"Sometimes students just sneak off," said the officer. "It's inevitable. Usually they try to sneak back in before curfew. Hopefully that's just the case now. If she doesn't show up then - well, then we'll call the police."
He walked off to radio the rest of security for a status check, and we thanked him for his help. Mrs. Weathers returned to the front desk, but it was clear she was worried and agitated. She came across as gruff sometimes, but I had the feeling she actually cared about her students. Micah left us to find a few friends of his who worked on campus, in case they'd seen anything.
That left Eddie and me. Without conferring, we turned toward some chairs in the lobby. Like me, I think he wanted to stake out the door in order to see Jill the instant she showed up.
"I shouldn't have left her," he said.
"You had to," I said reasonably. "You can't be with her in classes or her room."
"This place was a bad idea. It's too big. Too hard to secure." He sighed. "I can't believe this."
"No... it was a good idea. Jill needs some semblance of a normal life. You could've locked her in a room somewhere and cut her off from all interaction, but what good would that do? She needs to go to school and be with people."
"She hasn't done much of that, though."
"No," I admitted. "She's had a rough time with it. I kept hoping it'd get better."
"I just wanted her to be happy."
"Me too." I straightened up as something alarming hit me. "You don't think... you don't think she would've run away and gone back to her mom, do you? Or Court or somewhere?"
His face grew even more bleak. "I hope not. Do you think things have been that bad?"
I thought about our fight after the shower incident. "I don't know. Maybe."
Eddie buried his face in his hands. "I can't believe this," he repeated. "I failed."
When it came to Jill, Eddie was usually all fierceness and anger. I'd never seen him so close to depression. I'd been living with the fear of my own failure since coming to Palm Springs but only now realized that Eddie had just as much on the line. I recalled Adrian's words about Eddie and his friend Mason, how Eddie felt responsible. If Jill didn't come back, would this be history repeating itself? Would she be someone else he'd lost? I'd thought this mission might be redemption for him. Instead, it could turn into Mason all over again.
"You didn't fail," I said. "You've been in charge of protecting her, and you've done that. You can't control her happiness. If anything, I'm to blame. I gave her a lecture for the shower incident."
"Yeah, but I destroyed her hopes when I told her the modeling idea Lee had wouldn't work."
"But you were right about - Lee!" I gasped. "That's it. That's where she is. She's with Lee, I'm certain of it. Do you have his number?"
Eddie groaned. "I'm such an idiot," he said, taking out his cell phone and scanning for the number. "I should've thought of that."
I touched the cross around my neck, saying a silent prayer that this would all be solved easily. As long as it meant Jill was alive and well, I could've handled her and Lee eloping.
"Hey, Lee? It's Eddie. Is Jill with you?"
There was a pause as Lee responded. Eddie's body language answered the question before I heard another word. His posture relaxed, and relief flooded his features.
"Okay," said Eddie a few moments later. "Well, get her back here. Now. Everyone's looking for her." Another pause. Eddie's face hardened. "We can talk about that later." He disconnected and turned to me. "She's okay."
"Thank God," I breathed. I stood up, only then realizing how tense I'd been. "I'll be right back."
I found Mrs. Weathers and the security officer and relayed the news. The officer immediately spread the word to his colleagues and soon left. To my surprise, Mrs. Weathers almost looked like she was on the verge of tears.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Yes, yes." She turned flustered, embarrassed at being so emotional. "I was just so worried. I - I didn't want to say anything and scare you all, but every time a student's missing... well, a few years ago, another girl disappeared. We thought she'd just sneaked off - like Matt said, it happens. But it turned out..." Mrs. Weathers grimaced and looked away. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
As if she could stop with that kind of intro. "No, please. Tell me."
She sighed. "The police found her a couple days later - dead. She'd been abducted and killed. It was terrible, and they never caught her killer. Now I just think of that whenever someone disappears. It's never happened again, of course. But something like that scars you."
I could imagine so. And as I returned to Eddie, I thought about him and Mason again. It seemed like everyone was carrying baggage from past events. I certainly was. Now that Jill's safety wasn't a concern, all I kept thinking was: What will the Alchemists say? What will my father say? Eddie was just hanging up his phone again when I approached.
"I called Micah to tell him everything's okay," he explained. "He was really worried."
All signs of Mrs. Weathers's past trauma vanished the instant that Jill and Lee walked through the door. Jill actually looked upbeat until she saw all of our faces. She came to a halt. Beside her, Lee already looked grim. I think he knew what was coming.
Eddie and I hurried forward but didn't have a chance to speak right away. Mrs. Weathers immediately demanded to know where they'd been. Rather than cover it up, Jill confessed and told the truth: she and Lee had gone off campus, into Palm Springs. She was careful to make sure Lee didn't get accused of any kidnapping charges, swearing he didn't know she could only leave with approved family members. I confirmed this - though Lee was hardly off the hook in my opinion.
"Will you wait outside?" I asked him politely. "I'd like to speak to you privately later."
Lee started to obey, flashing Jill a look of apology. He lightly brushed her hand in farewell and turned away. It was Mrs. Weathers who stopped him. "Wait," she said, peering at him curiously. "Do I know you?"
Lee looked startled. "I don't think so. I've never been here before."
"There's something familiar about you," she insisted. Her frown deepened a few moments more. At last, she shrugged. "It can't be. I must be mistaken." Lee nodded, met Jill's eyes in sympathy again, and left.
Mrs. Weathers wasn't done with Jill. She launched into a lecture about how dangerous and irresponsible they'd been. "If you were going to sneak off and break rules, you could've at least confided in your siblings. They've been scared to death for you." It was almost funny, her advising on "responsible" rule-breaking. Considering how panicked I'd been, I couldn't find anything amusing just then. She also told Jill that she'd be written up and punished. "For now," said Mrs. Weathers, "you are confined to your room for the rest of the night. Come see me after breakfast, and we'll find out if the principal thinks this warrants suspension."