He noticed how at home she seemed to be as she walked through the park, occasionally stopping to touch a flower or watch the other children who were playing ball or swinging on the swing sets, but mostly she just kept walking, oblivious to anything that was going on around her. The bangs of her straight brown hair were long and hung low enough to keep him from actually seeing her face, but he knew that it was her. She was always there, and he always came to watch over her while she played. He hadn’t been asked to do it. But since no one else ever did, he’d arbitrarily appointed himself to the job. It was all a little strange and even knowing that it was for her own good didn’t help to alleviate the nagging feeling that he was nothing more than your ordinary voyeuristic pervert.
Everything felt strange. He could hear all the sounds one would expect to hear in a crowded park: the kids laughing, joggers trotting by, radios playing, car horns honking, even the incessant ringing of the ice cream trucks bell – but they were all muffled and distant; all except for the music, and he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. He could hear Michael Mc Donald lamenting, “I keep forgetting we’re not in love anymore,” but no matter which way he turned he couldn’t find the radio that was playing it.
The smell of freshly cut grass rode the wind under his nose, but he couldn’t find the tracks that the mower would have surely left, just like when they used to mow the ball field early Saturday mornings before his little league games. The radio, every now and then sounding muffled like someone had their hands cupped over the speaker, clamored on; but no matter where he looked, he couldn’t find it. He looked from one rolling hill to the other and from his feet to the front gate, no one had a radio with them. Finally, he gave up.
When he looked back her way, she was skipping about in circles causing her curly blond hair to bounce up off her shoulders and dance about her face. It looked alive, like a very close friend playing along with her. Suddenly, she stopped, the hair falling lifelessly over her shoulders, and started walking toward the woods at the other end of the park. The woods were forbidden. He had to stop her.
The music wasn’t loud, but it drowned out his cries for her to stop. He was screaming “get back here”, but all he could hear was Phil Collins voice, “It’s against all odds. But it’s the chance I’ll have to take.”
He had given up screaming and was just about to run down and get her when she suddenly stopped and turned back toward the center of the park. He wiped his head perfunctorily and sat back down, noticing how the sweat glittered like hot oil on the back of his hand.
“It’s too late baby, now it’s too late“: the voice was soothing, and he began wondering who sang the song. “Something inside has died, and I can’t hide, and I just can’t take it.”
He looked around again, trying to find the radio. He couldn’t. The smell of fresh cut grass was gone now, just like the freshly cut tracks that had never been there. He looked around for both, and a cab caught his wandering eye as it pulled in on the other side of the park. It was his ride: just like clockwork.
He looked back at her. She’d knelt down in the grass and was plucking dandelions from a bright green clover patch. He looked back at the cab: it’d barely moved. He looked back at her again. She had a hand full of the dandelions and was raising them to her mouth. With one hard breath, thousands of tiny white specks were floating around her head, and nothing was left of the dandelions but their stems. The tiny white seeds looked like snow on a dark untraveled road as they began falling to rest in her jet-black hair. He thought that today, maybe, he would tell his ride to go on and he would just sit and watch.
The honk of the horn startled him, and he was surprised when he turned and saw the cab sitting by the curb directly behind him – waiting, impatiently. Without thinking, he got up, walked over to it and got in. The wheels had just begun to spin when he remembered the girl. With a jerk, he turned to look out the side window, his nose and palms pressed flat against the glass as his eyes searched the park. He couldn’t find her at first and immediately knew that he must look, the one place that he didn’t want to look. The one place where he knew he would find her – the woods.
That’s where she was; standing not more than two feet from the tree line; peering in. Her head was cocked to the side, apparently out of curiosity, and she appeared to be shyly avoiding someone, or thing, that was standing behind the trees, just out of sight. The cab pulled away from the curb and quickly picked up speed as it headed out of the park. He was going to scream at her, but there was no way to get the windows down – the handles weren’t missing, they’d never been installed. The glass fogged quickly from his heavy breathing and within seconds became a gray curtain that prevented him from seeing anything. Using his elbow, he began rubbing the glass furiously to clear a spot so he could look through.
He could only watch as a stranger, dressed entirely in black, walked up beside her and started to lead her into the woods. She walked with him at first but stopped and started to try to get away when her foot broke the plane between grass and woods. The cabby ignored his pleas to stop. Trapped in the cab, he felt helpless and started beating on the back window as he watched the stranger pick her up and throw her over his shoulder.
