Marissa huddled in the middle of her living room as a thousand missing people chanted around her.
Find me. Find me. Find me.
The chorus muffled Daniel’s words, though he stood right before her, fists clenched, eyes pinched. She forced herself to pay attention, sensing the final thread of their relationship unravel.
“I’m gone for a week and this is what I come back to? I thought the meds were helping.”
Find me. Find me. Find me.
She peeked through trembling fingers at the posters and flyers of missing people. Reams of paper covered the walls, the furniture, the floor. Plastered on the fridge and table. Scattered across the bed. Clogging tub and toilet. Crammed into every cupboard and closet.
Find me. Find us. Find him. Find her.
Taken from grocery stores, from post offices, from banks, from schools. Torn from telephone poles, from subway stations, from the hands of people in the park asking . . .
Have you seen her? Have you seen him?
Have you seen us? Please. Reward. Missing. Last seen here. Last seen there.
“Empathy is one thing,” Daniel said, knuckling his forehead. “This is . . . obsession. I can’t deal with this anymore.”
“Then don’t.” The words slipped out. She didn’t bother trying to snatch them back.
His face screwed up—in pain, in shock. Yet she concentrated on the thousands of other faces, ghosts peering from two-dimensional graves. If she squinted just so, the details muddled, forming a throng of shadow-people she could almost lose herself within. Almost.
The gazes of those missing souls fixed on her, eyes roving. Lips worked in silent pleas, though not-so-silent to her. A connection had been established, but tenuous. Not quite strong enough. Yet.
Paper crumpled as Daniel kicked a sheaf aside. “You can’t save everyone!”
“I don’t want to save anyone,” she whispered. I didn’t ask to be saved.
Find me. Find us. Find it.
She twitched. It? They’d never used that pronoun before.
Could she be close?
Daniel stared at her. Despite her flagrant abuse of their tattered love, a last flare of care flickered, the faintest beacon she could use to return, should she choose. She snuffed this with a shake of her head.
“Go,” she said. “Find someone who wants to be found.”
She remained kneeling as he gathered his last things. Paused at the door. Sighed. Exited.
Alone, she clasped hands. No written prayer. No hymn book. No pews. Yet this house, empty save for bits of furniture and worn clothes, became one of worship.
Boyfriend gone. Job surrendered. Family estranged. Friendships gone. It had been years of work, a complex ritual in the making.
Would it be enough?
She shut her eyes against the urge to weep while memories rose like incense.
The girl weeps into the leather as a seatbelt buckle grinds into her ribs. The back seat of the car is a well of shadows that threatens to drown her.
The father bellows from the driver’s seat. “I said shut up, brat!”
“I want Mommy!”
The father wipes his arm across his mouth, lips and cheeks slick. “That bitch can’t have you. Told her . . . I told her . . . not my fault the stupid bitch didn’t listen . . .”
“Why can’t I go home?”
“Not your home anymore. Told you. You’re with me now.”
“But Mommy didn’t give you permission.”
He twists to fix a vulture’s eye on her. “I don’t need permission from that slut! Always telling me what to do. Stay away. Never come back. Bullshit. I go where I want and take you with me. You hear me? I said—shit!”
The car swerves. Lights swirl. Horns blare. After a frantic second, the road smoothes. Her screams fade to whimpers, but only after his fist pounds the dashboard.
“You’re with me now and you do what I say, got it?”
She nods, because what else is there to do?
“You better. We’ll get some ice cream later if you’re a good girl. You like that, right?”
He drives on in sweltering silence. Sweat drips off her chin along with tears.
Then . . . a kaleidoscope of blue and red flares through the cab.
The father swears again, words she doesn’t understand. His eyes are visible in the rearview mirror—bloodshot and glistening. For a moment, the car accelerates. Slows down. Speeds up once more, in time with the throbbing of the vein along his neck.
Then gravel crunches under tires as they come to a stop. The girl peers out the window. Mommy must have sent people. They’ll find her. Take her home.
But the father lurches out of the car. Becomes a faceless silhouette as he yanks her door open.
