Vanished in the Night(7)

By: Eileen Carr

Had he said a construction site in downtown Sacramento? Had that been the flashing lights she’d skirted this morning on her way home? Had that been where they’d found Max? Not only had she not felt anything when he’d died, she’d been that close to where he was buried and only felt irritation at traffic being rerouted.

“What can I tell you? What can I do to help?” Her voice sounded thick and clogged, but steady. She’d shed her tears in private after they left. She didn’t know anyone who would share her grief with her. She’d release it alone. Like always.

“Do you remember the last time you saw Max?” the shorter one asked. Rodriguez. His name was Rodriguez.

Did she remember the last time she saw Max? Yes, of course she did. She’d never forget it. The men had come in the middle of the night. They’d hauled Max out of his bed. He’d fought them, of course. What boy wouldn’t have? Max had been tall and broad shouldered already at sixteen. Not quite a man yet, but on his way there. He’d done some damage.

Veronica’s heart pounded as she remembered the damage the men had inflicted back. It hadn’t taken long for three grown men to subdue one adolescent boy. She remembered the kick to the ribs that one of them had administered after Max was already facedown on the floor. Their mother had screamed, only to be hauled back by Veronica’s father. He’d told her to shush, that it was for Max’s own good.

Veronica was only seven, but even she knew he was lying.

They had cuffed Max’s hands behind his back and hauled him in pajama pants and stockinged feet to the door. He never stopped fighting, so they had to drag him. As they took him out the door, he turned back and begged, “Mama, don’t let them take me. Mama, don’t do this. You know this isn’t right, Mama. Don’t let them.”

But Mama had turned away, like she always did. Dad got his way and Max was gone. Had he known Max would be gone for good? Had her mother? Would it have changed anything? She put her face down in her hands, her heart like a rock in her chest.

“Veronica? Ms. Osborne?” It was McKnight again, quiet but tenacious, dragging her back to the here and now. “Do you? Do you remember the last time you saw your brother?”

She nodded. “The last time I saw my brother was when they came to get him.” She couldn’t force any more words past the clog in her throat.

Again, she got the carefully blank cop face. It was enough to bring her back to earth. “Do you want a glass of water? I need a glass of water.” Whiskey was also tempting, but smacked of how her mother and father would have dealt with the situation. If she had a life motto, it was to never, ever deal with any situation the way her mother or father would.

McKnight let go of her hand and stood. “Sure. Water would be great.”

“None for me,” Rodriguez said from the couch.

Veronica stumbled into the kitchen, hoping to be away from their prying eyes for a second or two, but McKnight was right on her tail. She filled two glasses with ice from the freezer and then water from the tap and handed him one.

“You’re what? A sergeant?” She took a long drink of water, letting the ice-cold liquid slide down her throat, closing her eyes and willing the buzzing in her head down to a manageable level.

“Yup,” he said and drank, too.

Was he mirroring her to make her comfortable? She did that sometimes with flustered patients. She would stand with the same posture they had or sit with her legs crossed the way theirs were crossed. It was somehow reassuring, calming to them. Was McKnight manipulating her, or was it instinctive?

It didn’t matter—she was calming down enough to think straight.

“The last time I saw Max was when the men from the Sierra School for Boys came and took him. It was 1990. Sometime in the spring. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. I was only seven.”

“He never came home?” Rodriguez asked from the kitchen doorway.

When had he gotten there? Veronica took a step backward and pressed against the wooden cabinets at her back. She wished they’d both take a few steps away and quit crowding her. “No. He never came home. He ran away from there less than a year later. Once he turned eighteen, Daddy said it wouldn’t matter if we found him again or not. He’d be an adult and out on his own, anyway.”