The girl had been in Shannon’s English class, indistinguishable before she went missing from the others. The ones chiseled from marble, spun from silk. They walked around campus like gods holding their power in check, gracious with omniscience. They sat beside her in lecture halls, in classrooms with tidy rows of desks, and mostly acted like she didn’t exist. She was an uncomfortable reminder, a specter, the Ghost of Female Future. Yes, her presence said—one day, and it will happen before you know it, these lines around your eyes, this splintering of beauty. Your hair will lose its gloss. The bagger at the grocery store calls you ma’am. The construction workers let you pass by in peace. You walk down the street trying not to think about your own body, your twenty-year-old self living inside you like another beating heart.
On the small TV above the bar, they showed the same picture they always showed: The missing girl against a tree in a park, straight white teeth, long blond hair pulled off a pretty neck. Looking as if she’d just received an award, or fallen in love.
The story still ran periodically, though it had been almost three months now and no new information had been found. How tragedy struck a small Midwestern college town last March when a young girl disappeared walking home alone, never to be seen or heard from again. Over images of street corners and dry empty fields, the newscaster recited details in a blunt unmusical tone. The missing girl’s cell phone found in the grass by the Walmart just outside town, the only fingerprints her own, no outgoing calls or texts past the time she went missing. Friends say she’d left the bar early, that it was not yet dark, that she didn’t have far to go. A walk they’d all done before, down streets considered safe enough. The story continued to offer up the missing girl’s bland credentials—on the volleyball team, a straight-A student, reliable teammate and friend, kind daughter and sister, a delightful student!—intended as clues or warnings, breadcrumbs for the rest of them to follow. But where, Shannon wondered. Out of danger, or into it?
She liked to think of the missing girl right before, dusty blue light through the trees, the scent of late summer barbecues and chlorine, steady rhythm of her boots on the pavement, irrepressible humming: a tune she couldn’t shake about the intoxicating vagaries of love.
One was expected to be prepared, remain vigilant, in a constant state of caution and suspicion—but maybe, Shannon thought, there was nothing better than dissolving into thin air.
The bartender pointed his finger at her, and she nodded. She’d forgotten his name, but he was the one who worked this shift. Besides the two or three locals who enjoyed day drinking, the bar was often empty at this hour. Today there was only one other person, and he’d chosen the seat next to her, so close she could smell the booze on his breath.
Students came at the end of the night for strong pours and cheap shots, but it didn’t have much atmosphere. No jukebox or video games or pool table, just a bar and some hard wooden stools.
“These girls,” the man next to her said now, shaking his head. “They think they’re invincible.”
It took her a moment to realize he was referring to the missing girl, though she wondered why he spoke in the plural. Perhaps it was their collective fault, a responsibility all girls shouldered together.
“It’s awful,” she said, trying to sound private, dismissive.
“I bet he’s got her somewhere.” He looked up at the screen and nodded. “She’s probably just down the street, right under everyone’s noses, chained to a radiator in the basement.” He grinned at her. He had heavy-lidded eyes, a glazed-over hunger in them that suggested pharmaceuticals and arrogance. A few years younger than Shannon, mid-thirties maybe, and overdressed in an old-fashioned way: navy blazer, a gauzy yellow handkerchief in the breast pocket. She’d never seen him at the bar before, though the bartender had said his name, Bennie, or maybe Bernie, as way of greeting.
She briefly considered whether he could be a kidnapper. Too clean, she decided, too comfortable with himself. Those guys, the predators, they usually had a quirk, a tick, they gave their depravity away by how they weren’t in complete control of their body’s mechanics.
She made a sound that was neither agreement nor dismissal.
“‘He seemed like such a nice guy,’ his neighbors will say. ‘Always trimming his rosebushes and walking his little Pomeranian.’” He removed a roll of breath mints from his pocket and offered her one. The tear of the wrapper unleashed a brief nostalgia in Shannon: a summer camp, a first kiss. Water on the floor of a canoe and spider webs in the corners, the startling wetness of another mouth.
“No, thank you,” she said, and that seemed to be all the encouragement he needed.
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” he said, and, “You’ve got beautiful eyes,” he said, and, later, “It’s rare to meet a woman with looks and brains these days.” There was an ironic playfulness in his delivery that made it clear both that he was hitting on her and that he knew how creepy that was. She appreciated the honesty in this approach, what seemed to her the only real way to do it these days. And it was good to have a drinking partner.