A voice rises in the distance. The father’s hairy arm circles her bird-thin waist and she’s hauled out into the night, which hums with mosquitoes and the rush of trees in a humid wind.
More shouting. A door slams.
She’s under his arm, clamped tight. Her ponytail is pinched in his armpit and it yanks hard with each pounding step. A white light washes over them, turning the world from night to day.
Then the father sprints into the woods, and darkness swallows them both.
Marissa opened her eyes, hoping for darkness. But a beam of afternoon sunlight sliced through the curtains, bathing her in a gilded haze.
Her eyes searched the innumerable faces plastered, pinned, and taped to the walls. For once in a long while, their mouths refused to move, their eyes went unblinking.
Had it heard her plea? Had it found her once more? Did it hide among them? She’d made the place a haven, a hovel for the lost and their patron. Surely it couldn’t ignore one who’d once belonged to their number.
A wind rippled a handful of papers, growing to a gust that tore a swath from their places. Marissa stared at the blank space on the wall, the size of a large child. For an instant—half a heartbeat, no more—a pale shadow slipped into view. In it, she glimpsed the bare face, the knobbed arms, the padding of wide, flat feet. Featureless features she knew so well, along with a comforting hint of mildew.
And then it vanished.
Her wail cut through the quiet. She crawled over to the blank wall and scraped gnawed nails over it, as if she could tear it down and find her quarry hiding on the other side.
All this effort, and only a glimpse. She’d been sure.
At last she curled up on the floor, arms clamped around her ribs to hold the emptiness in. She tried to imagine herself covered in wet leaves at the base of a tree, where only it could find her.
What more did she have to do?
The missing person posters animated once more, and their relentless begging reverberated through her quaking bones.
Find me and find us and find it.
She lunged upright. “I’m trying! Tell me how!”
Her eyes locked on one particular chubby-cheeked girl. The child winked and beamed out from her two-dimensional prison.
Have you seen me? Have you seen her?
Marissa slumped. Of course. So obvious. How hadn’t she realized before?
She stood and rummaged about until she found the car keys hidden under a stack of posters, alongside a last, rubber-banded wad of cash. No need for a purse. She’d cut up her credit cards and shredded her driver’s license and any other identifying papers after Daniel had left on his last business trip.
Tucking the money into her jeans pocket, she headed for the garage on shaky legs. A minute later, as she drove to the mall, a singular purpose fueled her.
School would be out soon.
The girl wails until her father clamps her nose and mouth shut. So she gulps her sobs and tries to pretend she’s flying—but the yanking of hair from the scalp keeps jerking her back to the present.
All about is the smell of marsh muck and the croak of frogs. The father slaps bugs away with his free hand, all while stumbling, lurching, almost falling and righting at the last moment. Pinned against him, she strains for a whiff of swamp rot as a way to reassure herself a world exists outside of this dark frenzy.
Then the father’s foot snags on something. She is released and flies for a moment before tumbling through pine needles and over sharp rocks. Her warbling scream cuts off as her head strikes a mossy rock.
She lies dazed. Raspy breathing rises . . . hers or the father’s? Her throat burns as squelching footsteps approach. The father’s face appears, smeared with mud. When he grins, black grit laces his teeth. Moonlight glints on gunmetal in his hand.
“I’ll show them. Can’t tell me what to do.”
His head jerks around, like a deer scenting predators. She’s able to sit up enough to see back the direction they came, where a light flicks back and forth. Voices squawk.
The father mutters. “Told her . . . I’ll show them, I’ll tell them. Can’t have her. Can’t take her. She’s mine and nobody’s going to take her.”
Even in the dark, his eyes take on a yellow gleam she recognizes from the times when he used to collapse on the couch, breath more fumes than air. It always means screaming and hitting and crying.
He gathers up an armload of soggy leaves and pine branches and dumps them over her. Green-smelling needles prick her cheeks and arms, and she curls into a tight ball. The father crouches over her, one hand shoving through the brush to pat her damp curls.
“You stay here, understand?” His throat bumps. “You make a noise . . . you make them notice you . . . and I’ll make you regret it. I told you now, understand? You do what I say.”
