Gastonia, North Carolina 1993
On a fall day two months before she is reported missing, fifteen year-old Nikki Baker gazes out the opened classroom window at the athletic fields. Although the temperature the night before had fallen into the thirties, it has moderated into the middle seventies by midafternoon. Orange and yellow leaves lie piled around the trunks of trees whose bare limbs look like cracks in the sky. While the boys playing football clap and shout predictable clichés to urge their teammates on, the girls on the volleyball court simply squeal as loud as they can. The sky is a crisp cobalt blue with a few fugitive clouds edged in lavender crawling by her window. An unremarkable, gray bird lands in the opening for a moment and swipes its beak against the sill. It cocks its head and turns an eye toward her, before flitting away. A jet crosses diagonally, a silvered dot trailing a thin, white plume that billows and then begins dispersing as soon as it forms.
“Here!” she says when her name is called a second time. Her teacher, Brenda Stubblefield, pauses a moment and glances over her glasses as if to be sure; Nikki is often absent from class, and when she is there, she really isn’t. She is two years older than her classmates as well as sister Marianne, who sits two rows away, head nodding, her eyes shut. Someone starts snoring and is sent to the principal’s office.
Nikki spends most of the hour idly drawing concentric and intersecting ellipses. She hears little of the lecture, but remembers a few words—the Pope, crusaders, infidels, zealots, but then a seemingly inconsequential detail focuses her attention. She will later recall the legendary motivations of Pope Urban: the assembly of noblemen, warriors and peasants all united to free The Holy Land from infidels, but the crimson cross each crusader sewed on his tunic becomes the catalyst to her remembering it all. Those tiny crosses represented divine protection, a guarantee of life, or if fate proved unkind, a place assured in heaven. “Via Dei.” The blessed, protected road they would follow—the path of God.
Those tiny crosses represented divine protection, a guarantee of life, or if fate proved unkind, a place assured in heaven. “Via Dei.”
Although she has not been to church in years, not since she was seven and had been placed in a foster home for a year with her sister, the concept intrigues her— eternal life, the protection of faith. She has never disowned God; He knows what is in her heart; the thought comforts her, but mostly she depends on Him to be forgiving. She is young; she will have time to change before she has to account for herself.
A few days later, she buys a silver veneer cross and chain at a little carnival set up in the Food Lion parking lot on Marietta.
“Is it real silver?” she asks the man in the cramped trailer with the sides lifted. She bites on the metal.
He laughs as she threads it around her neck.
“For two dollars you can’t expect sterling,” he says with a lisp and a mugger’s grin as he thumbs through a thick stack of bills, his lips moving silently as he does.
The links in the chain begin turning green within a week.
December 28th, 1993
The two men come in, straddle stools at the counter at the Waffle House, and then, after displaying their badges, begin asking Thelma questions. She stabs the pencil into the bun behind her head and slips the order pad into her apron pocket. She can’t remember what time the girls came in that night.
“Somewhere around eight,” she says, kneading her hands with a towel, “on the 9th, maybe. Something like that.” The words seem to hang in the air, the men studying her for a moment as if they expected more. “Why?”
“They’re missing,” the younger man says and cracks his knuckles.
“They live around the corner on Avon, so we’re checking up and down the street.”
The older man she knows; he stops in now and then, sometimes officially, looking for someone, but usually just for coffee and to pass the time. Always wears the same rumpled suit and tie. Eugene something; she’s never been good with names; the younger one’s she lost as soon as he told her.
The night is turning cold. She felt it tumble through the door when they came in. Near freezing by morning. That’s what Cal the Weatherman said on the Alive at Six Evening News. And some sort of precipitation, although he wasn’t sure what form. Orphan snowflakes whip ominously through passing headlights and whiten sheltered corners. Derelicts in tattered coats, tugging collars against the chill of the uncaring gloom, have gathered outside the Baptist shelter across the street, sharing a cigarette and a bottle before going inside for the night. The salmon colored streetlights paint their faces with an ocher glow, as if they’re jaundiced. A red, neon sign in the front window blinks: “GOD IS LOVE.” A few cars still crawl along Franklin, backseat speakers
thumping like hearts in peril, some trolling for drugs or companionship, but the menacing night has chased the hookers and most of the dealers inside.
