Mrs. Hershel’s clouded eyes were half focused on the Price is Right playing softly in the background on her mini-flat screen on the kitchen island. The teakettle on the stove for her morning coffee was nearly ready. Although, on Dr. Kang’s orders she shouldn’t be drinking, she’d read an article online about it being good for the heart. Her heart had given her trouble on a regular basis since March. She had to pause often when she went up the stairs to visit her friend Jill. All of that was the boring stuff. Once she turned off her silver teakettle, she’d make a mug of lightly sweetened coffee and go and visit Skylar. The mug she often used was teal with a raised decoration of a seashell. Skylar had brought it back from her trip to Palm Beach a few summers ago; she always brought her mugs and flowers.
A high-pitched whine reverberated from the kettle on the stove and Mrs. Hershel walked over to turn it off. Taking the mug off the pale yellow nook below the cupboard she poured the water half way and added two tablespoons of instant dark roast, having to stir often to keep it from turning into an unpalatable tar. She added four packets of sweet-and-low and brought it to her lips. She pursed them shut. It was not sweet enough. After two more packets, Mrs. Hershel had her coffee and went to her bedroom.
Her bedroom was bare. She’d recently moved to what her daughter called an “independent living community.” On her dresser, she had a mirror, rolled out lace runner, and a jewelry box. There was also a framed picture of her late husband, Skylar, and, her daughter; Skylar’s dark brown hair proofed around her head, filling most of the frame and her thin light brown arms encircling her mother’s neck. There were a few other pictures, but she couldn’t remember their names. Her bed was made with a generic stripe pattern of purple and blue, with four lines on each end, given to her by the caregivers. In the corner, she had a small side table with a tiny blooming cactus, also given to her by Skylar. Her only complaint was the odd mildew smell that came from the crown molding, which indicated a past flooding.
Mrs. Hershel took off her polka-dotted robe and nightgown and put on her lavender skirt suit. Then, releasing each strand of her hair from its cylindrical imprisonment she styled them. She fastened an incandescent lavender clip to her graying tresses. She slipped on a pair of white patent leather heels and called a cab. She was no longer allowed to drive. The cab driver picked her up behind the tennis courts; pass all the identical stucco houses and pool with not nearly enough water to swim in. The other people in the community liked the aquatic workout sessions offered Tuesdays’ at noon.
“Where you headed?”
“This address,” Mrs. Hershel said, handing him a reply envelope with Skylar’s address on it.
“Oh, the Smith residence.”
The cab driver turned the corner and left the independent living community, stopping for a red light on Berkley Avenue and 2nd Place. The ride was devoid of conversation, and the only sound was that of police sirens and gusts of wind that rattled the windows of the old black cab. The trees were deep in slumber, stripped bare of leaves and what Skylar called whirles. The uneven slabs of sidewalk were blanked in snow and ice perforated by blue salt.
“That will be $36.70.”
Mrs. Hershel opened her purse and handed the cab driver a fifty-dollar bill, he handed her change back over his shoulder.
“No, problem. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Mrs. Hershel did not have time to respond before he drove off and up 2nd Place. Parked in front of the house was a plain navy blue car with a police siren silently blinking on the dashboard. Mrs. Hershel walked up the hexagon-paved driveway, her heels crunching the partially melted ice and scrapping the blue salt under her worn heels. It was freezing and the tips of her fingers were becoming numb. In the corner of her eye, she could see yellow police tape across the garage. She picked up her pace and knocked on the large oak door. No one answered. She knocked again. This time the door slowly opened and her daughter stood, wearing a large heather gray cable-knit sweater, her oak-brown eyes swollen like golf balls and her curly locks greasy and tangled.
“Where is my Skylar?” Mrs. Hershel said.
The woman covered her mouth, like she would vomit at any moment and her chest rose and then fell like a brick.
“Where is my Skylar?”
The woman took her by her icy weathered hands and led her to the living room. The air was stale with mildew and mustard-like scent and dust gently floated on shafts of soft light from the window. Mrs. Hershel took her hand away in disgust.
“We don’t know where,” Her voice seemed to evaporate with each word.
“Why wasn’t I told about my daughter?” Mrs. Hershel said.
“She’s not your daughter, we’re not your family, Mrs. Hershel,”
“That’s a lie.”