His thumping steps take a few seconds to fade. All is now slick and soaked, with black velvet curtains drawn around her. Fear keeps her locked in place, and she doesn’t know who she wants to be found by. If her father finds her, she knows she’ll never go home. But if others find her, her father will hurt her. There are many things she doesn’t understand, but his threats and the consequences of defying them are eternal bruises on her bones.
She lies there even when shouts and screams erupt far away.
She lies there as the mosquitoes land, drink, and take off again. She does not slap them, even when it tickles and pricks.
She lies there as strange voices holler all around, but none are the father’s and none say her name and none must find her.
She lies there until the wet earth below and wet leaves above warm in the muggy air, and she sleeps . . .
. . . and wakes to a gray morning, with streamers of mist tossed across the branches and roots all about. Frogs chirrup in a rickety chorus, while a soft yellow-orange glow hints at sunrise.
Is anyone there? the marsh seems to ask, in the voice of waking birds.
No one’s here, she answers, in the aching of her elbows and knees.
Are you lost? asks the breeze.
No one is lost, she says, in the slow blink of one eye, the other plastered shut with mud.
At last, she dares to sit up. Some leaves slough off while clods stick to her forehead, her chest, her arms.
The moss-draped trees withdraw from this simple action, as if afraid of the creature that has appeared in their midst. She goes still again, not wanting to frighten the woods away.
That’s when the pale shadow rises into view, a blank patch against the woolly pink sunrise.
And it finds her.
Marissa sat at the food court, nibbling a tasteless sandwich while watching the children play in the nearby tube maze and ball pit. They are a rabble of mismatched clothes, piercing voices, and food-flecked faces.
One among them must become lost in order for Marissa to be found. Which one? And how to accomplish it under the scrutiny of ever-watchful parents nearby?
Mothers and the occasional father eyed the contained bedlam from the sidelines, various levels of exhaustion evident in their baggy eyes, their hunching over strollers and diaper bags, the clutching of cheap toys and book bags.
Still, many remained alert, determined to go home with all heads accounted for.
Yet this was a center of convenience, Marissa knew, and children were anything but. Sooner or later, someone would bow to the whims and press of time and savings.
An hour passed. Two. The number of children dwindled and swelled, a tide of snotty noses and dirty diapers. Marissa’s patience remained intact. She’d always been good at waiting.
At last, as the court crowded for dinner, she spotted a girl get dropped off by a woman whose gleaming hair matched her shiny skirt. The girl looked five years old at most, by Marissa’s estimate. The mother pointed at a nearby store—full of dresses too bright and too tight for a woman half her age—and then jabbed a neon green nail at the play area, as if pinning the daughter there by force of will.
As the mother stalked off, Marissa rose and tossed the wrapper of her third sandwich into the nearby trashcan. Wiping fingers on her pants, she headed to the benches by the play area and sat near where the girl stood, thumb in mouth. She watched the other kids race about, peeking through a drape of black hair while clutching the hem of her floral-print shirt.
As she looked around, uncertain where to begin, Marissa leaned over and waved, smiling. When the girl waved and smiled back, Marissa tensed against the clutching in her chest. Old enough to be left alone for a few minutes. Young enough to still view the world as full of wonder, rather than danger.
She crooked a finger, playfully. With a puzzled frown, the girl eased closer. Marissa clasped her hands over her knees and spoke softly so the girl had to scoot closer to hear.
“What’s your name, hun?”
The girl bobbed her head. “Kaylie.”
“Kaylie, those are very cute shoes.”
“Thanks. Yours are pretty too.”
Marissa shuffled her bright blue running shoes so they were front and center for Kaylie to blink at. “I work in that store,” she pointed at the one the mother had vanished inside. “Your mom is trying on some dresses and didn’t want to leave you alone too long. She gave me some money to get you some ice cream while you wait.”
She held her hand out, praying it didn’t tremble. “Sound okay, hun?”
Kaylie’s tiny fist fit in her palm like a baby bird.
At first, the girl doesn’t know what to make of the creature she walks beside through the marsh. Back hunched, it pads along on wide feet while body-long arms sway and knuckle the earth with each squat stride. Its skin is as pale as a half-forgotten memory.
