After he had done the thing, he threw the shovel down, spit out his cigarette, and walked away from the mound of dirt. He had already moved past it. The guilt was momentary, gone as quickly as her last muffled breath. Her wriggle and whine already somewhere distant in his consciousness. What could she have meant to the world at six or seven years old? Not even a pair of front teeth or a menstrual cycle to show for herself. The living would forget her soon enough, and then, it’d be a wonder that she had ever walked and breathed among them at all.
Wayne stood and stared out at the night surrounding him. Only the stars still awake to blink back. It would be morning soon enough. For now, though, Wayne needed the silence, the sleep of everyone else around. He had watched them all swarming around the neighborhood, throughout their small town of Pilsky, looking for her. For the past three days, his neighbors had walked the streets in groups, taping the fliers on neon copy paper to any available surface. Her face stared out from each one. Light poles and car windows became mosaics of lime green, bright orange, bubblegum pink. Terribly inappropriate, Wayne knew. News vans and police cars took up all available parking on the street, as if nobody else could be expecting company. That pretty young anchor woman from Channel 4 had even broadcast a plea right from the asphalt of Lindora Avenue. Wayne watched her stern, serious gaze and her silent, moving lips from the bathroom window. They stayed all day and he could not finish the work he had started while under the watch of the sun.
Wayne had waited until now, at three o’ clock on a Monday morning to cart her, or the sum of her parts, out to the backyard. To be as inconspicuous as he could be, he had dumped her into the old wheelbarrow. He threw a tarp over it as he rolled her out to the farthest corner of the yard, breathing loudly through his mouth, trying to avoid choking on the rancid stench emanating from the load he pushed. These extra efforts had proved to be unnecessary. Nobody had strolled by on a late night walk as he had feared. Even if they had, it really wouldn’t be so strange to see Wayne working in his garden at such an early hour. It’s all any of the neighbors ever saw him doing, at any other hour of any other day. Ninety-three minutes was all the time it took to lay her under the warm dirt of Arizona in the summertime, to discard the little girl forever.
Wayne was not like her. He still moved about the earth as he pleased. When he had made it back to the sliding doors, he kicked off his boots and walked through his small house. Inside, the heat was almost intolerable. Even when the swamp cooler was working, it never seemed to cool Wayne, or his walls, down. As he made his way to his shower, he peeled himself out of his dirty clothes. The stench of dry sweat hung heavy around Wayne’s flannel shirt, the threadbare jeans. Once in the shower, Wayne’s tightened muscles began to relax. He let his head hang under the showerhead for a while, rinsing out as much of the dirt, sweat, blood and dandruff as could be expected without the aid of shampoo, which Wayne hadn‘t bothered to buy in weeks.
As the hot water ran over him, Wayne thought about what he would say if the cops came later in the day, what story he should rehearse. He could play dumb and pretend that he didn’t know about the missing girl from his own neighborhood. That he hadn’t been outside, read a newspaper, or turned on a television since Thursday night, when she was still safe and tucked into her frilly, lace comforter. That he’d been sick, barricaded in the bathroom for the better part of the week. They wouldn’t buy it, he knew. Maybe he should act disinterested. Like this shit happens every day. My kid brother was kidnapped in the sixties, he’d lie, but nobody made a big old carnival about those things back then.
But Rosie was a little girl, Pilsky’s little princess. Being too insensitive regarding her case would not be smart. Wayne should pretend that he was one of those assholes who had taken it upon himself to find her, by walking through every empty field in the city and scouring it for clues. But, he knew that there was even greater risk in seeming too eager, too willing to help. He’d just have to play it by ear.
After his shower, Wayne whistled his favorite song, a classic Neil Young tune about a cinnamon girl, as he strolled into the kitchen, ready to continue with the rituals that comprised his daily routine. He fried two eggs, started a pot of coffee, and opened up the newspaper from the day before. She grinned at him from the front of the local section. Even Wayne, who had never had children of his own, and had himself been out of school for some forty years, could tell that it was her class picture. Her auburn hair was intricately curled and pinned. Obviously the result of her mother’s loving labor. Wayne imagined the young mother towering over the living version of little Rosie Carpenter, curling iron in one hand, can of hairspray in the other. A routine of their own, he imagined.