“She volunteered. Skylar is not your daughter, Mrs. Hershel.”
Each word jabbed Mrs. Hershel in the heart. Why would this woman say such things to her?
“You’re a horrible person!” Mrs. Hershel shouted.
The woman covered her ears, cuffing them tightly and shook her head as if to dislodge Mrs. Hershel’s words.
“Please, listen. Skylar is missing, and I can’t do this right now.” Tears stained her sunken and dark cheeks.
Mrs. Hershel noticed a gangly man walking out of the kitchen, a gun in his holster and a fat black leather pad in his hand. He wore thick tortoise shell glasses, a powder blue button-up with slacks and an apologetic expression.
“Does she have any information?” he said.
“No no no, she was about to leave,” The woman said as she shook her head.
“Not until you find my daughter.”
“Is she?” he said.
“No, she’s not.” The woman said, jabbing Mrs. Hershel again in the heart.
“I want to help,” Mrs. Hershel said.
The gangly man nodded, his eyes now focused hard on Mrs. Hershel. The woman gave Mrs. Hershel a hard stare.
“I am Detective Darren Darcy,” He shook her hand.
“Nice to meet you, I am Mrs. Hershel. Skylar’s mother.”
“Have you had any contact with her on or after March 4th?” Darcy said.
“Yes, she brought me soup from a shop on 5th and 2nd place,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“That’s impossible, she was in school,” Skylar’s mom said.
“She skipped her last period,” Mrs. Hershel said matter-of-factly
Detective Darcy and the woman exchanged glances. He took out his smartphone from his pocket. Within a few moments, he was on the phone with the deli and left for a moment after saying he would be back soon to the woman as he grabbed his leather jacket off the white LazyBoy. The woman and Mrs. Hershel were now alone in the two-story colonial and both women still stood mere feet from the door.
“There is coffee in the kitchen, you want any?” the woman said.
“Yes, dear,” Mrs. Hershel said.
Both women held mugs of coffee in their hand as they sat a few feet apart on the white sofa.
“When did she go missing?” Mrs. Hershel said.
“We thought after school but now we know after she saw you. She went missing on March 4th” Skylar’s mom said.
“I’m sorry, what is your name again?” Mrs. Hershel said.
“Marisol. Marisol. That doesn’t sound right. I thought it was Julianne,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“That’s your daughter’s name,” the woman said.
“But you are,” Mrs. Hershel started but then stopped when she noticed the hardness of her eyes.
“How are you getting on there?” Marisol said.
“It’s alright, I guess…I have my coffee and mugs from Skylar. My room is quite large. I have a window that has a view of the pool,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“Nice,” Marisol said.
“Look, I’m sorry. We will find her,” Mrs. Hershel said. She placed her hand on Marisol’s lap.
“I pray,” Marisol said.
Detective Darcy returned, his notepad in his gloved hand and his face red from the onslaught of cold air and flurries. Marisol jumped from the couch like she had been burned.
“Did you find out anything?” Marisol said.
“The cashier saw her around 3 PM, she bought soup and asked for two spoons,” Detective Darcy said.
Mrs. Hershel wore a smug grin; she knew her Skylar visited her, even if people insisted on not believing her anymore.
“It fills out the timeline if she went to Oak Hill to visit Ms.–”
“Hershel,” Marisol filled in.
“That means she went to Oak Hill, which would have taken her roughly thirty minutes, and visited with her. Now we proceed with the investigation from there,” Detective Darcy said.
Mrs. Hershel put down the mug of half finished coffee and joined the two.
“She left around People’s Court,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“What time was that on?” Detective Darcy said.
Mrs. Hershel touched her lips.
“The sun was down,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“So after four or five,” Detective Darcy said slowly.
“Yes,” Mrs. Hershel said. She nodded profusely, her dry and wire-like gray curls bouncing around her head.
Marisol folded her arms, looked down at her feet and tried to focus on the image of her daughter, safe and happy.
“We have to go to Oak Hill, maybe someone saw her leave,” Marisol said.
Marisol and Mrs. Hershel sat in the back of the police cruiser as Detective Darcy punched in the address for Oak Hill Independent Living Community on the GPS. Mrs. Hershel was cold; she did not understand why there was snow in August. It was eighty degrees the last time she was outside. Detective Darcy backed out of the driveway, slightly skidding on the ice on the slope leading to the runoff drain. Margret made Mrs. Hershel a silver thermos of coffee for the trip back.
