“Hey, Grace, didja see the flyers all over the place about the Reynolds girl gone missing?” Duke flipped his brim to the back and adjusted his belt below his belly before straddling the stool at the corner of the counter.
“Yeah, Phil said him and the other guys over’t the sheriffs’re headed up to the park right now to check for her there. She goes out on the dock on the south side of the lake to draw.” Grace slid the extra bowl of creamers by his mug and poured the acrid coffee in his cup.
Nodding, “Ayup. That south side stays sunny even this time of year. She’s alllus up there drawin’. I’ve given her a ride up there myself lotsa times. I hope some creep didn’t nab her,” Duke replied, gulping his coffee to wash the antacid tablet down his throat.
Grace wiped the counter, then leaned close to Duke, saying, “Nobody better touch a hair on her head, that’s what I say. You know what that kid did? When Marty died and they sent his body back, she dug up some ol’ picture from when they were in high school, and drew him, like he was back then, alive and smiling. She gave it to me. I framed it and have it hanging by my bed. I look at it every night.”
“ Aw, Grace. That was real tough. I’m glad you got that picture to look at. Ayup, nice girl, she laughs at my lame jokes on the way up to the lake. I don’t like to see her walking up there by herself. Christ, why didn’t her dad come around after Holly passed? Someone shoulda been in that house with her.”
“ I dunno. Shame. I heard he’s holed up in Juneau with some Eskimo gal.”
The door frame rattled as Schmidt lumbered through the café door. “Mornin’, all. Grace, gimme some of that battery acid you got in that coffee pot. Duke, man, you look fatter every time I see you. Make me look svelte.” Schmidt hung his canvas Carhart jacket on the third hook and heaved himself onto the stool one over from Duke. The big men always left a space between them, for a midget with no arms, they joked.
The comforting smells of grease and bacon and syrup hung in the airspace in the single-wide diner as the griddle in the back fired up and regulars ordered their breakfast combos. The Olympia clock ticked, but the second hand had caught on 2, so other than its comforting heartbeat, it was useless. Grace had never put in a sound system, preferring instead, the regular waves of conversation from the murmurs of breakfast, to the clatter at lunch and the laughter of the folks after work. Everybody in the mountain community checked in at Grace’s place at least once a week.
That morning the hum was louder, circling the room quickly without ebbing. About the young woman missing from their midst. Mary belonged to them. The sheriff had checked her house when old Mrs. T called them saying Mary had not shown up to do the ironing, like she always did on Mondays. Mrs. T was a worrier, but the sheriff went over anyway. Things were a lot slower in September after the summer tourists departed.
Nobody locked their doors in Sweetholm, so after knocking and calling out hello with no reply, he let himself in. There was no sign of anything amiss. Rubber boots, sneakers, hiking boots and slippers lined up evenly under the jackets. The black and white linoleum floor swept clean. Dinner dishes in the sink and a Safeway bag stuffed with recyclables. The kitchen table was strewn with white sheets of paper that fluttered in the breeze blowing through the open window.
Mary drew people and birds, everybody knew that. Sheriff Braun looked down at the pale graphite faces and remembered when his own daughter Lisa had been in art class with Mary. What was that good looking gal’s name, the one who came to the school once a week to teach art? Hell, his memory was shot. It had been ten years since the high school offered anything special anyway. Times were tough.
The bungalow’s front room looked just like when Mary’s mom, Holly, had lived there, except that Mary had tacked up her drawings of mallards. Upstairs, the first bedroom door was shut. He peered inside. Holly’s room. Stepping in the darkened space, he smelled lavender. Twisting the wand on the blinds, sunlit stripes zig-zagged across the room. Silver animals lined up on the dresser and the white bedspread fringe hung quietly. Holly had died two years ago. Well, what else would Mary do with that stuff, besides leave it in here, he thought to himself.
Nothing, no body, or anything unusual in the bathroom. The cup next to the sink held two toothbrushes and a half-squeezed toothpaste paste with no top on it. The clawfoot tub seemed clean enough when he drew the shower curtain aside.
The door to the second bedroom was ajar, the sunshine wafting in with the Indian summer as he stepped in the room. The white woodwork outlined the dove grey wallpaper with the vine pattern, making the room appear contained and pleasing. He opened the drawers of the chest one by one, pushing aside the socks and sweaters. The sheriff hated this part, the snooping. Up here, there just weren’t secrets.
