MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 42

My hands were shaking as I returned to the car, and it took me a few tries to fit the key in the ignition. They were still shaking as I backed out of the driveway and drove away from the yellow house, into the parking lot of the park.

I cut the engine and squeezed the steering wheel tight against the tremors. This was the end. I’d bluffed and threatened and sweet-talked my way to this point, but none of that would lead me to the dozens or hundreds of identities Manny Thomas and Lisa Willingdon controlled. And without them, there was no way for me to know whether Manny had truly retired, or if he had just closed one front business and released a fraction of his workforce; and I had no hope of learning which of the thousands of storage lockers in Calgary contained the body of Anoushka Thomas.

And even if I could acquire that information, what could I do with it? Pursuing Anoushka’s disappearance further required resources and authority beyond the reach of a citizen; and my best argument for deploying them was a story that had sounded implausible to my ears even before the woman with the blemished eye had reminded me of the extent to which I no longer controlled what happened under my name.

It ended here.

I sat there, paralyzed, for a span of time beyond measurement; and then I remembered, and reached into my bag for my phone, and I saw the graphic of the microphone and the flashing digits. With trembling hands I saved the file under its default name, and I hit Play and scrolled ahead to nearly the end.

Her words were quiet, but at maximum volume, they were clear enough. Certainly not a woman who does not exist…I scrolled back further, and my voice came through even more clearly: You helped move the body…and hers again: We would help her become free, and she would help us become free. Some of the words were muffled and I could only discern them from my memory and from context, but if I couldn’t isolate the entire conversation with a sound editor, a halfway competent sound technician could.

It was all there; not a formal confession, but enough to pursue one. I set the phone down, and the conversation continued to play as I gripped the steering wheel again. The engine was off, but the numbers and symbols on the dashboard kept shifting back and forth, in and out of focus, and circles of light dilated and contracted in my field of vision. I threw the door open and took several deep breaths, and then I leaned down, head between my legs, drawing as much air into my lungs as my body would allow. It was futile, and soon I gave in to the coughing and choking that wracked me, and before long the half-digested pizza was in front of me, on the pavement and on the pleated off-white pants.

I stood up, lightheaded but no longer nauseous. My phone was blinking; a message from my father. You left the house and it looks like now you’re at a park. Please reply. I phoned him instead, and he answered on the first ring, his relief audible. I was fine, I assured him; I’d found out what I’d come to learn. All three people were there, yes, mother and two children, in good health and in good spirits.

“Then why did –”

Oh, I told him, there was more to the story, and I’d call him back from the hotel in half an hour; right now I was just getting some fresh air, after a long day. And I’d book a flight, too, yes. For the next morning, assuming I could get one. And I loved him too.

I hung up, tossed the phone back in the bag, and wandered over to the bench where I’d eaten my pizza and watched the little girls play in the sand. They were long gone, them and the boy on the bicycle and the dark-haired woman and the girls’ soccer team; the park was empty but for me and three lanky teenage boys chasing a basketball around the court. I watched them for a few minutes, and if they noticed me at all they gave no indication that they had.

I sat there, and I thought of the two boys today, and of the two little girls, and of myself at that age, of how vividly if not authentically I could call my memories of that period into service.

I remembered the snowstorm the first winter that it was just my father and me. I remembered Mrs. Chandler coming over and setting me up with crayons and a colouring book while she spoke to my father in private – Boring grown-up stuff, she told me with a wink, and I complied, but while I was colouring I tried to listen to what they were saying. I couldn’t hear anything, and soon Mrs. Chandler was back, helping me pack up the crayons and the colouring book, and then bundling me up in a jacket, and then taking me over to her home where I sat on a phone book and sipped juice from a box.

But more clearly than that, I remembered the week before that, the week my father was sick.

I’d woken up before him that first day. That was different: usually he rose first, was at my bedroom door as soon as I stirred. But not this time, and after lying in bed for a bit, I got up, and went into his room. That was different, too – I wasn’t supposed to go into his room – but I’d waited, and I was hungry and I needed to pee, and I figured those were two good reasons to go into my father’s room.

