MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 35

My father was still at his desk when I returned to Maple Ridge, and a mug and a dirty soup bowl assured me he’d been taking care of his basic biological needs in my absence. He was almost finished what he was working on, he told me, and he’d be ready to join me for supper in half an hour.

I fixed a salad and assembled a pair of sandwiches, and reheated the last of Mrs. Chandler’s casserole. My father entered the kitchen as I was folding napkins, and we settled down to our meal together.

We spent the first few minutes in near silence, punctuated by my father complimenting me on the simple dinner, and asking if my day had been productive. I accepted the compliment and answered the question in the affirmative, but didn’t elaborate. My father didn’t push.

Finally he spoke again, looking down at his plate: “I have a colleague whose daughter is setting up a non-profit,” he said. “I don’t know the details, but they need someone to help with the website and online infrastructure. Not a long term project, maybe six or eight weeks, and you’re probably overqualified for it, but it’s something you can do mostly from home. Or from here, if you want. I thought you may be interested.”

“Oh.” I looked up. “That doesn’t really sound like my thing, but thanks.”

“They want someone right away,” he continued, as though I hadn’t spoken, “and I’m feeling up to taking care of myself, if you wanted something else to do. And you won’t have to worry about giving two weeks’ notice.”

He staring directly into my eyes. There was nothing to do but nod. “How long have you known?”

“Since Tuesday. I got the message that I thought was from you, and I tried to call you, and you didn’t answer. So I called your work, and they said you weren’t there, that you hadn’t been there for a while.”

I lowered my head, ashamed. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m really sorry.”

“Kathleen, ketzel, I don’t want you to be sorry. I just want you to talk to me.”

I nodded again. “Okay,” I said. And then, inadequately: “I was laid off. They’re downsizing, they didn’t need me anymore, but they didn’t get rid of everyone, so I don’t think it was coincidence that they let me go. But it was time; I should have left on my own terms. But I didn’t want you to worry about me.” I choked back a bitter laugh.

“I’m always going to worry about you when I don’t know where you are,” he said, and it took me a second to identify the tone: surprise. The sun would rise in the east, water would flow downhill, and my father would always worry about me when I was away. I had been foolish to think I had any control over something so immutable. I slumped back in my seat. I’d been getting so much of the basic stuff wrong lately.

We returned to our meals, and my father was refilling his glass when he spoke again. “What were you doing on Tuesday?”

“I was in Calgary,” I said. “That part was true. But not for work. I was there about the driver and the kids who were in the car I hit a couple of months ago. Not to find them; I didn’t think they’d be there. I wanted to see some people who could lead me to them.”

“And did you?”

“One of them. I found out a lot. I was going to try to talk to someone else too, but I don’t know how much she’d have been able to tell me.” I paused, and wondered if Julia had gotten my email. “But I got your messages and Mrs. Chandler’s before I had a chance, and headed back here as soon as I could.”

He nodded again, and returned to his plate. It was a full minute before he spoke. “Why is it important to you that you find these people?”

I set my fork down. I’d been giving that question a lot of thought over the past few days, ever since I’d been unable to formulate an answer three long nights earlier when my efforts had led me to my father’s hospital bed. But the words still felt clumsy. “Because they just disappeared,” I said at last, “weeks and weeks ago, and no one knows where they went. Some people…some of the people I spoke to think they know, but no one was able to verify anything. No one spoke to Anoushka, let alone saw her. She and the children could be dead and no one’s life will have changed for it. And…and that bothers me. They should matter more than that to someone. Someone should care about them enough to want to know what happened. People’s lives should be important enough to someone that it makes a difference when they’re gone.”

I stopped there, and my father didn’t move. He seemed to be waiting for me to continue, and when I didn’t, he nodded and then said, “I’m proud of you, you know. I don’t tell you that enough, but I am.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I literally gave you a heart attack,” I pointed out.

He shook his head. “I can’t stop you from worrying, either. That’s in your genes. You were doomed from the start.” He smiled, and in spite of myself, I did as well. “But you’re doing something constructive with your worry instead of pushing it aside, or letting it eat you. I don’t know where you got that from.”

“I think I do,” I said.

He didn’t ask what I meant. He might have known.

“Dad,” I said suddenly, and the next words tumbled out before I could stop them: “Where’s my mother buried?”

He remained still, and but for the rise of his chest I wouldn’t have known he was breathing.

“Shit.” I squeezed my eyes shut, as though by doing so I could rewind the scene. “I’m sorry, Dad. Forget I asked.”

“No, no.” His voice was low, even; he spoke as though he’d been waiting for years for the question. “I should have told you a long time ago. You…give me a minute.”

I nodded, and counted out the seconds, just to keep my mind from wandering.

“She…they all stopped talking to her after we married. Her parents, her brother, two of her sisters. They didn’t approve. Your aunt Nora was the only one who still spoke to her. She was the only one who came down.”

I waited.

“I couldn’t bury her with her family. And I couldn’t bury her with my parents, because she wasn’t Jewish, and even if she were, I don’t know that I could have, because…because…”

“Because of the way she died,” I said gently.

He nodded, grateful to be relieved of having to speak the words. I didn’t know if in twenty-five years, he ever had. “I turned her body over to your aunt. She had her cremated. I don’t know if that was right, but I hadn’t done right by your mother in life, so I don’t know how much my judgment counts for.”

“You did what you could,” I said.

“For whatever that was worth.”

There was nothing to say to that.

“You’re going let me know when you find out what happened to these people, all right?”

I didn’t trust myself to speak. I bit my lip and nodded, and then I looked away.

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