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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.
—EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
THERE WAS A corpse in my neighbor’s front yard. Sprawled before a hedge of juniper bushes, its twisted arms and legs flung out bonelessly, as if it had plummeted there from a passing helicopter, there was an enormous granite boulder where its head should have been. The gardening glove on its right hand was pulling away from the cuff of a flannel shirt, and a chunk of ghostly white foam rubber innards peeked through the opening.
It was one week until Halloween, and everyone on my block seemed to be already getting into the spirit. Across the street, the Harrisons had a series of tombstones lining the walk to their front door, each one engraved with a different “funny” epitaph. HERE LIES THE MILKMAN—HE PASSED HIS EXPIRATION DATE. That kind of thing. It was a gauntlet of terrible jokes, and if you survived it, Mrs. Harrison—dressed in a peaked hat and a warty latex nose—would award you a miniature Charleston Chew. The last time I had gone trick-or-treating, which was nearly five years ago, I had skipped the Harrisons’ house.
Up and down the street, you could see ghosts and skeletons, jack-o’-lanterns and candle bags, bats and black cats. Rubber spiders dangled from eaves, zombie hands thrust up from garden beds, and shrubs were cocooned in fake cobwebs as thick as cotton batting, my neighbors competing to see whose house could be the lamest and the “scariest.” Mine had them all beat, however. Among that rogues’ gallery of party-store clearance-sale showcases, my house alone on that chilly October afternoon was truly frightening.
My house had a cop car parked in the driveway.
“Dude, how much did your parents pay to rent that thing?” My best friend, Micah Feldman, was standing next to me on the sidewalk in front of my boring, two-story Colonial, and he was apparently being serious.
“They didn’t, dumbass,” I said, kicking up my skateboard—and if I sounded tense, it was an accurate reflection of my mood. What the hell were the cops doing at my house?
“Well, what the hell are the cops doing at your house?”
“How do I know?” I looked around nervously. The street was quiet, save for the rattling of dried leaves as wind shook the army of trees that occupied our neighborhood. A couple of weeks ago, my block had looked like a greeting card, the autumnal display of oaks and maples like jewel-tone fireworks in the midday sunshine. Now their branches were half bare, flocked intermittently with dried-out brown curls that as yet refused to fall.
“You don’t think…” Micah’s face lost a little bit of color. “You don’t think maybe they found out about that weed you bought?”
That weed you bought. Nice. “You paid for half of it, Micah.”
“Yeah, but you were the one who actually, you know, held the money.” My so-called best friend squirmed like the snake he was. “Maybe the guy fingered you.”
“We bought, like, half an ounce! The cops have better things to do than bust some kids for buying two bowls’ worth of pot”—I hoped—“especially in Ann Arbor.”
“If you say so.” Micah shrugged uneasily and then started backing away, down the sidewalk. “I gotta get home. Call me if you don’t get arrested, okay?”
“Fuck off,” I mumbled, but cold needles were pricking the back of my neck and drawing beads of sweat. Were the police here about the pot? If they’d arrested the guy who’d sold it to me, could he have given up the names of his customers in an exchange for leniency?
I shook my head to clear it. I was being an idiot. The guy had been the roommate of the brother of a friend of a friend; he didn’t even know my real name. Still, if the cops were searching our house for … well, anything, they could easily find the little breath-mint box at the back of my desk drawer, open it up, identify the leafy contents as Not Altoids, and nail me for possession. My mouth felt dry and tacky as I tucked my skateboard under my elbow and started for the door. If the police hadn’t found the pot yet, I wouldn’t give them a chance; first thing I would do as soon as I got inside was find that box and flush the weed.
I didn’t get to execute my plan. No sooner had I set foot in the foyer than I heard my mother call out from the living room, “Flynn? Is that you?”
She sounded … strained. Not angry, but anxious. Was that better? My palms were starting to feel a little clammy. “Uh, yeah.”
“Come into the living room, okay?”
I glanced at the stairs leading to the second floor, where my bedroom was, and swallowed around an ungainly lump in my throat. The living room was dead ahead, and before I could pretend not to have heard her, my mother stepped into view. Standing in front of the sliding doors that let out into the backyard, she smiled at me, but it was a spooky, rigid smile that did nothing to calm my nerves.
“I’m just gonna go up to my room and put my stuff down—” I tried, but she cut me off.
“Don’t worry about that right now, sweetie. You can leave your stuff there.”
Sweetie. Uh-oh. My mom hadn’t called me “sweetie” since … Actually, I couldn’t remember the last time she’d called me that. Numbly, I dropped my bag and my skateboard, shrugged out of my coat, and shuffled into the living room. With the set of glass doors and a massive picture window, it was a space that received a ton of light, but my vision tunneled until I could see only two things: a police officer seated in my dad’s recliner, and a second officer standing by the fireplace. The one in the recliner was a man with thinning ginger hair and a bulbous nose; the one by the fireplace was younger, twenties maybe, a black woman with eyes that looked straight through me to the marijuana hidden in my bedroom. They both wore heavy utility belts with holstered guns.
I swallowed again, and tried not to look like I was trying not to piss myself.