The headline was desperate, in bold letters. Futile. By the time they had printed it, she was already gone, just sitting in a pile in Wayne’s bedroom. Her violet sundress balled up in the corner next to her. Her plastic jewelry and barrettes tossed haphazardly on the carpet. He shook his head as he considered all the ink that had been wasted on her behalf. He read the article. It was really the least he could do, Wayne felt. They didn‘t say anything Wayne hadn’t anticipated. Pleas from family, friends and estranged relatives who, in all likelihood, already knew in their hearts, without much doubt, that Rosie was already decaying in some dumpster, in some neighboring town. Still, they spoke their piece and hoped aloud for her safe return. Wayne expected nothing less−and nothing more− from them.
Wayne hadn’t been a stranger to the Carpenter family. Every Halloween, Rosie would stand expectantly at his front door, as a bouncy, yellow bumblebee or a smiling little princess, a plastic bag, already full of candy, wide open in her arms. Wayne would smile and throw handfuls of candy into the bag as he watched her mother, tall and slender, still in her work outfit. Her black slacks and smart blazer contrasted sharply with her bright blue running shoes. She stood further back on the lawn, talking to other mothers of trick-or-treaters. Rosie would yell her thank you and run back to her chaperone. Wayne wouldn’t retreat back into his house until Rosie and her mother were out of sight.
Many times, Wayne had watched Rosie and the other neighborhood children playing tag, kickball, or hide and seek from his lawn chair on the patio. He was contemptuous of their energy, of how carefree they were. Nothing they did or said could possibly matter in any significant way, to anyone. Wayne did not understand how they could manage to inspire the unconditional love of the adults waiting for them back inside their houses when he had failed to do this even once within the span of his sixty-three years.
After Wayne had finished the article, closed the paper, and eaten his greasy breakfast, he stretched himself out on his couch for a nap. Before drifting off to sleep, he thought about what he would do once he woke up, with his brand new day. A trip to Home Depot would be necessary, of course, for some gardening equipment. Definitely a stop at the Vista Verde Nursery, Wayne’s favorite, for something living to hide what he had made dead. Azaleas could work, but Wayne was tired of them. He longed for sunflowers, but he knew they would call too much attention to themselves. Bougainvillea would be best to swallow her up. Fast-growing. Expansive. Hot pink like her tiny barrettes.
Hours later, Wayne returned home with a truck full of the magenta-flowering plants. Driving down his street, he felt like he was presenting an immaculate float at the Rose Parade. When he had parked on his cracked-cement driveway, he jumped out of the white pickup and began the unloading. As he threw down a large bag of planting soil, Wayne caught a glimpse of his neighbor,
Brian Freeman, approaching from the street. He had his daughter Lizzie in tow. Around the same age as Rosie, Wayne could see.
Her hair was pulled up into pigtails that swung to and fro on either side of her head as she skipped toward him. Wayne turned toward the father-daughter pair and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“Hello, Wayne.” Brian nodded.
Wayne stared at the stack of brightly colored paper in Brian’s clenched fist. More of those god damned fliers.
“These flowers are beautiful,” Brian smiled, “I’ve seen them before, but I don’t know what they’re called. What are they?”
Wayne turned back to the truck and pulled down another bag of soil.
“Bougainvillea.” Wayne answered.
Brain shifted his weight and cleared his throat.
“I suppose you’ve already heard about Rosie.”
“Rosie? Am I supposed to know who that is?” Wayne asked, pulling up the corner of his gray t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
The wrinkle lines on Brian’s forehead deepened as he frowned at Wayne.
“She’s a little girl that lives in this neighborhood. In that house.” Brian pointed at the house directly in front of Wayne’s, on the other side of the street. “You’ve probably seen her around.”