The cook hums Amazing Grace as he scrapes the grill, the air thick with hot grease, fried bacon, and stale tobacco. The ceiling mounted television is tuned to a 24-7 news program, the sound down, teaser headlines riding the shoulder of a young blonde with flawless skin.
“You can’t be more definite?” Eugene says, twisting his wedding band.
“No. It could have been seven. It could have been nine. I wasn’t watching the clock. Had no call to. Besides, it was weeks ago,” she says and pushes bangs off her forehead with the back of her wrist. She shakes a Newport loose and taps the filter against the box. The younger detective fishes a Bic lighter from his pocket. “They left about an hour later. Something like that. They ordered waffles and cokes, which was unusual. That’s why I remember it at all. Most of the time they’d just have a cup of coffee and pay with pocket change. Sometimes they were a little short, but I looked the other way. I figured, what the hell; I mean who’s gonna miss a cup of coffee here and there, but that night, when they left, the older one?”
“Nikki,” he says.
“Yeah. She handed me a twenty and told me to keep the change.” She chuckles. “Biggest tip I ever got, and from a kid at that.”
“And you’re sure it was the 9th?” the younger man says and yawns. He has small, black eyes set back in his head as if they’re trying to hide.
She turns and traces her finger down a wall calendar behind the cash register, chewing her lip, her eyes narrowed.
“9th or 10th,” she says, tapping her finger against the two dates, then: “No. Had to be the 9th. The 10th was on a Friday. That was my day off then.” She tilts her head back and blows smoke toward the ceiling.
“Now it’s Wednesday,” she says and laughs, but not happily. “Who the hell has Wednesday off?”
The younger man shrugs and tugs his right earlobe.
“So far you’re the last person to have seen them,” Eugene says, the skin on his jaws slack, flaccid pouches under his eyes.
“They were in here a lot, during the day even, when they should have been in school.”
“That’s been a problem for years,” he says.
“What were they in, high school, junior high?”
“Both in junior high. Hunter Huss.”
“I went to Hunter Huss.”
“Me, too,” Eugene says.
“A long time ago,” she says in a melancholy voice.
“Tell me about it.” His glasses have tape wrapped around the bridge.
“Say! You all want something?” she says.
“Coffee,” Eugene says. “Decaf.”
The younger one nods.
“Regular,” he says. “Lots of cream.”
She fills the cups and sets them in place. “You want some pie with that?” she says. She glances over her shoulder. “Still got some blueberry left. It’s pretty fresh.” She turns and stands on her toes.
”There’s a slice of apple back there too, but I think it needs to be thrown out.”
“No thanks,” Eugene says and pats his bulging stomach.
“Yeah,” the younger man says and tugs a handful of napkins from the dispenser. “Blueberry sounds good.”
She ladles a piece onto a saucer and inspects a fork before sliding it to him.
“They’re sisters, right?” she says.
The younger man nods.
“I figured. They seemed pretty tight,” she says. “Most of the time they were just killing time, never had much to say, all quiet like, suspicious even, but that night I remember they were happy. Laughing. Giggling. I guess that’s why it sticks in my mind. The younger one said they were going to California.”
"That night I remember they were happy. Laughing. Giggling. I guess that’s why it sticks in my mind. The younger one said they were going to California.”
“California,” the younger man says, pouring sugar into his coffee, moving the dispenser up and down, studying the stream of cascading granules.
