I remember it was cold.
A bitter January night when darkness flooded the town like winter black water, pressing against the plate glass windows of the drive-in. In my mind’s eye it is late, but it was a school night so it couldn’t have been much past seven. We huddled in scuffed red booths, around the chrome-banded tables, sharing paper cartons of French fries and theories, our voices hushed, the words foreign to our young tongues.
Robbery. Abduction. Missing.
I heard the news as one does, whispered in the back of English class, from shocked faces in the hallway. Such things didn’t happen here. A young woman gone, snatched from the lobby of a downtown hotel where she worked as the night clerk. The till cleaned out. Signs of struggle.
I didn’t know her, but I knew of her, the way you do in a small town. A local family, her youngest brother two years ahead of me in school. A day of frantic searching had yielded no clue to her whereabouts and now the cruel black night had fallen again.
Odd, that I don’t remember being afraid. The perpetrator was unknown, yet there we were, out after dark. More than the average teenager’s blithe sense of immortality, I think. We assumed it had to be a stranger. Someone passing through and now gone. Such a creature couldn’t live among us. And beyond that, a lack of comprehension, as if in my short rural life I had been so sheltered from true evil, I failed to recognize its face.
The door of the drive-in opened, curls of cold steam ushering in new arrivals. Her brothers, their faces tight with strain, their eyes desperate. No, nothing new to tell. Yes, the police were doing everything they could, but so far, no trace. Nothing left for the family to do but drive every alley, every back country road, searching, hoping, praying.
“Her car,” one of them said suddenly. “It’s still at the hotel. Did anyone look in the trunk of her car?”
They tore out the door, off to the police station while we all stared out into the darkness and thought what no one would say. So cold. Too cold for a person to survive all these hours in any unheated place.
They didn’t find her that night, or for nearly a month of nights to come. Not until a February thaw lured a group of kids out to play on the bluffs at the edge of town. Her body was there in the snow, tossed off the rimrocks as thoughtlessly as previous generations had discarded their used up cars in the same area. It would be many more nights before her killer was arrested in another town, on another charge, and confessed in a fit of remorse.
And still I remained untouched, or so it seemed. More concerned about my prospects for a prom date than the waste of a life. So cocooned by my youthful narcissism I was incapable of grasping that the boys I knew the day before she was killed were gone, changed overnight into men who’d suffered the worst kind of loss. That they and their family had forever ceased to be whole.
At that age, I couldn’t have begun to understand that adulthood and parenthood would make her fate more immediate to me, not less. That even with the slightest, glancing blow, evil leaves a mark.
I certainly couldn’t have guessed after all these years, all the miles traveled away from home and back again, that each time I walked the rimrock trail above those bluffs, I would be accompanied by the ghost of the girl I never knew.
Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real