The clucking and clinking at the diner had subsided. Everyone would scout around for signs of Mary and return in the evening.
It was Duke who saw the white sheets flutter up behind his truck as he rounded the sharp curve at the foot of the hill. They caught his eye in the rearview mirror as he geared down to climb the last mile up to the lake. He couldn’t pull off the road ‘til that gravel spot about a quarter mile up. Pulling up the parking brake, he pressed on his hazard lights, and trudged back down the gravel to the spot where the white papers had been. Darn shoulder didn’t have enough room for a body to squeeze along. He’d have to put his back to the sharp cliff if a big car came along.
The spring water seeped down the basalt face on his left as he walked. He rounded the bend, and the gap between him and the cliff opened up. Rivulets splashed now, bouncing mist off his face and then falling to the chasm below. The river tumbled from the lake above and grew swifter as it carved its way through the spring-fed cliffs.
Duke spotted the black spine first. His stomach twisted. The covers lay nearby and then the pages. Mostly they were in hanks, but a few single sheets lay scattered about the dark gravel. He bent down, picking them up. He recognized faces, smudged and swollen from the mist, but there they were, Mrs. T with her crazy hair, John the grocer resting his head in his large palm, and…his own profile staring ahead in his truck. Mary!
He went to the edge, pressing his shins against the guardrail and focused his eyes on the river below. He scanned the boulders, the grey silt of the glacial water, the piles of tree trunks that crashed down in the spring runoff each year. Lodged in the debris, in the only spot of sunshine to penetrate the ravine, he thought he saw an arm. No…dear God, no. Yes. That was what it was. What he did not want to see. He groaned. Oh Lord. No!
Duke felt for his phone. Damn, he’d left it in the glove box. He trundled back up to the truck. Panting and sweating, he flung open the door and reached for his phone. He dialed Phil Braun’s number.
“Phil. Phil, it’s me, Duke. You gotta get here. I’m at The Curve, the one below the park. Oh, Phil, I found her. Mary’s dead, down in the river. Call Matt. Tell him to bring his tow. We’re gonna need a lot of guys. She’s wedged down in there. OK, I’ll be here.”
The sheriff and his guys got there fast, straight down from the park. Matt took a little longer to come up from town with the tow. The guys who worked ski patrol in the winters were the fittest of the bunch, so they rappelled down to the ravine. It took a lot of prying to dislodge the body from the debris. With the winch from the tow, they were finally able to swing the last tree off to the side, to free the girl from the icy water.
They strapped her into the canvas sling and the tow hoisted her back up over the guardrail. Duke looked at the bluish grey face, that seemed unnaturally aligned with the shoulders, the eyelids closed, the nose broken, no expression whatsoever. He walked to his truck where he doubled over the wheel and wept.
They held the funeral for Mary at the Sweetholm Presbyterian church, where Holly was buried. They never did locate Mary’s dad, so they took a collection to pay for a casket for Mary’s body and gathered there to pray for her soul. After the service, the flock headed to Grace’s place for coffee and donuts which Grace provided free of charge. They talked pretty quiet that day and the Olympia clocked ticked on.
The next day was warm again, the kind of late September day when God gives you a little sunshine before he draws the curtain of winter across the mountains. The sheriff went over to Mary’s house to lock it up before it got turned over to a realtor to put on the market. Maybe it would be a second home for someone from down below. He washed and dried the dishes, setting them in the cupboard. He unpinned the mallards from the living room wall and put them in a folder to take to the church. The stairs creaked as he moved upstairs.
He left the silver animals lined up in Holly’s room. The executor would run the estate sale and the creatures would likely find a new home in town.
The window was still open in Mary’s room, the voile curtains lisping in the breeze. He began to walk to it, to shut it for the coming cold nights, when he looked at the walls. The soft grey walls with the vine pattern had filled with birds, white birds, doves, lined up, peacefully arranged within the white frames of the woodwork. What had caught his eye to this change, was the motion of a wing settling into place. He felt it, but had not seen it.
Finally, his mind settled on a blank space in the pattern where a bird was still missing.
drawing - Chris Van Allsburg