“That’s what she said. Her sister tried to shush her, as if it was some big secret, but the other one was so excited she couldn’t keep quiet. The older one made me promise I’d keep it to myself, and then she pulled an envelope out from under her shirt. There were two bus tickets inside along with a stack of twenties. I told her to be careful, with all that money, I mean. She just shrugged like it was no big deal and tucked it back in her waistband.” She opens and closes her hands.
“You know how kids are, like nothing bad’s ever gonna happen?”
“They say when?” the younger man says.
“I don’t remember. She might have.” She smiles apologetically.
“But somehow I thought they were leaving that night. You know? The way they kept watching the clock, the younger one nudging her sister to check it again and again.” She flicks ashes. “Seemed like they were awful young to be going out on their own like that; that’s why I remember, I suppose.”
“They run around with these two guys, same two always, never anybody else.” She rolls her eyes. “Losers if I ever saw one.” She points toward the side window. “I’ve seen them hanging out at the Living Arts Tattoo Parlor and the pool hall.”
The younger man nods. “Wayne O’Neal? Jody Hall?” he says.
“Never knew their names. One of them has tattoos all over.”
She smirks. “Spider Man. That’s what I call him.” She taps her temple. “Even has those Nazi things up here. The twisted crosses?”
The younger man nods. His slick, black hair looks wet.
“Swastikas,” he says.
“Whatever. He always hung around with the younger one. I forget her name.”
“Yeah. That’s it.” She fixes herself a glass of iced tea. “He’s old enough to be her father anyway,” she says. “For Christ’s sake, she’s just a kid. How old is she?”
“That son-of-a-bitch,” she says and flattens the cigarette into an ashtray.
“And the other one?”
“I dunno. Nothing special. Young. Bleary eyed. Headbanger with one foot in the grave. You know the type? Seen one, you’ve seen them all.” She runs her fingers up and down the glass. “But he did have a tattoo. Just one. Well, two, really, of the same thing. Not like his moron pal. I guess that’s what makes it stand out in my mind.” She points to her forearm. “Here. Same on each arm. Like mirror images maybe? A yellow snake biting its tail. I’ve seen it before. On television maybe.”
The younger man smiles knowingly at his partner. “O’Neal and Hall,” he says.
“Where the hell’s the mother? Letting them run around with trash like that,” she says.
“I guess she’s got her own problems,” the younger man says and picks up a newspaper lying to the side.
“How long they been gone?” she says and glances again at the calendar.
“Almost three weeks.”
“Probably just run away again,” she says. “I hear it happens a lot. Social Services was in here a couple of times looking for them.”
“Probably,” Eugene says.
“But never this long,” the other man says.
“What do the boyfriends say?” she says.
“That they haven’t seen them in a couple of months.”
“That ain’t right. They were all in here after Thanksgiving. The four of them.” She points at a corner booth. “Right there. I remember, ‘cause Roy had to tell ‘em to watch their language. Spider Man at least. Jesus! I mean, this ain’t no church or nothing. You know what I mean? But he had to run his mouth, loud, like he wanted to make sure everybody heard him. Asshole.”
“We’re pretty sure they’re lying,” the younger man says and pushes the paper aside.
“They’re dealin’, right?” she says, her voice lowered, eyes locked on Eugene. “The two morons?”
“Yeah. Small time. A few hundred here and there, a grand at the most. We got a sheet on them. In and out of jail.”
She rotates her head with a hand on the back of her neck and grimaces as she does.
“You okay?” he says.
“Yeah. As good as I’m gonna get. On your feet all night? Kills your neck and back. Old age, I guess,” she says with a short mirthless laugh.
She glances at the television. A picture of a grim faced man with numbers under his chin rides the woman’s shoulder. It lingers for a moment and then fades to one of two young boys, their expressions carefree, as if they don’t have a care in the world. The blond with the perfect skin isn’t smiling.
“You boys’re working late,” she says after checking the clock against her watch.
“Tell me about it,” the younger man says with his mouth full.
“People go nuts this time of year. Never fails. Peace on earth my ass.”
