The news was full of her. Mandy Masters. Only child of Paul and Sandra. Mandy Masters, who besides singing, played soccer and was learning ballet. Mandy Masters, small and sweet-faced, with short, dark hair and big brown eyes. Hour by hour, newsmen and women recounted every known detail.
The last time she was seen: standing on the far left of the first row of risers.
Her apparel: dark jeans and the Honor Choir T-shirt, sneakers.
The last person to speak with her: Sandra Masters, who kissed her daughter as she followed the parade of singers to the school bus.
Or was it?
No one on the bus remembered seeing her. No adult charged with supervising the trip. No fellow-student, giddy with the excitement of the occasion, the season.
Only afterward. Long afterward. When Sandra Masters arrived at the school to pick up her darling Mandy to learn new ballet steps, Mandy did not appear. The other children filed onto buses, waved to each other, hurried past. Not Mandy. When Sandra went inside looking, Mandy was not there.
"Isn’t she with You?" they asked her.
"We thought a parent took her from the mall." she was told.
"Perhaps her father?" they suggested.
And time dragged on.
Television pictures showed the darling hand-crafted ornament Mandy brought home from school two days before her disappearance. Pine-cone and pipe-cleaner reindeer with spindly antlers and tiny eyelashes. Mandy hung it as high as she could reach. It hung now in lonely vigil. There in the middle of the magnificent Scotch Pine. Lonely amid store-bought ornaments. Lonely on its artificial Scotch pine branch. Waiting for Mandy.
Pictures of her parents. Over and over. Crying. Voices trembling. Silent beside the tree that cradled Mandy’s pine-cone reindeer.
Then silence became complete. Deafening. Definite.
Christmas came and went. Spring clothes suddenly appeared in the mall. Bargains and more bargains. The Masters and their absent child and the tree and the pine-cone reindeer…?
Long dull days of Christmas week. Between one holiday’s glitter, and another’s gayity. The house still full of noise. Teenagers, and music. More late night movies than ever. For them, it meant time to sleep. Time to waste. Time to shop.
"These are the cutest shoes," our daughter squealed, looking up from the newspaper ads.
Nineteen years old. Home from college in Corvallis. Carry. Our oldest. The one who made parents of us.
"Do you really need more shoes?" my husband asked. He pulled a section of the paper out from under her page.
I leaned forward, inspected the ad.
"They look just like the pair you’re wearing,” I mused.
"They’re not the same at all," she laughed at my lack of style-discrimination.
"Do you really need more shoes?" the query repeated.
"You can never have too many shoes," I taunted.
My husband said nothing. I was expecting more jabs about our daughter’s footwear frenzy. He was reading the paper. Too much rustling as he looked for the next section of the story. Then he folded it and looked away.
"Do you mind?" Carrie was asking.
He looked up then, shaken.
"If I use the car. Go to the mall." She was talking to an idiot, perhaps.
"Not today," he said simply.
For once there was no dispute. The look on his face was unsettled. Unsettling.
"Tomorrow then," she declared on her way upstairs.
I moved closer to him. Tried to sense what was troubling him. After twenty-one years of marriage I can usually detect his concerns. This time there was nothing.
"She is a good driver," I prodded.
Silence. He left the sofa and walked into the kitchen. He turned on the tap, filled a glass with water, drank. I watched. His hand trembled. Just slightly. After a moment, I went to him.
"Something is going on at the mall," he said quietly.
"It figures," I replied, “All the kids are home for break. What is it? Some big opening of a music store?"
"No, something is happening." His eyes burrowed into mine. Now I was the idiot. The words meant something. Something more than themselves. Something I was not detecting.
He sighed. Put the glass on the counter. Took my arm. Led me back to the sofa. When I was settled, he put his arm around my shoulder, and looked at me again.
"What? Tell me, Joel ," I implored.
"Little stories keep coming up. In the paper. I never see them on TV. Something about the mall. People disappearing."
"You mean that little girl a few days ago? “I asked blankly.
"She was one of them," he said.
"One? How many are you talking about?"
"Rosalie," he shook his head slowly, "you should read the paper once in a while. You should–"
He was lecturing me. Amid telling me about people disappearing. He was frowning over his glasses, shaking his head slowly. Amid warning me of danger to our community. Our children.
"Oh my God," I gasped.
"Shhh," he covered my mouth with his hand. The hand was shaking again. Not so slightly.
Hands are what I notice most about people. People talk with their hands as much as their eyes. More than their mouths. They express fear, confidence, excitement. They express what is beyond words. Beyond thought. The use of them to touch, to scold, to gesture.
It was what I loved first about Joel. His hands, strong and skilled. Calloussed from work as a machinist. Capable. They are always ready to interact, always gentle.
I looked at him, calmer. The hand withdrew.
"Tell me, Joel."
"I’ve counted," he began softly, "the number of missing persons, mysterious disappearances. I didn’t mean to count them." He was nearly apologetic. "I couldn’t help noticing them."
I waited. His words were soft, washed over me like warm, slow tide. They pulled me into awareness. Into his fear.
"How many, Joel?" I nudged.
"In the last six months, since I noticed," he paused again, five people."
"That’s nearly one a month," I gasped again. "And that little girl, Mandy Masters?"
He nodded. "Number five."
I could not look at him. I could barely think. Numb was what I felt. Numb and cold, and the shivering would not stop.
"Everyday," he droned on mechanically, "everyday I look to see if any kind of investigation is being conducted. To see if anyone else is counting them like I am. Everyday there is nothing. People are disappearing. Children, old people. At the mall, near the mall. Just inside the mall."
"Are you sure?" How could such a thing be possible in our quiet, unremarkable town?
Colleen rushed into our midst. Words and worries were put aside. The mall was suddenly more invasive into our quiet, home-centered existence. But it stood nearly six miles away. Colleen, the other children, our life throbbed immediately at hand.
(to be continued)