Leah has only been missing a week, and we have already memorized her height and weight: 4’11”, 90-100 pounds, the size of some of our middle schoolers. So we search increasingly small places--the mop buckets in her apartment building, the green metal trash cans that dot downtown. We peer into sewer grates, expect to find her looking up at us from the bottom of the drain.
Those of us that don’t participate in the official searches still look in our own way. We take walks to isolated places: the just-mowed pale yellow corn fields, the skinny trees of parks or along the dark edges of our neighborhoods. We never say out loud “This is where I would hide a body.”
#Families lean over dinners, watching the news. Heads shake. “What a shame.”
By dessert it becomes “She probably just wandered somewhere she shouldn’t have been, like that electrocuted Notre Dame student.”
“Or maybe the guys she was with that night.”
“Or maybe that white truck.”
“Or she hitchhiked somewhere.”
I play the “or” game too, but I never join the official search. My lawyers thought it would be a bad idea. Instead I walk into the woods of Cascades Park. The same woods I smoked my first cigarette, sipped my first stolen wine, fucked in, ankle deep in the brown leaves of years past.
I climb the blackgreen slippery rocks of the waterfall, stand above the trails. She wouldn’t be here.
#I must have given her one special k too many crushed up and snorted through the same benjamin as all of the coke and the other pills and now her head leaned back and forth and back and forth too fast like what youd think a baby would do if you didnt hold it but shes 20 man thats not right and she has been throwing up and where did that bruise come from and now theres blood out her nose fuck we had done lines together before fuck
#There is one possibility rarely discussed, my favorite. Leah had become tired of this life that felt chosen for her. The expectations of successful families are always the harshest. In the last security footage of her walking out of the apartment building to go the bar, she knows how the night will end. I can see it in her smile. She’ll send off her college career with a bender at her favorite bar, leave, hit the road. She is well liked, she is pretty, she is part of the campus community. She knows she can go far on the kindness of friends, count on them to stay tightlipped about things.
Where will she go?
Somewhere else. She looks like the type to have a plan. Maybe Europe, maybe somewhere in the Caribbean, work on a cruise ship, one of those horizontal skyscrapers.
This is what I think of when snippets of that night come back.
#The family games of “or” become increasingly grim. The theories spill over into polite conversation. All it takes is the sight of one of the thousands of fliers--we become private detectives, lawyers, psychologists, doctors.
The games get especially dark when the last men to see her (also students, also young) all lawyer up and stop talking. Their silence is our opportunity to speak.
“They could’ve just shoved her in a suitcase, dumped her anywhere.”
“How hard would it be to put her in a big duffel bag?”
#I kick up a whiff of decay as I trudge away from the waterfall and towards the sinkholes, looking for clearings ahead. I find holes punched in the forest floor. Footprints. I follow the imprints back into the trees, around a thicket of thorns.
#getting her into the duffel bag wasnt bad i knew it wouldnt be hard and shes so small so so small dude help me out here you always know where the cameras are is there someones car we can take dude im prelaw we are fucked either way she is gone and full of our drugs dead is dead we have got to do this or our lives might as well be over and it is prison either way lets at least try right
#I round the thorns well off of the trail, recognize the place. Polyester sleeping bags litter the ground, grow fungus the color of beer puke. I find smashed Red Grape Mad Dog 20/20 bottles, plastic bags, a size 14 men’s dress shoe, and a lumpy duffel bag the size of missing college student. A roaring cougar, my high school mascot, glares at me from the bag. My initials are on the shoulder strap.
#As time goes on the “or” game gradually weeds out any of the idea of her being alive. Details become more concrete and vivid. Families at dinner talk about her probable rape and dismemberment with their children. The kids listen, then ask questions.
“How could you saw an arm off without making a mess?”
fuck man where are we taking her what if we just dump her in the lake it should work no not the lake she will be found and they will know she was killed and then we will be suspects in a murder investigation its different okay and we cant do a field it is too obvious too flat too easy to be seen come on think think not the quarries those are too easy kids dive there in the summer
The mushrooms seem to grow taller as I stand in front of the duffel bag. I’d gotten one just like it for cross country in high school, but I can’t be the only person with my initials to have a bag like that. Right?
#After months of official searches, they are called off. No credible sightings have been called in, no evidence uncovered. Speculation grows wilder. We keep going on our walks, discover new routes for evening strolls.
#Another girl is found in a cornfield. The crime scene photos are broadcast on the nightly news, as we sit down to eat. The photos look like the Pollock in the university art museum. The pale gold of the corn is washed out to a white canvas, the blood nearly black. The station cut the same central photo up into several as to remain tasteful. The tableaus show up as the newscasters speak tensely. Hand with speck of blood, other drippings weigh down surrounding husks. A fly away clump of hair, fused by a gout of blood.
She too is a college student. She went missing after going to the same bars.
We automatically assume the same person who did this to Leah is her killer.
Her name is eclipsed by Leah’s. She is another installment in the saga. People transpose Leah’s blonde hair onto this girl, her coke dusted nose, her age, her size.
#not a cornfield but what about the one park with all the water in it what is it called cascades that could be good i got lost chasing my golf ball from the course there for two hours once no cell reception so it has to be remote shes not making calls but drop her there and it seems too close but too far and the homeless sleep there and they dont want blame they just want left alone easy enough no one hangs out there right now other than dealers and hobos they wont say shit
#We don’t question why the murderer of Leah, who hid her body so carefully that she hasn’t been found in nearly 4 years, would leave his next kill somewhere so obvious. Why would he be so careless as to not notice he left his cellphone at the scene, flecked with her blood.
#I look around the woods for someone to help me open the bag. I call out, and hear nothing. The camp must be abandoned. I am here alone. I haven’t been able to find my duffel bag at home in months. I don’t want it to be mine. But.
#taking her up the waterfall was some hard shit but shes tiny and theres a few of us lets just get her up take her so far out people dont think its possible to get her here well take her well take her over past the thorns yeah well get stuck but dont worry about that its nothing compared to murder just take her over there who gives a fuck about the bag just leave it
#I reach for the zipper, but don’t pull. The bag is too big to be her. I could be the guy who finds her, carrying her out of the woods in my arms despite the rot, cradling her carefully, like a baby.
#She stands on the bow of a cruise ship. She is no longer Leah, she is Sarah, or Carly, or Rachel. Nothing that will stand out, but is familiar enough to her. The cruise line is a budget line that doesn’t ask too many questions of the employees, so she doesn’t have to provide any real ID. If she doesn’t leave the ship she won’t have a problem. She’s fine with just looking at the white sands of the Caribbean islands for now, and she can go to Florida beaches anytime.
What she loves most is the land receding behind her, as if she can’t get any further from it all. First the beaches turn into a line of white, leaving the pink and white stucco boxes of the hotels. Then they are harder and harder to see, and they are gone. She worries they will be lost, never to be found, but what she cares about is that she is somewhere that isn’t back in the woods.
M. B. Thomas