She expected him to be the one to agree. Eugene just sits there staring down at his coffee, his hands wrapped around the cup, as if he’s in no hurry to leave, no hurry to go anywhere. She’s seen the look before, a lot, but usually after midnight: someone running out of options, watching his coffee grow cold.
The television picture switches to red and blue lights flashing in the night, sheet covered bodies lying along a street, people wearing little white caps running by the camera, hands on their cheeks, crying.
“I thought what’s-his-face got that shit straightened out a long time ago,” the younger one says, chewing, shaking his fork at the screen. “That’s what they said anyway.”
“Been going on for a thousand years,” Eugene says, rattling his spoon. “It’ll be going on a thousand more.”
“Maybe they made it to California,” she says to the detectives, brushing her apron. “They seemed pretty determined.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” the younger man says as he pushes the empty saucer away and swipes at the corners of his mouth with a finger. He places his hand over the cup and shakes his head when she attempts to freshen it. “Pie wasn’t half bad,” he says and belches discreetly into his fist.
“But it could have happened,” she says, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, making fleeting eye contact with Eugene. He nods almost imperceptibly. “They might have made it,” she says, the words and smile trailing away like smoke.
“Yeah,” he says. He clears his throat and coughs into his fist.
“Anything’s possible. How much we owe you?”
“Four twenty-five,” she says and spears the bill on a spike. A clear plastic cube with a photo of a young girl taped to the inside sits beside the register. Sarah something, her last name an unpronounceable string of letters ending in –ski. Waiting on a heart operation, it says.
Without it she will die. A quarter and a dime lie trapped inside.
“I’ll catch the next one,” the younger man says to his partner.
He spins around on the stool and smoothes his hair using the window as a mirror. He turns his head side-to-side, checking himself, and begins whistling low.
Eugene tugs a wrinkled five from his pants pocket.
“Keep it,” he says and lays one of his cards on the counter. “If you see them or think of anything else, just leave a message. We’ll get back with you.” And then he pats her shoulder.
“The young one? Marianne?” she says to their backs, her voice fragile, stretching the bill between her hands. “She said something about the ocean! That she’d never seen it!”
“Yeah,” Eugene says spiritlessly as they open the door and tug their collars against the cold. After the detectives leave, only she, the cook, the other waitress, and a man and woman with two kids in a corner booth remain. It will pick up again after midnight when the bars begin closing and the drunks discover that someone at home has had enough and changed the locks.
It will pick up again after midnight when the bars begin closing and the drunks discover that someone at home has had enough and changed the locks.
Thelma shakes another Newport loose and leans against the cash register, looking out the windows. There’s nothing to see. Just the night and her staring back at herself. She lights the cigarette, takes a couple of quick, short drags, but then scrapes the tip out, straightens the butt, and drops it back in the box. She picks up the card Eugene left, studies it for a moment, but then wads it into a waste can. She begins wiping the counter with a damp towel.
Two cops in uniform come in laughing and straddle stools.
“Welcome to Waffle House,” she says and smiles, tossing the
January 4th, 1994
Although the temperature had not fallen below freezing the night before, an unrelenting, north wind rips the warmth from everything; scraps of paper and winter-killed leaves tossed upward twisting indolently like confused butterflies. The air smells clean with the freshness of pine and just the remotest hint of wood smoke.
A group of men stand waiting for the detectives, hands resting on shovels, at the end of Sam Ferguson Road, a remote, unpopulated area near the South Carolina border. They stare blankly at the grave they’d partially excavated the afternoon before until it became too dark to continue, their expressions hardened, protectively, perhaps, trying to prepare themselves. Some have seen a corpse at one time or the other, a consequence of what they have chosen to do for a living, but not like this, especially not under what will certainly be extraordinarily demeaning circumstances. Those with children feel an acute, vicarious dread. And even those without children, but with hope still that someday they might come into their lives, can sense that something has been taken from them all. And somewhere under the red, slick clay are two children, at one time like other children, perhaps, thinking still that something will happen to change their lives for the better with them having to do nothing but wait. Those standing around, hugging themselves for warmth, are old enough to know better. Some vow silently to be more attentive to their own children, to someone they care about or who cares for them, to be more loving, perhaps, pledges that will be quickly forgotten as the day and its memories recede and the normalcy of their own lives overwhelms them once again.
