. When I said hello, she didn’t answer. A minute later, when I caught up to her tracks, I didn’t find shoe prints. They were paws. Now, I might have imagined seeing a woman when it was really an animal. I don’t know. The tracks could have been old. Every time I question what I saw, I drift further from knowing the truth.”
Liza nodded. Her guesses were as good as Judy’s.
“It’s worth considering local legends about what lives in the woods,” Judy said, still flushing.
The theory was about as likely as the alien abduction one, but Liza jotted a note anyway: Kushtaka—shapeshifters.
“Thanks.” Her lungs deflated a little, and she had to admit she was disappointed Judy didn’t have more useful information. But what did she think Judy would say, that she saw Brayson? No, Judy’s information was as valuable as everything else in her notebook. She should be grateful to have the additional theory.
Judy offered a smile. “Whatever happened, I hope you find him. There’s something fiery about you, Liza. I know you won’t give up until you succeed. I like that about you.”
Liza returned the smile, an uncomfortable twist in her gut at receiving a compliment.
They spent the rest of the ferry ride chatting about Judy’s summer plans, and as the densely wooded coast of Vancouver Island drew nearer, they packed the taco leftovers into Judy’s beach bag.
“Well, good luck, Liza.”
“Thanks. Enjoy your time with your sister. And hey, I appreciate you not telling me I’m crazy for doing this.”
Judy tilted her head and studied Liza, like this hadn’t crossed her mind. “People love to tell others how to live. Everyone has an opinion on what defines the right thing to do. Sometimes, the right thing is to follow what your heart tells you to do.”
Liza smiled, holding Judy’s advice close as they disembarked. Her heart brought her here, and she wouldn’t rest until she got what she came for.