There was no pain when his knuckles, and then the glass, began to shatter from his punches. The skin around his knuckles split, allowing the blood to flow freely from his fist. It accented the spider webbed patterns of splintering glass with an erratic outline of crimson smudges. The window wouldn’t give, no matter how hard he hit it.
The girl, the park, the stranger and the cab disappeared as Mathew struggled to open his eyes. Sitting up, he realized that he had been dreaming, and the incessant music soundtracking his dreams was being performed by his alarm clock. With what looked to be to be his last breath of life, he slapped its snooze button and, without removing his hand, dropped back to his pillow and went right back to sleep.
Time for work.
HAVE YOU SEEN ME?
This ritual had become commonplace in the past three months – oversleep, work late, get home late, get drunk and sleep in. Then it was back to work again, hung over.
The toll on Mathew was more than obvious to all his friends and co-workers. He hadn’t been sober in three months. He had taken up smoking and traded eight hours of sound sleep for a few hours of drunken unconsciousness. Physically, he looked to be beyond help: though he was only 35; Mathew had the countenance of a man rapidly approaching 50.
The next time he was wrested from his dreams, it was not by his alarm clock. It was the shrill ring of his phone that made him bolt upright in his bed. His mind was spinning, and it wasn’t until his eyes focused on his feet, which were sticking out from under the covers, that he was able to comprehend what was going on. The phone blasted another ring that sounded like a police siren to his throbbing head.
After lifting the receiver and propping his face against it, he mumbled, “Hello?”
“Dammit! Braxton, where in the hell are you!?” The voice on the other end screamed malignantly, and without pausing for an answer continued. “We’ve got another letter and two more missing kids. I’m going to bust your ass if you aren’t here in 20 minutes. Do you hear me?!”
There was a click followed by a dial tone. The voice on the other end hadn’t waited for an answer. Recognizing the voice, Mathew knew no answer was expected. His boss had had to make that call far too often in the past few months, and it seemed to be getting more frequent by the day.
After stumbling out of bed and over to the closet, he began trying to remember when he’d come home and went to bed. He couldn’t. Without paying much attention, he pulled a shirt and pair of slacks off a hanger. While dressing, he became more focused and began to think about his wake-up call. His boss had said there were two more missing kids and another letter. Another letter.
Visions of the first letter glittered in his mind as clear as if he were standing at his desk looking at it. It was as vivid as another memory he’d known and lugged around, all his life. He thought of the phone call again and began dressing faster, slipping on his tie while walking into the bathroom.
The reflection in the mirror had a rat’s nest sitting on its head. A few handfuls of water and a stroke or two from his comb fixed that. Two mouthfuls of Scope took the place of his toothbrush. Deeming himself suitable enough for work, he left his bedroom and headed toward the front door of his apartment. Passing through the kitchen, his errant gaze caught sight of the half-empty vodka bottle that sat alone in the middle of his kitchen table. He thought for a second, then went over, picked it up, tucked it under his arm and exited through the front door.
The brisk, cold air was a benevolent shock to his face as he walked across the parking lot to his car. When he reached it, he noticed that it was unlocked. He opened the door, cursed himself for forgetting to lock it, and got in. After tossing his briefcase and bottle into the passenger’s seat, he started the engine and pulled out. The afternoon news droned from the radio, and he began thinking back to August and the first letter that the department had received.
The envelope had contained several of the “Have you seen me?” fliers that are sent out with the daily mail. There was also a poem. It had been written using individual letters, cut from various children’s books, that’d been pasted to the back of a sheet paper; the kind of paper with the big lines that elementary school kids use. It read – “These kids they all are missing – but they won’t be hard to find – I buried them neat on a lonely street – and now I have peace of mind.”
At first, they had tossed the letter aside thinking that it was nothing more than a prank. Mathew remembered thinking there was really no reason to take it seriously. Each of the fliers asked for help in finding young girls that had all went missing in June of the same year. No one believed that one man could be responsible for all the children pictured on the fliers, much less get his hands on a flier for each of them. Two of the six weren’t even from Georgia. Everyone agreed that it was nothing more than a prank and he’d been instructed by his chief to file it away with the other sundry threats and ransoms they received on a daily basis that never amounted to anything.
So, it was forgotten until a few weeks later when the Atlanta Journal and Constitution received a similar letter. The missing children fliers were copies of the same ones that the police had received, but the poem was new.
It read, “I told the cops where to find them – on a lonely street I said – they gave up a shot in the dark when they didn’t try stark – and now some more are dead.”