And somewhere under the red, slick clay are two children, at one time like other children, perhaps, thinking still that something will happen to change their lives for the better with them having to do nothing but wait.
The detectives arrive around nine, and after a few photographs,tell the men to begin digging.
Although they proceed cautiously, unhurried despite the cold, a shovel tip tears into the back of Nikki’s exposed thigh at about four feet down, as Wayne O’Neal had said. A man with a cigarette butt stuck behind his ear announces in a clear voice that it is eleven ten. All the others crowd close, staring down into the hole. One of them kneels and uses a straw broom to clear dirt and lime away for initial photographs. The girls have been placed head to feet, Nikki on top with her back up, Marianne’s face sandwiched between her sister’s ankles, her eyes mercifully caked with mud so that she appears less human. Someone remarks that the bodies have been placed, almost arranged, in the makeshift grave, not thrown in as one would expect, seeing that it had
been night, and given the passion involved. No one knows what to say, but nothing can mitigate what they have found. One man bows his head, closes his eyes, and holds his interlaced fingers against his chin as if absorbed in prayer. Another throws up to the side, but most simply stare, solemnly, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. What clothes remain have been skewed on their bodies. The stench of feces and rotting flesh foul the morning. The Chaplain, who had arrived with the detectives, recites the Lord’s Prayer rapidly and then holds the handkerchief to his nose again as he turns away.
January 8th, 1995
Brenda Stubblefield, who had been the girls’ history teacher, the one The Gazette quoted when asked about Nikki: “I didn’t know her as well as I would have liked to,” did not suddenly remember the day, but neither had it been ingrained nor crossed off on some calendar, either literally or in thought, not a day to anticipate or plan for like Christmas or Thanksgiving, nor one to remember with unrequited anguish, like the day her husband left her.
She bought a bouquet of carnations arranged in a vase wrapped in green foil and decorated with a rainbow-striped ribbon to place on the girls’ grave.
As she steps from the car at the cemetery, she thinks about how quickly the year has passed, a year in which her husband divorced her and then married a younger woman, a woman only ten years older than their daughters, a bright, ambitious woman, a financial planner who, as it turned out, had handled their investments, a woman who did aerobics daily, whose skin was unwithered by age, an advocate of d-alpha tocopherol and beta-carotene. Although reluctant at first, her daughters finally agreed to a weeklong camping trip in the Smokies with their father and his new wife; when it was over, they asked to stay away another week, and she took them shopping and to an exclusive salon in Charlotte to have their hair done. When Brenda finally met the woman who had taken her husband, who had been the catalyst to the dissolution of her family, they conversed civilly, without the rancor or bitterness or poisoned silence that she had imagined, but when the woman suggested that they meet for lunch, Brenda declined. It was all too civilized for her. Eventually, her younger daughter went to live with her father, and even though the older one remains at home, a kind of mute resentment fills the house. The endemic loyalties have dissolved. An ambivalence toward everything rules her life—she has nothing outside herself to focus an agonizing discontent upon.