As Detective Darcy made his way through the white arch of the community, a group of three police cruisers had formed a barrier. He tried his best not to give away any hints that this may be a very bad sign. Skylar’s mother was gripping the seatbelt.
“What’s happened, Darren?” Mrs. Hershel said.
“They are helping us find your daughter,” Detective Darcy said. He waved his right arm and Officer Roy walked over. Darcy rolled down his window.
“Darcy, drive up to house 12,”
Darcy nodded. After the cruisers shifted to the side and partially onto the well-manicured lawns Darcy drove to quadrant 6 and up to house 12, which faced the pool.
“Wait in the car,” Detective Darcy said as he climbed out of the car and closed the door.
“Why are they at my house?” Mrs. Hershel said. Ribbons of police tape were plastered on the house, laced around the metal bars on the windows on both sides of the front on the house and obstructing the front door.
“My guess is looking for clues, you helped us a lot,” Marisol said.
“Why are they at my house?” Mrs. Hershel said, sounding angrier.
Margret clasped her hands together and sat them in her lap.
Detective Darcy ducked under the police tape and knocked on the door before being let in by another uniformed police officer.
A moment later Detective Darcy returned, this time opening the door on Marisol’s side.
“Please come with me, there is something you have to see,” Detective Darcy said.
Marisol paused for a moment, her face blank.
“Come,” Detective Darcy said.
Marisol walked in with Darcy, her arms tightly crossed and the wind wiping around the back of her heather gray sweater. The white door with the peeling paint was barely opened as they entered.
Mrs. Hershel gripped the thermos as she took a sip of the still piping hot coffee and placed it in the cup holder in between the front seats. A gust of wind rattled the windows as a sharp scream came from the house. The front door swung open, stretching the police tape as Margret began to charge towards the car, only to be held back by a dark haired police officer twice her size.
“Where is she?” Marisol screamed before crumpling over the arm of the officer nearly falling on the icy ground.
Mrs. Hershel madly shook her head.
The officer helped Marisol up and walked her back into the house.
A short bouquet of pink carnations and marigolds floated in a vase of ice water on the kitchen table. On the stove simmered a thick clam chowder from the local deli. It was Mrs. Hershel’s favorite. Mrs. Hershel flipped through the channels on her TV to find the news. It was difficult to find things now with cable. Half the channels were sports or networks that did not broadcast in English. Skylar didn’t seem to mind the lack of TV and she hummed as she took out a pair of bowls.
“How much do you want?” Skylar said.
“Oh…about half way, have to watch my sodium,” Mrs. Hershel said.
Skylar made two bowls and grabbed a pair of spoons.
“This is so kind of you dear, my daughter–,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“Julianne,” Skylar finished.
“Right, she doesn’t come see me that often.”
“I’m sure she loves you.”
Mrs. Hershel nodded and skimmed the top of her chowder with the spoon.
“Still hot, we’ll eat later. I got something to show you,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“Sure, what is it?”
Mrs. Hershel laid a large hatbox on the bed. It was ecru with a fading pink rose design with the words Love, Peace and, Family printed all over it in a thin calligraphy font. She pulled off the thin top slowly, the edges damaged and revealing the plain brown cardboard underneath. Skylar was excited. In watching how tenderly Mrs. Hershel opened the box Skylar knew it meant it was special. With her pale weathered hands, Mrs. Hershel pulled out an evergreen sweater. On the right breast was a large rose broach with incandescent petals and a green lace stem. The petals were a milky pink stained glass with metal edges and folded over one another forming a blooming bud.
“Well, come and try it on.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Skylar said.
Mrs. Hershel helped Skylar into the sweater. It was a long and hung past her hips but Mrs. Hershel was sure Skylar would grow into it. She had long arms that fit the sleeves perfectly; soon her legs would catch up.
“It looks wonderful on you Julianne,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“I’m Skylar, Mrs. Hershel,” Skylar said, gently. Mrs. Hershel froze for a moment before nodding, remembering again. Mrs. Hershel ran her hands over the sweater, miles away in thought. She smiled, her protruding cheekbones enveloped by concentric circles.