Mathew had been sitting at home when the paper reporting that the police had received a similar letter hit the street. He could remember how the public exploded. Groups formed to discharge the entire police staff. Hewing cries came not only from the people of Georgia but most of the surrounding states also. Mathew and everyone else on the staff received one death threat after another – by mail and phone. The castigation they received, they accepted as warranted because of the arduous days that had followed.
The letter the newspaper had received was immediately turned over to Mathew’s department. He and the rest of his staff were specialists in serial killers and other types of murderers who used cryptic notes and riddles to lead and confuse the police. A specialist was no longer needed. The first letter had told them of a burial on a lonely street and the second had admonished them of not trying Stark. Within minutes they started organizing a plan for searching Stark Road.
Every available officer and a few volunteers had been sent to search the open fields on Stark Road. They’d split into groups of five, each with a map of the area that they had been designated to search, and a walkie-talkie to report their progress. Their instructions were simple “Leave no stone unturned and report immediately if you find something. Don’t touch it if you don’t have to. We don’t want any possible evidence being screwed up! Get moving.”
A little more than a hundred yards from, and running parallel to, the road was a thirty-foot wide strip of bare land. It separated the woods from the waist-high brush that kept it hidden from the motorist view. It was in this dirt ravine that Mathew’s group discovered a square-shaped mound of dirt that resembled a fairly new burial site. He radioed in what he had found and where he was. After getting the go-ahead, he and a volunteer began to dig.
One by one the other groups began to show up and started forming a circle around him and the volunteer. The grunts of physical strain and the sound of their shovels slicing into the dirt were almost deafening to everyone who stood silently by, watching and waiting to see what would be dug up. The hot rays of the sun combined with their efforts and quickly soaked their clothes straight through with sweat. The humidity only helped to shorten the nervous breaths of anticipation in everyone, and keeping their lungs satisfied became a noticeable chore. It was very apparent that both men were struggling, but no one moved to offer a helping hand.
Mathew continued digging, unaware of the crowd that had gathered around him. He, like everyone else, wanted to find something that he hoped he wouldn’t find. He, like everyone else, wanted answers; and he, like everyone else, was about to get an answer that would never be forgotten.
There was a dull thud as the volunteer drove his shovel into the dirt for the last time. He dropped it instinctively like it’d suddenly become too hot to hold and, keeping eye contact with Mathew, climbed backward out of the three-foot hole. Watching incredulously, Mathew detected the pure unmitigated fear that had suddenly gripped the man and pushed him back into the protection of the crowd, and, for the first time, he noticed everyone that had gathered around him. He turned full circle looking each and every one of them straight in the eye. All the braveness, anger and anxiety they’d brought into this field was now being quailed by fear and he knew that no one, including the police officers, would be stepping forward to take the volunteers place.
He felt like a little boy being called a sissy by his friends for not daring to walk through a graveyard at midnight or ring a stranger’s doorbell, for no reason, at two in the morning and then run off, laughing. He felt it, only this time it wasn’t his friends daring him to do something innocuous to prove that he wasn’t a sissy: this time it was co-workers and volunteers and strangers hoping that he would take the unknown step and save them from having to prove themselves.
Searching every set of eyes in the crowd for help proved futile; no one was going to move without a command and he was too proud to issue it. Contemptuously, he tossed his shovel out of the hole and, using his hands, started to scrape the dirt off the object that the volunteer’s shovel had struck. With each hand full it became more and more apparent that they’d uncovered some sort of a wooden crate, and when enough dirt had been cleared away, he could see that its lid was not latched. Before reaching down to pull it off, he looked once more into everyone’s eyes, hoping to find a helping hand. Once more he saw nothing but dreadful stares of fear. Every set of eyes chanted, “MATHEW, MATHEW, MATHEW!”
Finally, he gave up, took one last breath and, with a vigorous snap that took everything he had, pulled the lid off the crate.
The smell alone had induced vomiting so quick that he’d lept from the hole and gotten sick before even seeing what he’d found. The movement was so fast and uncontrollable, that he sprayed many of the onlookers with his undigested breakfast before getting into an all fours stance. After a few minutes, the muscle contractions stopped, allowing him to roll over onto his back. The beaming rays of the sun forced his eyes shut, preventing him from seeing what was happening but he could hear gasps of disbelief and the sounds of other men being physically affected in the same manner he had. All this coupled with nerves, a hangover and more than slight dehydration, swept him into unconsciousness.
HAVE YOU SEEN ME?