What to do with all the pictures? Something she has been putting off for months. Snapshots of them, she and her husband, when they were young, smiling eagerly, hungering for each other, pictures of the children and all their firsts, the milestones of their lives, of their house being built. She will store them away, bury them deep behind boxes of perfectly good shoes she will never wear again. She imagines that Nikki and Marianne had never had their pictures taken, not with love to celebrate significant moments in their lives, but what did it matter? Would it have made any difference? No. She alone has remembered and mourned them. Pictures! They are nothing more than a false chronology that adds up to nothing. Nothing. Reminders. And she does not need to be reminded that she has failed, that…
But it will happen to her, too, the woman she cannot bring herself to hate. One bright, clear morning she will awaken and smile, her thoughts untroubled, the day ahead uncluttered with neither travail nor doubt. She will rest her arm across her sleeping husband, an older man who has enriched her life, given it perspective, the wisdom and humor of another time. Later, she might discover that a dormant stock, one long since discounted, has doubled in value, or perhaps, the impulsive purchase of that automobile she has long coveted, the logo being more important than the model, might further enrich the moment. As on any other day, the men she passes on the street, those who surreptitiously turn to watch her walk away, will amuse her. And that night she might stand before a mirror, the image screaming youth and forever back at her, contentment coursing through her body, one day melting uneventfully into the next, until the moment she raises her arm and feels a knot in her breast. It will be important that she know, that she be reminded each morning as she awakens, not that someday she might go to sleep untroubled and just never wake up. To Brenda, this inevitable evening-up in life, she names it faith.
To Brenda, this inevitable evening-up in life, she names it faith.
As she carries the flowers toward the isolated corner where Nikki and Marianne are buried, she remembers the two girls she had forced to attend the funeral with her—insolent, privileged dilettantes who will never be able to define compassion if they live to be a hundred. At times during the year, she thought she might stop teaching, stop wasting her life with Neanderthals addicted to a common, vulgar culture. She might quit, but she won’t. She might diet; she might exercise; she might lose fifty pounds, but she won’t. She is who she is, and it has not been enough.
She places the flowers on the grave and sits, the warmth from her legs and bottom fleeing into the cold, hard ground, and pulls dead, winter grass that has spread across the flat, marble marker during the summer and spring. An American flag, the sun having robbed its colors, strains against knotted ropes, its tattered edges snapping in the wind. She traces her finger along the two engraved names on the plaque and wonders what they had done to be denied the lifetimes allotted to most? Nikki and Marianne. Marianne and Nikki. Pretty names. Innocent names, even. In a perverse way she envies them, because they are free, while she remains shackled. Death has cleansed. Death has unburdened. Death has liberated. And how long could they have suffered? No more than a few minutes. A small price to pay. No one has remembered them, no one but her, and the burden of living is being remembered. Insight floods her, causes her to catch her breath. Of course. To be forgotten is to be free. How clear it seems, now. She can live with herself as she is, but not in a world that pities her. For the first time she knows that if she could slip into the rabbit hole, into a mythical world of strangers, she would be content. That’s exactly what they had done. They had slipped into oblivion, somewhere, somewhere they would not be remembered. She stands and dusts away dead grass clinging to her pants. The bickering snarl of screened, interstate traffic just a few feet away does not annoy her. She pretends it is the voice of the wind.
A cotton-tailed rabbit watches from a tangle of briars and leafless vines as the woman weaves her way between the markers toward her car. It waits several minutes after she has driven away before venturing into the open, cautiously, searching the ground ahead for shadows of impending danger. It noses around a fluted green vase with red and white carnations sitting atop the common grave of Nikki and Marianne. Sensing no peril, it sits erect on hind legs and nibbles the blossoms.
Lones Seiber is a retired aerospace engineer living in Morristown, Tennessee. His stories have appeared in GSU Review, The Pinch, Lynx Eye, The Wordstock Ten, Tall Grass Writers Anthology, Inkwell, Pearl, and Indiana Review. His nonfiction has appeared in American Heritage. He won the 2005 GSU Review Fiction Contest, the 2007 Pinch (River City) Fiction Contest, and the 2008 Leslie Garrett Award for fiction. He also won the 2011 Indiana Review Fiction Contest and the 2011 Warren Adler Prize for Fiction. His story Icarus was selected for inclusion as one of twenty stories in The Best Mystery Stories of 2012 anthology published by Houghton Mifflin.