* * *
Though she went home with him that night, she didn’t learn his real name, Bennett, until weeks later. And even then, she never used it. They had no use for names. Names were for people who told other people about their business.
Sometimes she brought her homework to the bar, or to Bennett’s. He lived over someone else’s garage. Hardwood floors and shabby oriental rugs, amateur watercolors of ships handsomely framed. She didn’t get much work done either place, but she did get drinking done. Though she and Bennett had nothing really in common, they had that, and they had the other thing. There was a balcony off his living room that overlooked a pool where children presumably belonging to the house proper frolicked. Cries of Marco and Polo sometimes masked her own noises. They would sit outside when the pool was still and quiet, drink vodka tonics and nurture their own private thoughts. She knew it wasn’t love, but it was nice to be with someone without judgment. Bennett had many flaws, but he never made her feel bad about herself.
And they had the missing girl.
It started when he picked her up one day wearing a ski mask. When she laughed and tried to tug it off, he told her to shut up, and when they got to his place, they couldn’t find the bed fast enough. They’d since incorporated rope and duct tape.
“I’ve been watching you.”
“Please don’t hurt me.”
More often than not, the words didn’t do their job. She would try to imagine the missing girl, what she might have thought, but there was a wall separating her from that.
“That’s enough talking, little girl.”
Sometimes he left her in the apartment tied to the bed for hours at a time. There was a delirium she fell into, a fugue state between lucidity and dreaming, desire and repulsion, as she lay there staring up at the ceiling, unable to do anything, everything, life itself entirely out of her control.
“Marco!” she would shout down to the kids in the pool, but they never responded.
* * *
“That’s sick, Shannon,” Maya said. “What’s happened to you?”
On the phone to her sister, she tried to explain without it seeming too weird. They’d never been particularly close but had maintained the practice of weekly phone calls since their mother died. It was clear both of them saw these calls as a chore to get through, but the chore was better than the guilt.
“Nothing’s happened to me. I’m just having some fun. Aren’t I allowed to have fun?”
But that wasn’t the complete truth. It wasn’t fun, exactly. It was more like necessary. Like jumping up and down when you’re cold. Moving something that needed moving.
“This is like some weird midlife crisis. It’s weird, Shannon.”
Her sister had always held her at a distance, like a goldfish in a bowl. She would peer into the glass from time to time to make sure Shannon was still alive and to congratulate herself on not being a goldfish.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Shannon said.
“Where is Eric during all of this?”
“Oh, he watches, but doesn’t participate.”
“I never bring Bennett to the house. And Eric’s been spending most of his time at his father’s anyway.”
Her sister sighed, and there were sounds of movement. Shannon imagined her with the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear, making dinner while helping her kids with their homework and mopping the floor and looking amazing while doing it.
“Are you drinking?” her sister asked.
“I’m having a glass of wine. Is that a crime?”
“Yes. In some countries it is.”
* * *
“What happened?” Bennett asked one night, after, as they were lying in his bed. Her wrists were still tied to the bedpost, though he’d released her feet, and she wrapped her legs around him. He traced the scar along her cheekbone. After six months, it had mostly healed but there was still a faint white line.
“Car accident,” she said. And he didn’t ask anything more, but she told him anyway. How she ran a red light, how when she looked at it she swore it was yellow, how she remembered singing at the top of her lungs to some stupid pop song, then headlights and glass. Her son was saved by his seatbelt, but somehow his leg got caught when the car flipped, his tibia fractured. She survived completely unscathed. The tibia took months to heal, months Eric struggled with crutches, zoned out on pain meds. He could no longer play football. How she had been drinking. Not much, but enough.
“Does he blame you?”
“What do you think?”
“Maybe the light was yellow.”
She shook her head in the dark.
* * *
Every day she planned to do something different, to study, do her reading, go to class and pay attention. But every day, the temptation was too great. She still worked part-time at the spa, would get off in the afternoons after rubbing the skin of strangers and know that Bennett waited on a barstool. And as the leaves began to fall off the trees, she felt herself losing an internal battle that had been, for the most part, waged hypothetically.