“I bought this for Julianne before she went away to college. She didn’t like it. Never really cared for girly clothing. I thought she might need it for interviewing later down the line,”
“Are you giving this to me?” Skylar said as she touched the brooch with the tips of her brown fingers.
“Oh, yes, very much so. It’s no use here and stuffed in an old hatbox.”
Skylar nodded and rubbed her fingers on the cuffs, admiring the texture.
Mrs. Hershel placed the reheated bowls of chowder on the lace runner of the dresser and they ate in the room with the chairs from the kitchen pushed up against it. As Skylar finished eating Mrs. Hershel combed her hair, braiding from one side of her head to the other and forming a crown. It tamed some of her curls and the taut hair formed a wavy pattern. She then used some of the pink carnations to lace through her braid and tucked the end of the braid underneath, securing it with a hairpin.
“Done,” Mrs. Hershel said.
“It’s like I’ve been transported back in time,” Skylar said.
“Do you not like it?”
“No, I do. I really do. It looks just like the photo,”
Skylar picked up a black frame from her dresser. The woman had long auburn hair and pink roses laced in the braid around her hair, like a crown. The photo was not on photo paper like the others but printer paper. Upon closer inspection, she noticed the picture was pixelated. Her pupils were squares and each shade in the picture, from dark to light was grainy. In the center were thin white lines, indicating a rarely cleaned printer printed it.
“When was this taken?” Skylar said.
“I-I don’t really remember,” Mrs. Hershel said. Mrs. Hershel took the picture from Skylar, placing it back on the runner after smoothing the lace with her hand.
Having her weathered hands through my hair felt nice and the velvety flowers softly brushed against my temples. She hummed to herself as she tidied the top of her dresser, admiring the other fancy hair combs she had and comparing some of them to my slightly darker skin. She placed a tortoiseshell comb in my hand and nodded. The shadow from the drapes stretched across the floor, daylight was quickly running out and I would have to get back by 4:50 pm the latest so my mom would not, rightly so, think I skipped class. She sat on her bed and clasped her hands in her lap, seemingly lost in thought. I just needed to tell her but I could not make myself stand. The worst part was I knew she might not even remember I told her I would never come back and she would sit at her kitchen island waiting for me. I wondered how much she would wait before she realized I was never coming back. I hoped she would remember that it was not because of her that I was not coming anymore. She got up from the bed and hugged me from behind, rubbing my shoulders and adjusting my hair a bit.
“I have something to tell you.”
“You can tell me anything, Julie.”
I ignored the use of Julianne’s name and continued.
“I can’t come back any longer.”
Julianne burst through the bedroom door and unburdened herself of the evergreen sweater. The brooch hit the linoleum and Julianne turned back. Mrs. Hershel looked confused. Julianne tore the carnations from her hair, the fleshy stems becoming mere strings and pulp as the delicate petals whirled toward the floor.
“Please don’t go, Julie,” Mrs. Hershel called out.
Julie swung open the door, the soft canary yellow and cobalt blue hues of day turning into night stretched onto the floor and flurries were wisped in by freezing gust of wind. The soft glow of light from the dulled sun reflected off the soft shimmering piles of snow filling the empty space around her trembling form.
My fingernails were a shade of lavender and the tips of my fingers nearly red. Identifying frostbite was not a skill I had but I was sure I had it. The sweater kept me warm for a while but soon enough the ice-cold air seemed to reach every nook and cranny and prick my skin raw. I damned myself to the point I was screaming in my head about how foolish I could be to not go home and how I could not tell my mom that Mrs. Hershel was getting worst. I thought I could handle it. She would call me Skylar when I brought her clam chowder and it became an experiment to see if I could help her more. I was not sure where I was but I did not feel far enough away. I had never seen her that angry before.
The woods were dense where I was and what little daylight was left was filtered so finely through the tops of the trees the light looked like glitter. I held my knees close to me in an effort to keep warm. Eventually, someone would notice. The school would call and leave an automated message on my mom’s cell phone telling her I was late for class. My shoulders faltered a little when I realized she was taking a night shift and her phone would be off for hours before she listened to any messages. My phone had not service out here, I was cold and I was sure my scalp was bleeding. I began to cry, the tears pooling into my cupped hands. Softly at first, and then more violent like a bleating lamb I heard them. The sirens.