“Why don’t you have a seat, son?” The male officer spoke, but it didn’t sound like a suggestion so much as a command. My mom, not taking her eyes off me for a second, circled the couch and sat down first, patting the cushion beside her like I was a terrier or something. Obediently, I followed the implied order, and once I was situated the man said, “I’m Detective Wilkerson, and this is Detective Moses. We just have a few questions we need to ask you.” He gave me a smile that fell somewhere between avuncular and “don’t fuck with me,” and my stomach gurgled. “I know it sounds silly, but since this is an official visit, I just need to confirm that you are Flynn Doherty—is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied automatically, my voice sounding like it was coming from another room. Sir? I never called anyone “sir.”
“Your mother tells us you’re a sophomore at Riverside.”
“Uh … yes?”
Wilkerson grinned. “My boy’s going to be a freshman there next year. He’s a wrestler, but I’m hoping I can convince him to try out for football. You guys have a pretty good team this year, don’t you?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to sound accommodating. I knew fuck-all about football, and even less about what our team was like. I’m a small guy, shorter and skinnier than most guys my age, and fifteen-year-olds who clock in at less than 120 don’t exactly make for star athletes in contact sports. I figured out in the third grade that I was never going to bring home any such trophies, and every gym class since has been an exercise in sheer misery. Guys take sports incredibly seriously, and after getting slide-tackled six or seven times in a twenty-minute period of a middle school soccer game, I realized it was best if I focused my energies elsewhere.
A silence filled with apprehension stretched out, while Wilkerson and Moses stared at me. If they were expecting me to confess to something, I disappointed them. The older detective cleared his throat. “Son, your girlfriend is January McConville, isn’t that right?”
Whatever I’d been expecting him to say, it wasn’t that. My mom took my hand then, squeezing it hard enough to pulverize the boulder on the neighbor’s lawn, and it was my first indication that whatever was going on was a lot more serious than a half ounce of pot. Licking my lips, I asked, “Why? What’s happened?”
“Just answer the question, please.”
My mom was still staring at me, radiating worry, and I decided not to overcomplicate things. “Yeah. Uh, yes, sir. Why?”
“Son, when’s the last time you saw her?”
I looked at him uncomprehendingly. “Last Friday. Why?”
Wilkerson and Moses exchanged a look. “Last Friday. Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I know how to use a calendar,” I blurted before I could stop myself. “Why are you asking me about January? What’s happened?”
Acting like I’d said nothing at all, Wilkerson forged ahead with that avuncular/hard-assed expression on his face. “You didn’t happen to see her on Tuesday night, did you?”
“He just told you that he hasn’t seen her since Friday,” my mother interjected sharply. It was a tone that usually struck fear into the hearts of men—she once used it on my sadistic homeroom teacher in the sixth grade, and I got three tardies excused retroactively—but Wilkerson didn’t even flinch.
“I’d like him to answer the questions, ma’am.” Avuncular had given way fully to hard-assed. “Are you sure you didn’t see her on Tuesday night?”
“Of course I’m sure,” I insisted. My heart was starting to thud, and I felt something cold uncoiling in my gut. “I was here Tuesday night, writing a crappy history paper. The last time I saw January was Friday. Like I said.”
Wilkerson’s mouth shifted. “How did she seem?”
“Was she upset? Angry?” Wilkerson made a revolving motion with one hand. “What did the two of you talk about?”
I flashed back to Friday night, January’s breath fogging the air between us, her hands pawing at my jeans, her eyes a shimmering slick of tears, and I shifted on the couch. My mom was watching me like I was something under glass at the zoo, and I could feel my chest constricting. “I don’t know. We talked about normal stuff.”
I was sure they could see the sweat leaking at my temples. This was my worst nightmare. Why were they asking me about Friday night in front of my mom?
“Could you elaborate?”
It was like being called to the chalkboard to give a presentation you had forgotten you were supposed to prepare. I started talking, saying things that popped into my head, desperately avoiding the truth. I didn’t want to mislead the cops—not if something bad had happened—but they wouldn’t tell me what was going on, and I wasn’t going to back willingly into this particular corner if I could help it. “We did some stargazing. January’s really into that kind of thing, and it was a pretty clear night, so we went out and … you know, looked at stars for a while. And we talked about what we’re going to do when we finally graduate, and we talked about her big, fancy new house and her big, fancy new school, and … and that’s about it.”
It sounded pitiful even to my own ears, and I could see the cops didn’t believe me. Looking at me dubiously, Wilkerson asked, “Did she seem depressed at all, or preoccupied? Was she acting unusual in any way?”
Again, I flashed on January’s torn expression, stark in the moonlight with bitter tears making silver lines down her cheeks, and I felt ashamed. “Not really.”
Wilkerson frowned, and Detective Moses narrowed her eyes a little like she was trying to picture me in handcuffs. Then she spoke for the first time. “She’s your girlfriend, but you haven’t seen her in almost a week?” It was Thursday now, so technically she was right. “Not over the weekend? Not on Tuesday night?”
“Why do you keep asking me about Tuesday?” My pitch was climbing into the upper register and, like watching a cat run up a tree, I couldn’t seem to stop it. “Why do you keep asking me about January? What’s happened?”
Maddeningly, the detectives shared another glance, and then Wilkerson finally said, “January McConville is missing, son. She never came home from school on Tuesday night, and no one’s seen or heard from her since.” He watched me for a moment, as if he expected me to respond, but I merely stared back in quiet astonishment until he added, “So I think you can see why we’d like to know exactly what the two of you talked about the last time you saw her.”
I looked from my mom’s worried expression to the businesslike ones of the cops, and I swallowed hard. Oh, shit.
Copyright © 2016 by Caleb Roehrig