It doesn’t startle her with a monstrous face—for it has none at all. A space of empty flesh with a bump here and there, as if its eyes and nose had grown bored of growing before they fully formed.
They walk side-by-side, neither leading nor following, just as it had offered no invitation to join when it first revealed itself. It had only stared at her with its eyeless gaze. Then it had turned and begun shambling away. The girl scrambled to catch up and ever since has kept it quiet company.
She squints through the fog, but discerns little beyond the dark rolls of earth and darker wells of water. How long have they been walking? Why haven’t the mists evaporated? Why isn’t the sun high in the sky?
The questions are there, but are not alarming in the lack of answers. Rather, it’s a comfort that there’s no need to worry, no need to fear. Simple acceptance of her fate and the way the world is once they are beyond it is all that’s required.
For the girl, this is a startling sort of peace. It is happiness.
As they walk, she starts to glimpse movement in the shadows. If she focuses too hard, the others disperse for a few moments. Once she stops trying to make out the details, she sees them well enough.
A dozen . . . a hundred . . . a thousand . . . a hundred thousand other children walk beside them in the silent mists, until the girl is the center of an innumerable throng stretching as far as the fog.
She knows them. Not by name, of course, but by shared nature. They are all lost, just like her. Kindred spirits. The captured. The castaways. The forgotten.
She studies her guide . . . no . . . her friend, she decides with sudden determination. It doesn’t walk beside her alone. It leads each of the Lost at the same time, drawing them together in disparate communion.
At last, they reach a spot defined by no particular time or place. There, the mist doesn’t disperse, but congeals. There, the shadows of the Lost gain substance, but no color. They gain voices, but no words.
There they run and play in an ever-shifting landscape where all is hidey-holes and games of tag and exploration of mysteries that will always remain such.
Misty hands take hers and draw her into the merriment.
She is safe. She is found among the Lost.
“Who’re all these people?” Kaylie asked around a mouthful of chocolate and butterscotch ice cream with sprinkles.
Marissa rested elbows on the dining table across from Kaylie. She eyed the surrounding posters and papers. Did they sense the newcomer in their midst? They’d remained silent and still since she’d returned.
“Have you ever had an imaginary friend?” she asked.
Kaylie swallowed and nodded. “Used to play with Mr. Duckers. But Mommy said the only invisible friend I can have is Jesus. So he went away.”
Marissa looked down at her own ice cream cone, plain vanilla, and then back at the mass of eyes. “These used to be friends of mine.”
“Real or imaginary?”
“A little bit of both.”
“What happened to them?”
“I went away. I lost them. All but one.”
Kaylie scrunched her nose. “Are you lonely, Miss Rissa?”
Marissa clenched her thighs together, locking down a tremble that threatened to send her to her knees, weeping. “I guess so, hun.”
“I’ll be your friend, Miss Rissa. And Jesus too!”
“Thank you, hun. But I still have one friend left.”
Kaylie’s face screwed up as she tried to work through a hidden tangle of logic. “Can’t you have more than one?”
“Most people, I guess. But my friend is special. I can only have him now, or none at all.”
“Where is he?”
She glanced at the living room, where the empty wall stood, haunting and mocking in its blankness. “We’ve been apart for a long time. I’m not sure it . . . he remembers to even pay attention to me anymore. I’m trying to remind him.”
“Like when we go to church so God watches over us all week?”
“Kind of, hun. But my friend stopped watching over me. I have to get his attention again.”
“Well, how do you get God’s attention?”
Kaylie’s eyes rolled about as she recalled. “We . . . we pray. We sing. We do good things.” She perked up. “Oh, and when the plate comes ’round, Mommy always gives me a dollar to put in. An off’ring.”
Marissa smiled. “That’s right, hun. You give offerings. You . . . sacrifice.”
Kaylie looked about. “Do you have a dollar?”
“No. I have something a bit more valuable than that. I just hope it’s enough.”
They sat quiet for another minute. She didn’t know how long she’d have to wait. There was no manual for this sort of thing. Maybe once reports filed in and listed the girl as an official missing person?