He was coughing, big scratchy coughs, and he rubbed his eyes and picked up his watch and told me he’d be a minute, so I waited some more. And then he got up, and followed me into the kitchen, and he seemed slower than usual. Come on, Daddy. I’m hungry.

And there was more coughing as he nodded, as he took out a bowl and spoon and the box of Cheerios and milk. These he assembled slowly as well, and when he was finished he handed them to me and fell into the seat beside me. I watched him as I ate: he was mostly coughing, and when he wasn’t coughing he was staring at something past me, something that looked far away.

C’we play blocks, Daddy?

Ketzel, Daddy’s very tired. Daddy needs to take a nap. How about we get the blocks out and you can play with them while Daddy takes a nap?

That part was different, too. Even at that age, I thought of my father as quiet, as slow to react; but not as tired. That was my mother who was tired, my mother who often took naps as soon as she’d fed me my breakfast, my mother who one day took a nap in the bathtub and didn’t wake up.

But you could take naps on the couch and watch movies at the same time. C’we watch a movie instead?

I can set you up with a movie. How about Sleeping Beauty? And then when it’s over you can wake me up. How about that?

Sleeping Beauty was my favourite, better than Snow White and Cinderella, because in Sleeping Beauty the princess went to sleep for a very long time, a hundred years, but then she woke up at the end. I’d watched the movie dozens of times; my father always indulged me when I requested it. Once, while he was rewinding it, I asked when my mother had gone to sleep. Five months ago, he’d said. Is that more than a hundred years? I’d asked. And my father had hugged me tight. My father was hugging me a lot lately, and at strange times, and he always seemed sad when he did it. No, a hundred years is a very long time, he’d told me, and then he showed me by counting. One, two, three, four – that’s how old you are, four – and then lots of numbers, and it was a long, long time before he got to a hundred.

I want to watch it together, I said, and my father coughed some more. Ketzel, not today. Daddy’s sick, Daddy needs to rest.

No. I pushed my bowl of Cheerios off the table, and threw the spoon after it. We have to watch it together. We have to watch it together!

And my father had stared past me, at the spot I couldn’t see, the spot my mother used to look at. Ketzel, Daddy needs to rest. Okay? Daddy’s sick. Pleading now.

We have to watch it together! We have to –

Ketzel, sweetie. Tell you what. I’ll set up the movie for you, and I’ll give you some cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. A special treat! How’s that? And then Daddy will take a nap, and –

And I pushed back the chair and knocked it over, and I screamed, No, no, no, screamed as loud as I could, until my throat and my ears hurt and I was out of breath, and then I took another deep breath and screamed some more. And my father kept staring past me, staring like there was nothing else he could do.

Katie, you’re four. You’re too old for tantrums.

And I screamed some more, louder, because I wasn’t too old for tantrums, because if I wasn’t too old for tantrums, then maybe I also wasn’t old enough for grown-ups to leave me with cookies and take naps and not come back.

I have an idea. Okay? Listen. You need to stop screaming, I can’t tell you my idea if you’re screaming.

I stopped screaming, but I was hiccupping now, taking big gulps of air.

How about this. We take your blocks into my bedroom, and I lie down and you play quietly. How does that sound?

And I carried the blocks over, and over the next few days I carried Lego and a colouring book and crayons over too, and then my own pillow and blanket. At one point, I refilled my father’s mug with water from the bathroom sink, the used teabag floating inside, and he made a sound that was like laughing and crying at the same time, and I couldn’t tell if he was happy or sad that I’d made him tea. And for days, he didn’t stop coughing, but that was okay, because as long as I was watching him, he couldn’t go away. And then one day Mrs. Chandler came to the house and put me in another room with crayons and a colouring book while she talked my father, and then she took me over to her house where I sat on a phone book and drank juice from a box.

I rose from the bench. The park swayed before me, and I stood for another minute, watching the basketball game, before returning to the car. I sat motionless in the driver’s seat for a minute, staring off into the distance and listening to the boys’ muted shouts. Then I shook my head, started the engine, and headed back to the hotel.

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