Wayne nodded. “I’ve seen a lot of kids running around this neighborhood. Making a racket. Tearin’ up my garden sometimes, too.” Wayne shot a look of disgust down at this new little girl.
“Yeah… well, you see, Wayne, she’s been kidnapped. Nobody’s seen her in two days. I was just letting you know. Just in case you saw or heard anything notable that night.”
Wayne nodded and turned back to the truck bed without another word.
Brian led himself and his daughter back onto the street. They had been out now for over two hours. Sweat covered his entire body like a sticky layer of Saran Wrap. His blue t-shirt was soaked through. It clung to random patches of his chest and back. Brian hadn’t thought to put on sunscreen or to take a bottle of water with them on their three hour suburban trek. They were paying for it. All the exposed areas of Brian’s skin were red and hot to the touch. He could already feel the damaged cells peeling away from him. Luckily, Brian had worn a hat and was able to give it to Lizzie to wear when the intensity of the sun became evident. Her nose and cheeks were rosier than usual, but Brian didn’t think it was a bad enough burn to end in a peel. Once Lizzie had started complaining about the heat, Brian began to regret taking her along. He knew his wife would not be happy at the sight of her sunburned daughter. Feeling guilty, Brian promised to walk Lizzie to the community pool, just a few streets away from their own.
As they walked through their familiar neighborhood, Brian looked at each house they passed. They all had the same basic design. Two stories, two car garage, a symmetrical lawn. Some of the neighbors kept better yards than others. Jerry Coller, whose wife had left him a few months before, had done a pretty terrible job of keeping up with the landscaping. The grass was yellow and overgrown. The hose had been strewn across the driveway all week. Most of the patios were empty, because all of the neighbors were gathered in small groups at random places in the street. Huddling together like opposing football teams planning their next play. As he passed them, the entire group would fall silent and turn toward him. Smiling or nodding in approval when taking note of the fliers Brian had obviously been distributing. They were doing their part. He sure as hell better be doing his. Brian noticed their sad smiles as they shifted their focus from him to his daughter. They had been so used to seeing the two girls together; Lizzie couldn’t help but remind her neighbors of the girl who was so much like her, but with so much worse luck.
Brian knew there really was no hope for Rosie. He had known from the moment her heard she was missing that she hadn’t a chance. Margaret Carpenter had come over herself to let them know. She had remained composed as she told Brian about waking up, feeling that something was wrong, going up to her daughter’s bedroom and finding it empty. Lizzie and Rosie had been playmates, she wanted Brian to take extra care in protecting his own daughter until they had this thing all cleared up. Brian had placed his hand on her shoulder, looked knowingly into her swollen eyes and offered his sympathies. Margaret didn’t want anything to do with those, though. She shrugged his arm away from her, smiled awkwardly and said she’d appreciate any help he could offer in getting Rosie home as soon as possible. She had a science project to finish, a dance recital next Saturday. Brian nodded and stared dumbfounded as she walked away from his front door. Brian knew it was hopeless. She must have known it, too.
Brian prayed every night that they would find her. The past two mornings he had woken up two hours earlier than usual so he could post fliers before work. He had attended the community meeting and sent a care package to Margaret. Brian didn’t do these things because he thought they could find or save Rosie. He did them because he felt obligated to. Just like everyone else with a heartbeat and a human soul felt obligated to help. Brian helped because he had a daughter of his own, and he knew that if it had been her who had been kidnapped, he would be doing the same to find her. Because there was really nothing else that could be done.
Brian wanted to be optimistic, but how could he really maintain much hope for the safe return of a missing little girl? No matter how much Brian longed to see Rosie wander back down Lindora Avenue smiling and unharmed, swinging her jump rope at her side, it was just not something he could envision happening in the world he had come to know.
When Lizzie looked up at Brian and asked him where her friend Rosie had gone, and if she would be okay, he hesitated to answer. How would he tell his daughter that her friend was gone, that she would never see her again? He looked away from her face and squinted into the sun, as if it could give him the right answer.