* * *
Saturday night, one of her weekends with Eric, she waited up for him, watching a show on TV called Vanished and mixing generous vodka tonics. It was some kind of marathon. Ever since the girl’s disappearance, it seemed like they were all over the place, the stories of the missing. People exchanged them at the bar and the store and at school. Friends of friends, second cousins, old childhood playmates. Jimmy Hoffa. D. B. Cooper. Errol Flynn’s son. Mystery gave weight to the details of their lives in a way death never could. Speculation kept them alive. Amelia Earhart flying over the Pacific—did she crash her plane on a deserted island and live the rest of her days tangled in seaweed with Fred Noonan, drinking the milk of coconuts and catching fish with her bare hands?
On the show the saddest ones were those whose case was still open, mystery never solved. The fathers who went out every day to search for their long lost daughters. The despair on their faces, voices cracking—stuck in limbo, able to neither grieve nor rejoice.
She waited until Eric’s curfew, and then an hour later, and then another hour. He wasn’t responding to her texts. When he finally walked through the door, she forgot to be grateful.
“Where were you? You were supposed to be home two hours ago.”
“Sorry, sorry, I know,” he said, shedding his coat like a weary father after a long day of work. He towered over her by a good six inches now. “We were at this party, and Tyler had too much to drink, and I kept trying to get him to leave with me, but he wouldn’t, and I didn’t want to abandon him. I was going to call, but I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Have you been drinking?” she asked.
“Not really. I had one beer. I see you have, though.”
“Sit down,” she said.
He perched on the edge of the couch and sighed.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” He brushed the long bangs from his forehead with a gesture that made him seem much older than his seventeen years. She wondered when his last haircut was. It got confusing with him spending so much time with his father, in whose domain things fell.
“We never get to just talk anymore. I don’t know what’s going on with you.”
“What are you watching?”
She’d forgotten about the show. On the screen a young man had his arm around a crying older woman.
“Oh I don’t know, some show about missing persons,” she said.
“Can’t you watch something a little more upbeat?”
She looked at the TV. A reenactment now: headlights coming upon a lone woman on a dark street.
“It’s interesting,” she said. “These people, they never see it coming.”
He looked at her, a flicker of something she couldn’t read. “I’m tired,” he said, rising and climbing the stairs before she could think of something to make him stay. He still had a slight limp from the accident that he tried to hide, and he used the banister for support.
She didn’t want to admit that it was easier when he wasn’t there. During the weeks he was at his father’s, she could breathe easier. Of course she looked forward to his visits, but they’d begun to also loom in a way she didn’t know what to do with. There were too many pieces of him kept from her, chunks of absence that required a closing off to protect from unremitting heartache.
She climbed the stairs. His door was closed, soft beats vibrating out. She knocked softly. When he didn’t answer, she knocked louder. She turned the doorknob. He was sitting on his bed, phone in his hand.
“What,” he said. She felt like she’d walked into a stranger’s room. There was a poster tacked to the wall of a woman in a skimpy bikini; a Union Jack hung big-bellied from the ceiling; the dry erase board displayed a drawing of a marijuana leaf and some jagged text—no you don’t see me I got moves like beef jerky I love bitches like Obama pardons turkeys.
“You are my son. This is my house.”
“Please,” he said, and there was real pleading behind it. “I have to get some sleep.”
* * *
She failed her algebra exam. Her lit professor had given her an extension for the midterm essay, but it was now due the day after tomorrow and she hadn’t even started it. Rope burns on her wrists, a perpetual tape rash above her lip.
The thrill was beginning to fade. It no longer felt like a forbidden narrative they were exploring together. When Bennett left her tied up, she couldn’t stop thinking about all the minutes that were being taken up. All the time she was just a body, existing.
On the phone with her sister, she no longer spoke of Bennett. When asked about school or Eric, Shannon gave answers that were not false.
“Fine,” she said. “Everything is fine.”
* * *
At the spa, a client came in for a deep tissue massage. Usually Carrie, one of the other masseuses, did these, but she was on vacation, and so Shannon had agreed to take over some of her appointments. If she wasn’t doing schoolwork, she should at least try to make some money.
The client was a woman around Shannon’s age, well manicured and perfumed, hair stiff and precise in a platinum blond bob, thick makeup. Her name Calista or Tamara or Melanie. This was the spa’s main clientele. Shannon felt comfortable with these women. She knew what they wanted. Someone to listen to them, someone to feel superior to. To work out all the stress and worry they keep hidden beneath their skin, touch them without judgment.
This one was chatty. She wasted no time in getting to the personal details. Shannon zoned in and out with periodic sounds of response and encouragement as she pressed the heel of her hand between the woman’s shoulder blades. The woman was telling a story about someone she was dating, a recent trip. The face rest made it seem as if she were speaking from the bottom of a well.
