Vanished in the Night(10)

By: Eileen Carr

“Thanks. This’ll help a lot.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the two kids, clearly having a great time. There were probably a dozen or so photos at his mom’s house of him and his sisters, looking just like this. Smiling up at the camera, enjoying the day, not thinking about anything else. Certainly not thinking that he would end up as a set of bones at a construction site. “Do you know why your parents sent him away?”

Everything about her went still. He’d touched some kind of nerve, that was for sure.

“They, uh, found marijuana in his room.” She looked down.

A residential school for a little bit of weed? That seemed harsh, especially in the early nineties. “That was it?”

“It was enough for Dad. He said we were doing Max a favor by getting him away from bad influences before it got any worse.” She turned away and began to restack some envelopes on the counter, her movements stiff and jerky.

“Do you have anybody you want us to call? Or that you could call so you don’t have to be alone right now?”

She turned around and smiled at him and shook her head. “That’s okay. I have to go to work in a little while. Besides, it’s not like this is so terribly shocking. He’s been missing for twenty years. I knew it was possible that he was dead. I’d just always hoped . . .” Her voice trailed off.

The family always hoped. Everybody talked about giving the family closure when someone was missing, and finding a body did that, in a way. They could stop worrying. They could stop waiting. They could start grieving.

But it also killed all the hoping, and maybe having a shred of hope alive in your heart was worth the worrying.

“Where do you work?” Rodriguez asked.

“I’m a nurse in the emergency room over at St. E’s. I work the night shift.” She glanced up at the clock. It was close to eight o’clock now. “I have to be there in a few hours.”

“Okay, well, thanks again for this photo. We’ll make a copy and get your original back to you as soon as possible. We’ll also keep you posted when we learn anything concrete. In the meantime, feel free to call if you can think of anything.”

She nodded and showed them to the door.

As they walked to the car, Zach looked back at the condo, strewn with fake spiderwebs and strings of pumpkin lights.

“I say we go talk to the stepfather next,” Rodriguez said.

Zach got in the car. “Damn straight.”

They were gone. Veronica sat at the kitchen table and laid her hands flat against the wood, trying to soak up its stillness and stability. How much more horrible was this going to get? McKnight had said Max had been dead for a while. A year? Ten years? They probably didn’t know themselves yet. Had he been trying to get back to her when he’d somehow ended up in that construction site? Or had he still been running away?

Would she ever know?

If there wasn’t enough left of Max for her to ID, was there enough to start an investigation? Veronica didn’t even know what to hope for. Knowing he was dead was bad enough. Having to probe back into those days when he was still around? Pretty much the opposite of priceless.

Some kids learned to block traumatic memories, and she often wished she was one of those. It would be nice to settle a hazy curtain over her childhood. She didn’t need it blocked out entirely; she’d learned some valuable, if unpleasant, lessons. How to calm an angry drunk. What to feed a person with the mother of all hangovers. When to duck and when to hide. She sure as hell didn’t need to remember it in the kind of detail that she did, though. She didn’t need to replay it in her dreams. She didn’t need to flash on it at work when things got crazy.

Most of the time, she kept the door shut tight on the past. At the moment, that wasn’t so easy. Images flooded back to her: Her father’s face distorted with rage, spittle flying from his lips as he roared at Max. Max’s head snapping to the side after a hard slap, his screams when his arm was twisted up behind his back. The racial slurs. The insults. Her mother’s tears. Her brother’s shame and quiet courage.

Things had calmed down some right after Max went away. Her father had seemed harder to set off. There’d actually been some family dinners where nothing had gotten thrown at anyone and no one had ended up in tears. It hadn’t lasted, though. Dad never went after Mama with the ferocity that he’d gone after Max, but Veronica understood now that the focus of the anger was really secondary to the anger itself. Something burned inside her father. Something hard and fetid and nasty.