“Nobody knows where Rosie is. We all hope she’s okay.”
“Well, are the police gonna find her?” Lizzie whined.
“I don’t know, Lizzie. They might.”
“Will what happened to Rosie happen to me?” She asked as though being kidnapped were a normal childhood experience. Like losing a tooth. Spraining an ankle. Falling off of your bike.
“No.” Brian answered quickly, inadvertently tightening his grip on her hand. “Never.”
Once they had arrived at the pool, Lizzie ran straight into the water, forgetting in her excitement to take off her sandals. Brian sat on the grass and watched the children of his town play and splash in the sunlight. Small kids, big kids, chubby kids, skinny kids of all different colors and shapes. All smiling. Happy. Unaware that every day, one of them, somewhere in the world, was snatched away from their families. Tortured, beaten, raped, killed. They had all heard about Rosie, sure. But right now, playing in the shallow end of the sparkling, blue pool, they didn’t think about her.
Brian was glad.
He watched as his own daughter, the person he loved more than any other in the entire universe, climbed out of the water and walked, dripping, to the diving board. Her baby-toothed smile white and wide. She looked through all the parents, sitting on the same grassy hill as Brian. When she caught sight of him, she waved big and proud. She ran forward, and sprang herself from the board high into the air. Her body appeared just as a silhouette in the moment it imposed itself in front of the sun. Her arms up above her head, each finger extended into a tiny exclamation point that insisted that she was alive.
Back on Lindora Avenue, Margaret Carpenter washed the dishes that had been piling up since Rosie had vanished. She smiled mutely as she scrubbed away at the dried macaroni and cheese which had been Rosie’s last meal at home. It had adhered itself to the plastic plate and no matter how much dish soap Margaret poured on top of the plate and regardless of how fast or hard she scrubbed, she could not get it to lift. Calmly, she walked over to the trash can, and dropped the plate in with all the sappy condolence cards.
Margaret wasn’t ungrateful for the concern and support of her neighbors and friends, but she did not find such displays necessary. She did not appreciate their fatalistic attitudes, their eagerness to dismiss Rosie from the earth. Especially since Margaret knew perfectly well that her daughter was just fine. She would be returning safely any moment, any hour, any day now.
It was just a matter of time. Margaret knew.
She, of course, hadn’t been so cheerful that first morning. When she walked upstairs, into her daughters’ bedroom and found it without her. The bed empty. The lamp from the nightstand broken on the floor. Within a few hours, though, after she had swallowed a cup of chamomile or two, Margaret began to think more positively.
Of course her daughter was fine. Rosie was the most energetic child Margaret had ever known. So patient, too. Margaret could already envision their reunion. As the kidnapper returned Rosie to her, they would comment on her good manners and lively disposition. Thank her for raising such a beautiful and well-behaved child.
“It was a pleasure spending this short time with her,” the kidnapper would smile. “Let me know when she has another dance recital.”
“Thank you! Oh yes, isn’t she wonderful?” Margaret would beam, “Thank you for bringing her back to me. Thank you for bringing her home.”
Margaret walked over to the front room and stared out from the window. Across the street, she could see her neighbor Wayne, over his fence, working in his backyard. On his hands and knees, he labored in the soil. Rooting the most beautiful plants. She recognized them. When she was a little girl, Margaret’s mother had spent many hours tending the bougainvillea that stretched over the fence in their own backyard. Margaret couldn’t help but smile at remembering hot summer days in southern California spent helping her mother with the yard work. After they had finished for the day, they would lay together underneath the newly trimmed plants and stare up at the clear sky, through the magenta flowers.
Rosie would love the bougainvillea, Margaret knew. Margaret began to cry as she thought about how wonderful life would be once Rosie returned home. When they could stand in front of this window together. When Margaret could watch as both the bougainvillea and her little girl grew and bloomed together, thriving vibrantly on Earth.