The Mathison’s story of happy-ever-after began twenty years ago when Martina Sue Ellen was born after a difficult pregnancy. Marti would be Martin and Sue Ellen’s only child. For years their story progressed like a fairytale, but without warning a breach separated father from daughter.
Martin said Marti changed when she went to college. He found fault with every one she liked and every decision she made. Sue Ellen was able to make the transition with her daughter to adulthood, but Martin couldn’t let her grow up.
Every visit was filled with tension. Martin was like a cat ready to pounce and Marti seemed to enjoy pushing his buttons. Sue Ellen’s stomach needed extra meds every time Marti came home. As tensions increased conversations decreased. The intimate family setting the Mathisons had once enjoyed was a distant memory.
The subject no one was allowed to address was a rose tattoo Marti had gotten on her right shoulder during her first semester of college. Sue Ellen saw it first, but forbade her husband to mention it for fear that Marti would stop coming home.
The atmosphere in the Mathison home deteriorated until Martin sat in the den and Sue Ellen sat in her room, and Marti came home less and less.
It was December 15th and classes ended for Marti, but she had no intention of heading home. She had accepted an invitation to spend the week-end with friends in a secluded cabin in the Smokey Mountains. She was excited and hoped for snow. Marti programmed the GPS and headed to North Carolina for a fun-filled week-end.
From Alabama she headed north to Knoxville, Tennessee and over the Smokey Mountain National Park to North Carolina. She watched carefully for each turn that led her deeper into the rugged mountains, alone.
Sue Ellen called Marti’s phone several times that day, but Marti’s voice message left no hint of where she was. Concerned Sue Ellen called Marti’s best friend, Colleen. Colleen told her Marti was spending the week-end with friends before heading home on Monday. That news provided no comfort for Sue Ellen.
The next week was a blur for the Mathisons. The police assured them they were searching for Marti. The friends had notified Sue Ellen on Saturday morning that Marti never arrived at the cabin. Marti’s phone would not accept any more messages. “Oh God, where is my baby?” Sue Ellen cried into her pillow.
Martin sat stoic looking out the window at the swing-set where Marti once played. The hardness of his heart was being fractured by the pain that felt as though it would burst his chest.
Three weeks passed without a trace of Marti. Friends came and went—food was prepared and served—prayers were prayed. No answers came.
A distant sound woke Martin from a fitful sleep. Clearing his head he realized someone was at the door. The police officer said they had found a young woman’s remains in the mountains locked inside the trunk of Marti’s car.
The State Police flew the Mathisons to Boone, North Carolina to identify the remains that could be their Marti. They said without positive identification they would have to wait for DNA results which could take another ten days.
The morgue was cold and dark and antiseptic. Nausea turned Sue Ellen’s stomach into a hard ball. She kept walking behind her husband down the hall that seemed to have no end.
The officer pushed opened a set of doors and there in the middle of a large space was a table covered by a sheet.
Martin’s knees weakened and he grabbed for support. The officer steadied him. Sue Ellen straightened her back, muffled her moans and placed a trembling hand on her husband’s shoulder. They would do this together even if it was the last thing they did together.
The officer briefly explained what decomposition had done to the remains. He told them to take their time and be 100% sure.
When the sheet was pulled back Martin shuddered and Sue Ellen cried out, “Marti!” There on her right shoulder was the rose tattoo.
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