Being a massage therapist wasn’t something Shannon ever saw herself doing for this long. She’d become certified because she thought it would be good experience for nursing school, to get to know the human body, its ligaments and pressure points. But she surprised herself with how much she liked it, how good she was. There was a way in which, after the first couple minutes, as she went deeper into a myofascial trigger point, she would enter a door and the body on the table would open itself to her, her hands moving with a logic she wasn’t quite conscious of, a secret language pressed into the muscles, the deep intuitive conversation of flesh, and something like swimming in the ocean would settle in, a sweet churning surrender. Mostly she could separate this from her own desire. But sometimes the urge was too great, the door would open and she would fall in.
“The sex is mind-blowing. I mean, you wouldn’t believe,” Calista was saying. “So we’re going at it, he has me up against a wall, and my friend Veronica knocks on the door.” Shannon’s right hand began to cramp. This happened from time to time, an inevitable byproduct of doing this work for as long as she had. She shook it out, rolled her wrist, and tried to press through.
“I recently started seeing someone new myself,” she said, to try to stop the woman from going where her current anecdote was headed. “It’s still pretty new.” She asked the woman to turn over as she held the sheet.
“That’s the best part. What does he do?”
With her left hand Shannon dug into a lymphatic pressure point in the armpit while lifting the woman’s arm with her right.
“He works for the hospital,” she said. “Administration stuff.” Though she realized she had no idea what he did for a living. Bennett was free most afternoons. Despite his ludicrous outfits, he never seemed to be coming from or going to anywhere in particular. The first time she’d asked he said he was a performance artist, but she didn’t believe him.
Suddenly the woman was crying. Tears ran silently from the corners of her closed eyes, then quickly evolved into loud convulsive sobs.
“I’m sorry,” Shannon said, gently laying her arm beside her. “Sometimes these pressure points, they release things.”
She sat up on the table, the sheet falling away. Shannon tried not to look at her breasts, but they were startling. Pale and flawless, the areoles soft pink shadows of perfect pouty nipples.
“I hate this,” the woman said, waving her hand in a gesture that seemed to indicate the whole of her. “It’s so terrible growing old. It’s so terrible to be at the mercy of your body.”
Shannon agreed and handed the woman a tissue.
“You have beautiful breasts,” she said. The woman blew her nose and smiled.
* * *
“Hi hot stuff.” Bennett sat down next to her at the bar and immediately slid his hand up her thigh, dapper and lecherous as ever in a grey high-collared dress shirt, gold cravat, black wool bowler hat.
“Look at you,” she said.
He ran his hands along the sides of his hat and grinned. “You like? It came with a feather, but I thought that was a little much.” He looked at her as if he were measuring her for something. She’d bought a short black dress, the kind of thing she never wore. When she saw it on the mannequin, despite her best efforts, she’d immediately thought of this hand on her thigh.
“So I’d like to take you out tomorrow night,” he said. “A special date. A surprise.” And there was that grin again, not exactly kind, only partially playful.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“Can’t do what?”
She looked at the book she’d brought with her. Numerical Recipes. She had a test tomorrow and hadn’t even cracked it.
“This.” She pushed the air between them back and forth.
“What is this?”
“Well, that’s up to you, I guess. But I’m telling you, you’re not gonna want to miss it.” He looked around the bar, his hand leaving her thigh.
“Fine. Where do you want to meet?”
The bartender set a new drink in front of her but didn’t look her in the eye. She could feel the judgment coming off him like heat.
“The Walmart? No thank you.”
“Fine.” He looked at his watch, ran his hand over his hat.
“Seven.” He unrolled a breath mint but didn’t offer her one.
“Where are we going?”
“A surprise.” He lifted his eyebrows and tilted back on the stool, his hands behind his head.
“What should I wear?”
* * *
She wasn’t expecting anyone to be there when she got home from the bar, but she turned the corner and Eric was in the kitchen pouring milk over cereal.
“Why aren’t you at school?” she asked. “Or at your dad’s?”
“It’s a holiday. Memorial Day, I think.”
“No it’s not.”
“What’s with the dress?”
“It’s new. You like it?”
“It’s a little early for a dress like that.”
“It’s noon,” she said.
“Hey Mom, can I ask you something?”
She straightened her shoulders and nodded. She’d only had two vodka tonics but they’d been strong ones.
