A short story by Tina Konstant
“She looked lost, like she didn’t know where to go or what to do.”
“What did you say?” Michael Clarens looks at his daughter over the top of his glasses and turns the page of the novel he was determined to finish before spring.
“It’s what the neighbour said.” Sarah squeezes the bridge of her nose and shuts her eyes. “Don’t say it.” She raises her hand warding off her father’s opinion. Not that it had ever worked before. “Not a word.”
Michael smiles, shifts his feet closer to the fire and turns back to his book. “I’m not saying anything.”
“It’s eight years today.”
“I’m still not saying anything.”
“No one’s found her. Not a trace. Not a clue.”
“Since when do you have nothing to say?”
“You’re doing a pretty good job on your own.”
“Humph.” Sarah leans over the kitchen table and, using the un-chewed end of her pencil, spreads the newspaper articles out that told the world about the day Melissa George disappeared.
The last person to see her was her neighbour; an eighty-year-old man who could hardly remember his name, but somehow, he remembered seeing Melissa.
“She looked lost,” he’d told the police and the press. Sarah knew. She was one of The Press. At the time, Melissa’s disappearance was all she had focused on. Every word. Every story. Sarah remembered everything. “Like she’d forgotten where she lived,” the old man had said. “She paced up and down the pavement with her keys in her hand. Like she didn’t know where to go or what to do. I almost called to her. I almost told her to come in for a cup of tea.”
At the time, the journalists with their cameras caught him at just the right angle, looking up and down the street like she was still there. Maybe that’s why he remembered seeing her. He understood what it was to be lost and confused.
Over the first weeks and months the police put the details of Melissa’s last day together in the hopes that someone would come forward with information. They started where she started: seven in the morning, when she left for work.
“She was fine,” her husband had said. “I waved from the bedroom window. I’m not well at the moment. Haven’t been for a while. She was going to work. Was going to come home at lunchtime with my prescription. God.” He’d buried his pale, sweating face in his hands as the media searched his pain for lies and angles. Did he do it? Did he do something to her? “She was fine.” He’d sobbed again. “Sure we’d had some fights, but nothing unusual. Things were getting better. And no,” he’d said before anyone could ask, “we don’t have money problems. Or no more than anyone else.”
The police had pushed and poked until his edges cracked, but his story didn’t change. The last time he saw his wife was when she left for work that morning.
And she did make it to work. That was a fact. The police had her on CCTV walking through the front door. Colleagues said nothing suspicious or unexpected had happened. Everything seemed normal.
“She was her usual self. Maybe a bit tense, you know how it is…”
“How what is?” The police officer had smiled in a way that made Melissa’s colleagues think that their conversation was no more than casual chit-chat.
“Sometimes she looked like she had things on her mind, but don’t we all?” They’d poured tea and put out biscuits.
The police officer had nodded.
“She never wanted to talk about it.” One woman was the big talker. There was always one. A large woman who nodded after each sentence. Agreeing with herself in case no one else did. “I thought maybe she had trouble at home.”
“Really?” The police officer sipped her sugared tea. “What makes you think she had trouble at home?”
The woman used the tip of her fingernail to rearrange the biscuits, then offered the plate to the officer. “Another one?” The officer took one. The woman took two. Sarah had noticed because she wasn’t offered one at all. She was The Press. She just took notes. “Sometimes she’d stay late or come in really early,” the woman had said. “Just seemed like she needed a place to be.”
The officer nodded and dunked her biscuit. Left it too long. It broke in half. The woman blinked. This wasn’t a friend she was chatting to, this was an officer of the law. A friend wouldn’t dunk a biscuit too long. Never. She sat upright. “Oh, it’s nothing.” She’d smiled. “Shouldn’t even have mentioned it. Maybe she has family somewhere. Maybe that’s where she is. She’ll be back, won’t she? Oh, Lord, you don’t think…?” She’d glanced at the other women in the office but didn’t finish her sentence.
“We’re not assuming anything,” the police officer had said and put a half empty teacup on the desk Melissa should have been sitting at that day.
Sarah remembers every second of that day. How could she not? It changed everything.
She shuffles the pages across the kitchen table as if having them in a different order would give her a better view of the day. It doesn’t.
Melissa’s boss hadn’t had much more to add. “She left for lunch at about a quarter past one,” he’d said, glancing towards the door like he’d expected her to walk in any minute. “She said she needed to pick up a prescription for her husband. I told her to take the rest of the day off.”
“Why?” The police officer had asked. “Did it seem like she needed the day off?”
Her boss had stared at the officer and frowned. “No. What? Not needed it… She was maybe a bit stressed. Her husband…” He’d crossed his arms like a full stop. “She was fine when she left. We weren’t expecting her back until Monday.”
The media filled four pages with the guesswork, assumptions, hopes and imaginings gleaned from Melissa’s colleagues.
“Maybe she got in with a bad crowd…”
“I bet she ran off to America. She was always talking about living in Montana…”
“There was something wrong with that husband of hers. Not right in the head. Angry all the time…”
A vacuum. People couldn’t help but fill it. Mostly with their own ideas of what made good conversation.
