My soul is empty of joy, as a womb vacuumed of a fetus. Eric would be 23, Samantha 21. The capricious hope I have clung to for fifteen years is almost gone. Months trudge by now before some boy, some girl passes by and, grasping some feature so embedded in my memory, I call out. But it was not Eric, not Samantha. It never is.
How can two children vanish? How can they? No one knows – except the scum that snatched them.
That day forever scarred my heart. They were walking home from school with Ronnie and Karen. It was only a short walk – along a trail that led over a little arched bridge above a tinkling shallow stream, then along the Farm-to-Market road for a hundred yards. Ronnie and Karen’s path home turned right, crossed the road, and disappeared in towering pines. Eric and Samantha’s route turned left at our rooster mail box -- except they never reached home.
Ronnie said they parted on the bridge. Eric was showing Samantha a bullfrog sunning on the creek bank, telling her how he was going to catch him on Saturday. Karen ran ahead to see if any new comments had been inscribed on Painted Rock.
Teenagers, mostly, were always expressing themselves on the large vertical slab of rock that had broken loose from the cliff and slid down to lean against the bluff. When Ronnie caught up with Karen he yelled “See you tomorrow” and raced Karen home.
I don’t think Ronnie and Karen lied about what happened. I really don’t. But I don’t know for sure. I don’t have friends anymore. How can I? There is no one I trust. Someone took my children – someone knows where they are. In a small town, in the country, children don’t disappear with strangers.
About the same time that day, on the other side of the mountain in the rock quarry, a worker misjudged the amount of dynamite needed in a blast hole. The resulting “Boom” shook the surrounding countryside. People in town complained of broken windows. Painted Rock toppled over. The distraction hindered the Sheriff from promptly organizing a search for Eric and Samantha.
I only weigh 95 pounds now. Even so, I will live until I find them. If it wasn’t for Sam’s military disability checks I wouldn’t have survived this long. I can’t work, don’t even want to. Sam blames me. He said he couldn’t help he was overseas – that it was my responsibility to protect them while he was away. He said I should have met them at the mail box.
It grieves Sam so. That’s why I think he had the accident in the jeep. He may never get out of the Veterans Hospital psychiatric ward? I don’t know that either. The only difference between him and me is what?
The insistent ringing of the telephone startled me. No one ever calls anymore.
“Hel – hello.”
“Mrs. Conley, this is Sheriff Brewster. I have something to tell you but I don’t want to do it over the telephone. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He hung up before I could answer.
I waited for him, sitting on the porch swing, too numb to hope, to afraid not to.
He parked his squad car beside a wilting Peace rose bush and hoisted himself out. He is a big man, with mud on his boots. “May I” he asked, pointing to a rocker. He sat, dropping his gray Stetson at his feet, looking at me with sad eyes.
“We found Eric and Samantha, Mrs. Conley.” He raised a thick sun-bronzed hand, patting the air to push me back down on the swing. “They died accidently – no one took ‘em.”
“How – are you sur…”
“Yes, Mam. The county is widening your road and moved that painted rock that fell over. Your children were under it. Their clothes were just as you described them years ago.”
I bit my forefinger, stifling the scream welling out. So close – so close all these years.
“Something else, Mam. There was a skunk carcass under there with Eric’s pocket knife blade in its skull. I think Eric was protecting his sister from a rabid skunk when they got to the rock.”
It’s better knowing. I’ll have to tell Sam. He’ll be so proud of Eric. Maybe he can come to the funeral. Maybe we can go on with our lives. Maybe…
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