The seven words were scribbled with a black highlighter pen from the catch-all kitchen drawer, on the back of a receipt for bread and milk. It was pinned to the refrigerator beneath a smiling drama-mask magnet: ďGone to Sherryís. Be back by 10.Ē
The milk was in the fridge and the bread on the counter.
After twenty-three years, the note is still under the magnet. Celeste will be 39 tomorrow. At least, I hope she will be. The police did all they could, but they are as mystified as I am. I still donít know if Celeste is alive or dead.
It wasnít like Celeste to be late without checking in. I was worried, but not unduly so. She was my pride and joy, an obedient, thoughtful daughter that had never given me any real trouble. Her brother was a different story, much like his father. But he was in Afghanistan and his father was serving twenty years for tapping into a gasoline pipeline for his personal use.
I called Sherry that night at 11:03. She was awake, working on a team biology project Celeste was supposed to help with.
ďI tried to call her, Mrs. M, but she didnít answer. I left a message. Iím not sure now if we can finish this paper on time.Ē I could tell Sherry was miffed. ďI donít know where she is.Ē
Two weeks later the police found Celesteís car. A rancher had called the sheriffís office asking them to tow it. It was cross-wise in the road at the end of a country lane six miles south of town, blocking the gate to his oat field. The car was locked; the keys, Celesteís wallet and cell phone were parked in the tray by the driverís seat.
Sherryís message and all of mine were in Celesteís Voice Mail, unopened. The fingerprints in her car belonged to Celeste and her girl friends. Their alibis were unquestionable. If there had been any tracks in the dirt road, a hard rain obliterated them the night before the car was found.
The most puzzling thing of all was a slight collision crease in the left rear fender that left a four inch smear of bright red paint. Celesteís car was a baby blue, just like her eyes. The day before when we washed our cars on the lawn, playfully squirting water at each other, the damage had not been there. Iím certain of that. I shampooed the grime off that fender. Itís still a mystery and the only clue we have.
As much as I pleaded with every kid I thought might know something about Celeste, I never learned anything that surprised me. She did not have a boyfriend. She didnít hide things, like some of her friends who kept tattoos secret from their parents and participated in wild parties.
Celeste said she couldnít afford to run with the crowd. She was going to college. All her energy was directed toward earning a merit scholarship and she was making the grades to do it.
Our church friends were faithful to pray and Pastor Bob visited frequently at first, lifting me up before the Father. But after a while my grief faded from their memory like a morning fog. I was left alone to deal with my shattered soul. I donít blame them.
After all these years, hope is all I cling to. Someday, I pray, God will answer my prayers, and theirs, and Iíll know what happened to my baby. Thatís not too much to ask, is it?
If sheís alive, I might even be a grandmother. I often wonder, would her children inherit her auburn hair? Would it be curly and soft to touch and have little sparkling highlights in it? Oh, me! I donít mean to torture myself, but these thoughts come uninvited.
Her father and brother accuse me of running her off. Our relationship is, to say the least, not amicable. But, what else is new? They deal with it in their own way. They miss her, too.
Iíve often wondered if some pervert, some stranger, killed Celeste and hid her body. But I canít wrap my mind around that. Nothing about that scenario with her abandoned car makes any sense.
The only realistic alternative is amnesia. Maybe she bumped her head in that little fender bender. Iíve read a lot about amnesia. Itís a possibility, definitely a possibility.
Itís the only hope I have this side of heaven.
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