The little girls who found the body of the missing boy were not angels, although that is how the newspaper described them, the following morning, beneath the headline. I saw the photo, after all, and the seven girls were only girls. They had no haloes or transparent wings. They had no heavenly warmth or sweet, scarless faces kissed individually by God. What the girls did have were muddy pantlegs and boots; bright jackets buttoned against the wind of a Sunday hiking trip; name tags in crooked calligraphy made just that morning by their Lutheran youth-group sponsor. Teresa and Joy, Maura Kay, Mary Anne. Two Jennifers and a Missy. When I close my eyes, I picture the girls stepping back, a warped semicircle, as the body of the murdered boy, his bones and tattered flannels, alters their lives forever. Their hands folded clumsily for prayer. Their seven mouths a silent chorus of ohs.
My mother woke to her room, her hushed house at the end of the street. It was newly morning; she sensed the threat of rain in the bleary sky. She made the walk to the kitchen to pour weak iced tea into a smudged glass. Through the sounds of wind and the sparrows in the trees, she listened for the paperboy, his determined grinding rhythm, until finally, through the swelling silence, came the circular clack of gears, the spit of gravel, the paper's thud against the screen.
She carried the Hutchinson News to her morning bath. The clawfoot tub . . . the Victorian washerwoman prints she'd found at the junkyard . . . the pink towels bordered with roses. She twisted the faucet as hot as she could stand and, lowering herself through the layer of water, unrolled the front page.
My mother saw the headline and photograph. At last: the missing boy.
Henry Barradale, the words said. For the past three days, since reading about the body, she'd been tracking the progress. She had called the police offices; searched for articles on her slow-speed, secondhand computer; stayed up late within the tolerant television light. And now she knew. She raised the paper above the bathwater and ran her fingers along the words. Family Identifies Partridge Boy: a father, mother, and two younger sisters still lived, left behind, in tiny Partridge, Kansas. My mother noted the funeral date. Henry Barradale would be laid to rest at Rayl's Hill cemetery: the same that held her parents, her older brothers and sisters, and even her first husband, the father who'd died only weeks before I was born. Rayl's Hill was the same where, only fourteen months earlier, my stepfather, John, had been buried beside her own empty plot. Yes, my mother knew the cemetery well.
She took her pills with the tea, sitting at the table to sketch her plan. At two o'clock she dialed my number in New York. "Finally he has a name," she said into my machine. She pronounced each word as though he were royalty. From bed I heard her breathless voice, but was too tired to answer. "Hope you're thinking seriously about coming home. I'll call again when I know more."
She found the road atlas, torn-cornered and coverless, among a stack of hospital bills in the hall closet. Partridge, faint point on the map, was only twenty miles away. My mother ripped the atlas pages, figuring she'd never visit those other states again. She tucked Kansas into her purse and began to dress. I imagine she wore her tortoiseshell glasses. I imagine she dabbed some red on her lips, pausing to decide between the wig and half-folded scarf. The straggle toward the antique mirror. The uncertain smile, lights off, the same I'd caught on the day of John's funeral, before Friday-morning treatments, times she thought no one could see. The rain was soft; she could walk to the pickup without getting too wet. Henry's picture stayed sheltered in her purse, alongside the pictures of John, of my sister Alice and me, the atlas pages, the orange prescription bottles. My mother spread the map on the seat, turned the key, and silenced the pedal-steel ballad on the radio. She fixed her eyes on the rainy road, steering John's pea-green Ford along the highway toward Partridge.
All week, she'd called as often as four times a night. In a hesitant, almost childlike voice, she'd urged me to leave New York, to return home. We could play detectives, she'd said. You and me, just the two of us, like we used to do. Come home and we'll learn everything about the missing boy.
The two of us, she'd said. In truth, it was my mother, not me, who'd willingly traveled this world before. Her obsession began the autumn I turned ten. During those chilly, copper months, a boy named Evan Carnaby had vanished from our hometown. He was a boy of fifteen, just like the later Henry; he had identical boredoms and daydreams and after-school slammed doors. Missing, said the flyers Evan's family posted along our streets. Missing, warned the newsmen on our radio and TV.
At first, Alice and I were stunned. We felt we'd known Evan personally: we'd seen him hurling backyard baseballs with his dad; we'd watched from our window seats as he'd boarded our bus. But our strange thrill was no match for our mother's. She'd recently accepted a job at the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory, the maximum-security prison in nearby Hutchinson, and was now our authority on any trickles of knowledge about Evan. She became an insider, a specialist. Evenings, I'd watch proudly as she unbuttoned her walnut-brown uniform and took her hair from its bun. I'd stare at her gold badges and KSIR patches, the belt on which hung a gold-knobbed nightstick, and, most astonishingly, a gun. Perhaps I believed our mother could save Evan Carnaby. Perhaps she believed it, too.We Disappear. Copyright © by Scott Heim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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