“Why are you going back to school?”
This was not the question she had expected.
“To try something new,” she said. “To try and do something different with my life.”
“But why now?” he asked. He looked genuinely interested. She wasn’t used to this kind of attention from him.
“It was time.” She thought she knew what he was asking, but she didn’t know how to answer. She tried to measure her words but they came out wrong, stilted.
He tipped the bowl to his mouth and drank down the rest of the milk. The Adam’s apple she’d never noticed before moved beneath his skin.
“I love you,” she said. She looked into his eyes, this person that came from her own body, whose thoughts and feelings she couldn’t fathom, couldn’t touch, and she wanted so badly to wrap her arms around him, just hold him to her, but she knew he would never allow that. “Do you know that?”
“Love you too,” he said. He put the empty bowl in the sink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Do you mean it?” she asked.
“I gotta go.” He gave her a quick hug, grabbed his backpack by the door, and left. “I mean it,” he shouted before he shut the door.
* * *
There were hundreds of cars in the Walmart parking lot when she pulled up. A line of cars backed up waiting to get in, an attendant managing traffic and signaling where to go. A huge sign, “Candlelight Vigil for Elizabeth Prufer,” stood in front of the lot with a picture of the missing girl. The picture was the same one they kept showing on the news, by now familiar to everyone. Seeing her name felt strange after all this time thinking of her only as the missing girl.
She wondered if Bennett had known about the vigil or if it was just a coincidence. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d read a newspaper or gotten her news from anywhere but the snippets she caught on the TV above the bar.
She tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. Maybe he was already there, out on the field. A golden sea, all those candles flickering and moving in all those human hands. Slowly she inched forward with the others. She parked and followed the crowd out onto the field. There were volunteers handing out candles and she took one, slim, white, with a paper skirt to catch the wax. Faces crowded together, bodies moving like magnets. Some people were crying, holding onto each other for support. Others were smiling and talking as if this were just another social engagement. She tried looking for Bennett but couldn’t find him. A young girl of seven or eight held out her candle to Shannon, pale face on the brink of a terrible adult understanding, and she touched her wick to the girl’s flame.
A group was singing on the stage, something high and sweet Shannon didn’t recognize. They knew the words by heart and their voices joined together and swooped up and out like a sad beautiful sail.
After the singing, the group stepped off the stage and someone else stepped up, and everyone became quiet. It was the missing girl’s father. Shannon recognized him from the news. A lean careful man who wore his sadness with aplomb.
He thanked everyone for being there, he commended the singers, and then he talked about his family’s heartbreak. How every day was a mixture of hope and despair. He asked for a moment of silence. For an observance of her light, of the light that refuses to be snuffed out, the light that will bring her home. Shannon held her candle up with the rest of them, and as quiet fell, she was surprised at the emotion that overtook her. A sky blurred above where the stars used to be, candles flickered, no sound but the occasional sniffle. Separate private souls putting wishes into the night. The missing girl was all of theirs, and time was being stolen, from her, from them. They had to take it back.
She felt herself levitating for a moment, rising above everyone and looking down. Though she was still there, huddled with the rest on the ground. Together they were an ocean of flame. They were particles of light. A pulsating, flickering heap of atoms. Together they could build cities, make art, ease suffering. Together they could fight evil.
The missing girl’s father thanked them again for coming, and like that it was over. She flew back into her body. People began to walk back to the parking lot. Some of them walked with their candles still lit and others blew them out. There were two large receptacles where the discarded ones went.
Shannon moved with the crowd. She was grateful for them, for the easy way they moved. Her body felt light, buzzing. Her phone buzzed. It was Bennett.
Parking lot. Right side, the text said.
Bennett’s little red Honda rounded the corner and turned into the parking lot. People were beginning to get back into their cars. She knew she should be angry, but her heart still felt full. She smiled and waved while still holding the lit candle with her other hand.
He pulled up beside her. He was wearing a black ski mask, just his eyes and mouth showing. Something glinted on the seat next to him. A young couple walked past them, the woman staring at her.
“Get in,” he said, in a voice she didn’t recognize, a new one, low and menacing. And she did.
Molly Reid’s stories have appeared on NPR and in the journals TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, The Collagist, The Pinch, Redivider, and Indiana Review, among others. She has received fellowship and residency support from the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Ucross Foundation, I-Park, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati, at work on a novel about taxidermy and ghosts.