“Can I have some water?”
“Sure, hun.” Marissa rose, half-eaten cone in hand. “Be right back.”
While filling a glass at the kitchen sink, a murmur caught Marissa’s ear. She studied the walls, wondering if they heralded its return at last. But no. The voice came from back in the dining room.
Rounding the corner, Marissa froze and met Daniel’s stunned gaze. He stood a few feet from Kaylie, house keys dangling from a finger. He looked from the girl to her and back.
He knew her social circle had shriveled and died a long time ago. He knew there was no one who’d call on her for any child-watching favor.
His words came out measured. “Marissa . . . what’s going on here?”
“I thought you left,” she said, walking to hand the glass to Kaylie.
“I came back to grab my phone charger. Now answer my question. Who is this?”
“This is Kaylie.” Marissa put a hand on the girl’s back. “We were just spending the afternoon together while her mom finished shopping.”
He knew. There was no way he couldn’t. A crack seemed to run the length of his face, a crinkle where disbelief and fury seeped through. “Have you lost your damn mind?”
Marissa helped Kaylie hop out of her chair. “Come on, hun. Let’s get you back to your mom.” She started to hustle the girl past. “Back later. We’ll talk then. Don’t wait up if I’m late.”
Daniel stepped in and grabbed her arm. “No. You stay put. I’m calling the cops and we’ll—”
Years of self-defense classes had ingrained the movements, though she’d never used them until now. Stomp. Kick. Knee to the crotch. Palm to the face. Graceless, yet effective.
Daniel collapsed, hands clutching his groin. Blood streamed from his nose and he moaned, eyes unfocused.
Marissa surprised herself by not even having broken a sweat or breathing hard. Not so much as a tingle of adrenaline.
Eyes wide, Kaylie drew back from Marissa’s hand.
“I want my mommy,” she said in a voice even tinier than an ice cream sprinkle.
The girl thrives in a world that is not a world. There are endless friends and playmates there, though she never knows their faces or their names. They are all Lost, and yet they are all found together.
Occasionally, the girl hears whispers and glimpses forms from the world before. Every so often, a looming darkness encroaches on their play and the Lost scatter as black bulks sweep through their midst, as voices boom like foghorns. She learns to hide from these intruders until all is well again.
There, she is loved. There, she belongs. There is where she wants to be until the end of time. And there she stays, under its watch and care.
At times she wonders, is it a protector? Does it create the mists to keep them in or keep the dangers out? What does it get from bringing them all together? Sometimes she doesn’t care. Sometimes she imagines.
So many little lives never lived. So much potential never fulfilled. Where does all that future go? Does it feed off it? If so, it’s a meal she gladly offers.
More join their number, adding to infinity . . . until the day when the mists shred and blow apart. One moment, she stands in the nameless throng. The next, she’s up to her knees in sopping muck, wearing stained jeans and a t-shirt torn by thorns and stiff with sap and pine needles. Nearby, dogs bark. Men point. A helicopter whirs overhead, spotlight fixed.
When the police and the dogs and the volunteer search parties find her, miraculously alone and healthy in the middle of the marsh, none understand as she tries to run. None understand why she plugs her ears as they say her name over and over. Shock, they say. Trauma. It is all pity and pawing and promises that things will be better.
None see it standing, watching from shadows beneath the willow, watching them take her back home. A blink, and it is gone as so much morning vapor.
The girl screams and claws at her captors until she is swaddled tight in a gray, woolen blanket—a warm, scratchy prison that is a cruel mockery of the mists that held her until now.
Yet she knows no name to call it back by.
She is found.
She is lost.
Kaylie’s cries clawed Marissa’s ears.
“I want my mommy!”
Marissa kept her eyes on the road, easing off the gas whenever she crept above the limit. Speed was the devil of the determined, tempting her to go faster and be caught by the watchful eyes of the law.
Kaylie bawled beside her. No backseat in the little hybrid, though the mileage made up for the cramped space. The girl’s sticky fingers and face had smudged the faux-leather, and she alternated hammering tiny fists on the seat and the passenger door.
