Erin Brannagh watched that same wind sweep a group of leaves past her kitchen window. She clutched a large mug to her chest, inhaled the sharp scent of coffee rising from it. A large grey tabby cat leaped onto the window sill and mewed questioningly at her.
Erin reached down and scratched the cat’s head. “What’s wrong, Sora?” she murmured. Purring softly, the cat rubbed her cheek against Erin’s hand.
Murtagh would have killed her had he known that she’d gotten a pet in his absence. He’d begged her for a cat more often than he’d begged her to let him use magic, if that had been possible. Erin had never liked the idea, but after he was gone, she’d had to do something. She’d been almost surprised that a furred companion actually helped.
Sora jumped down and trotted off to do whatever cats did when they weren’t being watched.
Erin clutched the cup to stave off a sudden chill. Every day for the past seven and a half years, Erin had waited to bring Murtagh home. She never forgot how he’d looked at her when she left him at the MRC. He’d hated her then, and he couldn’t know how much that had hurt her. Erin had hoped that, when she brought him home, he would look at her differently. She had hoped that he would finally understand what she had been telling him. But that day she had waited seven long years for turned out very differently that she had dreamed.
So excited and so nervous that she was shaking, Erin drove as quickly as she felt she could through town towards the MRC. Twice, she’d had to stop and wait until she could quit sobbing before she could see the road again. Her phone had chirped in her pocket as she’d pulled in, but it was the MRC. She assumed the doctor was calling to let her know that Mur was ready to be picked up and had placed it back in her pocket without answering. It didn’t matter if the MRC was ready to release Mur or not. He’d served his seven years, as was the Silver Springs law, and she was taking him home.
It was late spring, and the new green leaves were juxtaposed sharply against the cloudy grey sky. Erin was jogging-almost sprinting-across the parking lot. She paused outside the door to straighten herself out before walking into the facility. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before walking into the facility, masking her anxiety with dignity.
A frazzled looking desk attendant looked up at her, the younger woman’s eyes round as saucers.
“Mayor Brannagh,” she gasped, nearly dropping a small stack of folders in her hand.
Erin paused, bewildered at the reaction her arrival had caused. “I’m here to pick up my son,” she said tilting her chin up. She was accustomed to use body language to convey exactly how much argument she would allow. Today, she would tolerate very little.
“Doctor Wells tried to call you…” the attendant explained, her face pale.
“I was already in the parking lot when I received the call. Doctor Wells can tell me whatever he needs to in person.” Erin began to walk past the front desk. She knew the way to Wells’ office, and she would go there unescorted, and without the attendant’s permission if need be.
The attendant darted around the desk and stood in Erin’s path, looking unhappy to be there. “Mayor Brannagh, there’s something you should know. Today, your son-”
“Perhaps it would be better if I told her, Melanie,” a gentle voice interrupted. Doctor Wells appeared around a corner, looking slightly disheveled himself. He smiled placatingly at Erin. “Come along, Mayor. It would be better if we speak in my office.”
Erin froze for a moment. “Cameron, for the love of god, tell me where Murtagh is.”
Doctor Wells sighed. “I can’t. Come to my office, please.”
Her grip on her purse straps tightened. Exhaling, she straightened and followed Cameron Wells down the white hallway. The glossy white walls were offset but warm wood trim and inspirational pictures of the Ozark hills. Informational posterboards were hung up periodically, reminding Erin of therapeutic self help centers. Potted plants sat on each small table containing flyers matching the posterboards. It all came together to create a non-threatening environment, both for admissions into the clinic, and family members who were leaving their loved ones there for treatment. Erin knew first hand that it didn’t really help.
Doctor Wells’ office was the third one down, and Erin followed him into it. He shut the door behind her and ushered her to one of the thickly padded chairs.
“Cameron,” she said warningly. She masked the desperate mother in her with her best mayor act.
Cameron held up his hands. “Erin, there’s no easy way to say this, but Murtagh’s not here.”
It was difficult to suppress the urge to bolt to her feet. She clenched her hands until her nails bit into her palms. “What do you mean?” she asked, keeping her voice even. It was difficult.
“Early this morning, I went to find Murtagh and make sure that he was ready. I was confident that he could return home and not be tempted to access his… abilities.” Cameron ran his hand through his hair. “As you know, your son was one of my most difficult cases. He continually tried to run away, or to use magic in secret for the first four years. I was beginning to be afraid that I might never help him break the addiction.”
Erin cleared her throat impatiently. “I am well aware of Murtagh’s progress during his stay here. You kept me informed, as I requested. So why am I sitting to you here, talking, when I should be taking my son home? If he’s not here, where is he?”
“I’m afraid the reports I gave you, the positive signs that he’d finally moved on from magic and was ready to go home were pre-emptive.”
“Pre-emptive?” Erin was close to dropping her façade of calm.
“It would seem that Murtagh was using magic in secret for some time now. I don’t know how he managed to keep it from us, but he used a tiny stream of water to slowly erode the back corner of the library. I don’t know how long he was at it, but this morning, he’d broken a hole through the wall.”
At that, Erin did leap to her feet. When Cameron had told her that Murtagh wasn’t in the facility, she’d assumed they moved him to another facility. Knowing he was missing, she couldn’t contain herself any longer. “He did what?!” she shouted. “Have you called the police?”
“Not yet,” Cameron replied, also rising. He held up his hands. “We only just discovered it. The facility’s security is searching the grounds now. He won’t have gotten far, and we want to resolve this matter without involving the authorities.”
Erin bristled. “I AM the authority,” she growled. “How long has he been missing?”
The doctor hesitated. “I believe that it’s been less than an hour, but we can’t be sure.”
Erin pulled her cell phone from her pocket and hit the speed dial for the sheriff. “Then I believe now would be an excellent time to involve the police. Murtagh’s not an idiot. If he managed to find away to leave the facility, he’ll know that the grounds will be searched as soon as it’s discovered he’s missing. He’ll find a way to get far enough to avoid the initial search.”
“This is Sheriff Albright.”
She closed her eyes when she heard the sheriff’s, her friend’s, gruff voice.
When Erin opened her eyes, she was back in her living room, staring down at the dark surface of her coffee. They had searched late into the night, scouring the forest and nearby roads, but Murtagh was nowhere to be found.