Sarah closes the newspapers and opens a report she’d got through a friend who worked for the police at the time. A photo of the pharmacist and his wife lay at the top of the pile. They were the last people to speak to Melissa.
“She got here at about one-twenty,” the pharmacist had said. “The doctor sent the prescription through this morning. She picked it up and left.”
“Anything unusual? Did she seem upset or confused?”
The pharmacist had thought for a moment. “She was on the phone when she came in. Seemed like it was a difficult call. She wasn’t happy. She said she’d be there, then hung up.”
“Be there?” The detective on the case had scratched the back of his head with his pen. “What do you mean?”
The pharmacist turned to his wife like he was looking for some kind of corroboration. She’d nodded. “That’s it. I’ll be there. That’s what she said. Like the person on the phone wasn’t believing her. Like she had to convince him.”
“Him? She was talking to a man?”
“I don’t know.” The pharmacist had looked back at his wife to check he was getting it right. “I guess. I just assumed. She looked tense. I thought maybe it was just because her husband was ahh… sick.”
The phone call. The police didn’t find her phone so had no way of finding out who had called her. Her husband said it wasn’t him. “Who was talking to my wife?” He’d stood up from the kitchen table, slammed his fists on the wood and yelled. Very loud and very fast. Then seeing how the detective was staring at him, he’d smoothed his hair back and sat down. The detective had written the word Temper with a bold question mark beside it in his notebook. “Was she having an affair?” The husband kept his voice low and quiet. “Was the… Christ. Was she cheating on me?”
“We’re not assuming anything,” the police said again.
The phone was never found.
The police spoke to everyone who knew her. Did anyone call Melissa between 1.30 and 2.30 p.m. on the afternoon she went missing? Who would she meet? Was she having an affair? Was she seeing anyone?
No one admitted calling her but yes, the large woman had said. “I think she’s seeing someone. Just a few things I noticed around the office, you know? She sometimes seemed happy in a secret sort of way.” The woman had looked over her shoulder to make sure no one but the detective could hear her. “Taking calls in private,” she’d whispered, then leaned back and spoke in a voice the whole office could appreciate. “Her and her husband had been fighting about everything. Those calls she didn’t take in private. I’d hear her on the phone when he called. Could hear him yelling down the line. Poor girl.”
The police asked Melissa’s friends if that sounded right.
“The husband’s a drunk,” they’d said. “Did that nosey gossip tell you that?”
“Who might she have been talking to? Do you know who the man is?”
Her best friend shook her head. “No. There was no one else. Definitely. Her husband’s a pig, but she wasn’t seeing anyone else.”
“Nonsense,” the gossip said to the press, not the police, just the press. “Phillip something. Clarens, I think. Phillip Clarens. I think he came to the office one day. They talked. Seemed very close to me.”
Another man. An affair to escape a drunk husband. The press loved it. Melissa’s disappearance took six pages that day. Maps of where she was seen last. Photos of her with her long blonde hair loose then tied up, smiling then pensive. Have you seen this woman? Pictures of her childhood and her wedding day. The fact that she’d lost a child. That she’d visited the hospital on more than one occasion with bruises on her face and belly. Question about the mysterious Phillip Clarens. What did he have to do with the missing woman?
The police picked up the story but Phillip Clarens wasn’t hiding. How could he? His own sister was a member of the press covering every angle of Melissa’s disappearance. It would be impossible for him to say he didn’t know she was missing.
He went to the station before they tried to call him in. “Yes,” he’d said. “I did call her. Yes, I’ve been seeing her. Yes, I wanted her to leave that bastard. He was an abusive, manipulative, cowardly drunk. No, we didn’t meet that day. She didn’t show up. No, I haven’t seen her.”
The police pushed and poked until his edges cracked but his story didn’t change. He hadn’t seen Melissa the day she disappeared.
Sarah spreads the photos out on the kitchen table, ignoring her father behind her. The fire crackles and spits. Coffee gurgles and percolates. The smell of toast and hot butter fills the room. The wind wraps around the farmhouse sealing the doors and windows firmly shut and secure. Far from the town Melissa vanished from. Far from prying eyes and suspicion. Far from familiar faces and old gossip.
“He’s not going to find her, Sarah. No one is,” her father says without looking up from his book. “You covered the tracks. You did a good job.”
“But the husband’s looking again. He’s got the police looking. They’re asking questions. Why can’t they leave it alone? They’ve been in touch with Phillip. Want to know if he remembers anything else or if she’s ever got in touch.”
“And he’ll do what he did last time. He’ll say no. The police will believe him and they’ll go away. We’re all safe. Come join me by the fire and be done with it.”
The floorboards creak upstairs. Sarah looks up then takes another two mugs from the shelf and fills them both with coffee. One set of feet, then another. Giggles and early morning chat. Safe. Creaks on the stairs. Then laughter at the kitchen door.
Michael Clarens finally closed his book and put it down. “Good morning, Melissa.”