“Please, Cari, it’s me?”
The woman’s tears streaked down her face drawing dark lines upon her cheeks as they washed away her eye liner. Standing in front of the woman was a young girl, no more than twenty years old, whose face wore an expression of confusion and pity. The younger woman could easily see the heartbreak writhing forth from the other woman’s teary stare, but despite any empathy the young girl felt or how she might have wished it was different, she just couldn’t be who the woman was looking for.
“Ma’am,” an older man, who was dressed in a well-kept sheriff’s uniform, had observed the scene from a few steps away before stepping over next to the older woman and placing his hand on her shoulder in the most comforting of gestures, “Miss Jessica was born and raised here. Worked in this hardware store since she was a teen. I know she looks like your little girl, even I’ll admit as much, but she just ain’t her. I’m sorry.”
The older woman shook her head in disbelief as the sheriff motioned towards the door of the hardware store where two police officers had been standing patiently since the scene had begun to unfold several minutes ago. The older woman had pulled a photo from her pocket and shoved it towards the younger woman almost as soon as they all had entered, and she still held that photo out now and as the officers moved towards her, the intensity of her tears and pleas grew.
“You’re Cari!!! You’re my little girl. See!” the hand with the photo in it trembled violently as it pressed the photo closer the younger girl’s face, “this is you! You and your daddy! He took you out to dinner that day. You had just graduated from high school and were getting ready to go college. He cried; he was so proud of you. Remember… Why don’t you remember?”
“Ma’am, it’s time to go.”
One of the two officers stepped between the older woman and the younger as the Sheriff spoke and motioned towards the older woman that it was time for the scene to end.
With no great ease, the two officers escorted the older woman from the store as she wailed in protest. Meanwhile, the young girl just stood silently in the middle of the store as the picture she’d viewed kept cycling through her mind. It did look like her; not just a resemblance, but so close that even she had a hard time believing it wasn’t her.
“Sorry about this,” one of the officers stepped back into the store to address the Sheriff while the other remained outside with the distraught woman, “this ain’t the first time someone’s been so sure they found a missing loved one. You know, her young daughter disappears while out hiking in the woods, just can’t blame for seeing the girl’s face on every other petite brunette in the state.”
“Well, there ain’t no need to be sorry,” the sheriff walked up to the officer and extended his hand while giving a slight smile, “losing a child ain’t nothing any parent should have to grieve. If looking and believing gives her hope, then who are we judge. You were right to bring her out here, I’m just sorry we didn’t have what she was looking for.”
The young officer reached out and shook the Sheriff’s hand firmly, and then nodded a ‘thank you’ before turning and walking out the door. Meanwhile, Jessica remained motionless; the picture of the girl stayed etched her mind and the name that went with it, Cari Webber, also began floating through her thoughts, and the sheriff could see Jessica’s mind whirling as he turned around and walked towards her.
“I know what you’re thinking, but nothing we can do,” the sheriff patted Jessica on the shoulder as he stepped past her, “I do feel sorry for that woman though and don’t blame you if you’re feeling the same, but best to forget about, all right?”
The younger girl lowered her eyes to the ground in tacit submission though she held the image of the photo and the name in her mind even as the Sheriff walked away from her and into the back of the store, a knowing smile on his face the whole while.
Outside of the store, the two officers continued trying to console the woman they’d brought with them, until she finally agreed to get into the back of the patrol car and head back to the city of Carmen, three hours’ drive away.
“I feel sorry for her, but damn, I can’t wait to get back to the city. These small towns give me the creeps,” one of the officers spoke in a hushed tone towards his partner as the patrol car’s door closed, blocking the woman from hearing his words, but his partner wasn’t paying attention to anything being said, rather his gaze was set on something in the distance.
“What in the world are you staring at?”
“Over there. What’s that?”
Less than a quarter mile away was a small field running up to a large building with an empty parking lot. A collapsing swing set, and rusted playground equipment littered the field and the sole visible door to the building appeared to have been boarded up.
“Looks like an old school. Not so interesting,” the first officer replied impatiently, “now let’s go!”
“Wait,” the second officer replied, “I know it’s a school, but where is everybody? It’s a Tuesday in late September. Shouldn’t someone be there, or anywhere?”
The questioning officer looked at the empty street around him, and the shuttered store fronts that lined it. The hardware store they were just in seemed to be the only business still running even though they didn’t appear to be any potential customers.
“That place looks like it’s been closed for decades. Probably not enough kids around to keep it running, and I couldn’t care less to know where they or adults of this place might be hanging out now or at any other time,” the impatient officer spoke dismissively as he walked around to the driver’s side door, “now let’s get back to civilization.”
The second officer nodded his consent and got into the passenger’s seat of the car. He’d grown up in a small town himself, and he knew that sometimes things were just different, though he couldn’t remember his own hometown ever feeling as strange as did this place. Still, as they made their way out of town, he tried his best to shake any lingering feelings of curiosity from his mind.
Meanwhile, Jessica had watched through the window of the hardware store as the officers pulled away with the older women in tow. The young girl’s gaze was contemplative as new thoughts began to churn in her mind, and she recalled some of the words that the woman had said to her.
“Cari… Cari, your daddy was so proud of you… Cari… please come home… Cari… my little Cari bear…”
Upon remembering those words, a small tear started to form in Jessica’s eye and she imagined the woman standing in front of her and speaking those words over and over again. Jessica let the tear role down her cheek and then she closed her eyes trying to better recall the pitch of the woman’s voice, and the pain and love contained in the woman’s speech, and then, for just a moment, Jessica found her mind entertaining a new idea, one that seemed too real to be imagination.
“I am Cari Webber.”
Jessica was only able to entertain the thought for a moment though as a familiar voice called to her from the backroom of the store.
“Jess… Jess… Come back here. Got something I want to talk to you about.”
The young girl turned away from the window and quickly wiped the tear from her face and moved towards the back of the store. Her expression gradually became sullen as she walked, and she shouted out words, part of which suddenly seemed untruthful to her.
“I’m coming… daddy.”