Marissa’s head pounded by the time she found the spot. Easy to return to the location, marked not only by police reports, but also by the rest stop built there a decade back. No other cars sat in the lot when she pulled in, to her relief.
She shut the engine off and hauled the crying, writhing girl out into the muggy night. Mosquitoes hummed in their shifting swarms. To one side, a little playground sat in a pit of sand, like exposed bones of plastic and steel left by a manufactured monster that perished on the spot.
The rest stop lights warded off the darkness, creating a black wall that surrounded the area. Marissa studied the tree-line for any hint of misty ribbons. Nothing yet. She had to take this as far as possible. She had to complete the circle. The final steps crystallized as she marched Kaylie toward the rest stop bathrooms and shoved her into the women’s.
She did her best to avoid glancing in the mirror as they struggled past. She pushed the girl into the bathroom stall. Forced her to sit on the toilet lid.
As Kaylie squirmed in her grip, Marissa closed her eyes briefly. Swallowed the knot in her chest. Did she have to? Yes. The memories had solidified into a ritual, which had to be completed.
First, the Threat.
A stab of a finger. “You’re going to stay right here and be quiet now, understand? If you don’t . . . if you make any noise, your mother will be very angry with you and she’ll never come find you. You’ll never see her again.”
Then the Abandonment.
The stall door slammed and echoed behind her. She used a fingernail to lock it from the outside and ignored the whimpers as she exited the bathroom.
Now, the Darkness.
Marissa took off her shoes and padded through the sand to the swing set. There, she sat and hugged knees to her chest, waiting. Waiting for the mists. Waiting for it to find her again.
An hour passed in breathless anticipation.
She remained a silent fixture as the police car pulled into the lot, drawn by her solitary car like a deer to a salt lick. The officer got out and inspected the vehicle, flashlight illuminating the empty seats.
He turned to the rest stop. Headed there with the heavy-belt swagger so many uniformed public servants adopted. Marissa shifted in the swing. Chains creaked.
The flashlight swung her way. She blinked away the momentary blindness.
“Ma’am? Are you Marissa Dunden?”
Now the Chase.
She hopped off the swing, dug heels into grit, and darted for the marsh, a rabbit fleeing the wolf.
The officer hollered behind her. A radio squawked. All the pieces falling into place.
She knew what’d come next. The stumble into whatever hole she could find. The leaves. The huddle. The long night. The mists would rise and she’d—
Arms wrapped around, pinning her own as the officer tackled. Her head jarred against the loamy earth. Breath fled. Vision swam.
When she roused, handcuffs had tightened on her wrists, behind her back. The officer pulled her gently but firmly upright. One hand on her arm, the other slicing the flashlight back and forth.
“Miss Dunden, where’s the girl?”
Marissa gazed blearily about. Not a scrap of fog floated anywhere. The night hung muggy, empty but for insects and a leering moon.
Hope crumpled and puffed away in the next wet-stink breeze. She’d failed. What had she done wrong? What of this life had she not surrendered that still anchored her? That kept it from drawing her away once more?
Her lips moved of their own accord. Words plopped out.
She led the officer to the bathrooms. Shuffled in first, his light at her back until the motion sensor triggered and lit the row . . .
Where threads of mist unraveled and dissipated from one breath to the next. Where moisture coated the mirror, wicking away even as she spotted it. Where a particular stall door hung open.
She hurried ahead, lurching away from the officer’s hold, already dreading what she wouldn’t see.
The stall. Empty.
In a distance undefined by any dimension, soft footsteps faded away and wordless voices murmured into nothingness.
She lunged for the darkness. The officer hooked around her waist, holding her back as she cried to the empty night.
“No! It was supposed to be me! Bring her back. Take me!”
Her body struggled as a mindless animal, craving to run free across endless fields. But uncaring arms kept her locked in place until exhaustion and hopelessness dragged her down to the concrete floor.
As the officer stood over and called in his report, Marissa stared out through the gap under the bathroom door. There, a final curl of mist slipped by and evaporated.
Marissa closed her eyes, already seeing Kaylie’s face as another shadow on the wall.
She is lost.
She is found.
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