by W. David Hancock
The garage sale was on a cul-de-sac. A retired detective had moved into memory care, and his daughter was cleaning out his crap. Along with the box of cold case files, Fairview bought a Hot Wheels. The axles on the car were bent. The daughter squeezed the tires until the Mustang ran smooth on Fairview’s open palm; she pretended not to notice Fairview’s suicide marks. Back at the hotel, Fairview bumped into a wedding party headed to the cocktail lounge for karaoke and Jello shots. The best man made a V with his fingers and licked the groove.
Fairview recharged in her room. She preferred sleeping in rest areas, but she’d been on the road for months and needed a bath. While soaking in the tub, she tried not to imagine the horrible things that might have happened to her missing son. As she toweled off, Fairview accidentally touched her scarred wrists and, because of nerve damage, felt an electric tingle in her jaw. Fairview placed the Mustang on top of the television, so she wouldn’t forget it when she checked out. She looked in the mirror and practiced smiling. She turned on the Weather Channel for company.
Fairview ordered room service. An hour later, “Gladys R.” arrived with a cart. Gladys R. asked Fairview whether she’d noticed any unusual smells or stains in the room. A terminally ill guest hanged himself in the closet over Thanksgiving. Did Fairview know that some fumigators specialize in infestations that feed on bodily fluids? Fairview couldn’t read Gladys R.’s expression. Was she messing with Fairview or serious? Fairview wished she’d kept the chart her mother made for her as a child, with faces cut out of magazines and corresponding emotions written beneath—even the wicked ones adults only whispered about.
After she ate, Fairview sorted through the cardboard box. The cold case files looked like they’d been rescued from the bottom drawer of a squad room desk. They were stained with coffee cup rings and pizza grease, and, in every margin, the paperwork was annotated with the detective’s chicken scratch. Fairview figured he’d spent his retirement absorbed in the unsolved missing person cases still haunting him. At the bottom of the box, Fairview found a cicada carcass and an empty fifth of scotch. Fairview was hoping to find her son’s file in the stack, but of course, it wasn’t there.
Fairview read through the files and studied the circumstances surrounding each victim’s disappearance. It was brutal yet paradoxically sublime, confronting the entirety of a life distilled into a 1,000-word report. A faded photograph was usually stapled to the coversheet, taken from an old yearbook or driver’s license— one woman was pictured on an Alaskan cruise. Fairview laid the files out on the bed. She arranged the vanishings by location, creating a rough map of the United States. Fairview searched the geography for meaningful coincidence, like how five victims had passed through the same Montana truck stop, but decades apart.
Fairview began to nod off, her mind exhausted from grappling with the calculus of heartache. If you divide by nothing, don’t joy and sorrow both become meaningless? Fairview dreamed that the creases and stains on the bedspread transformed into mountains and rivers then took a matchbook road trip deep into the heart of micro-America. She drove the toy Mustang along routes the victims journeyed before evaporating. She meandered forgotten byways and ghost trails pockmarked with the footprints of her own lost boy. She followed the irresistible call of a child jumping up and down on a bed and laughing.
When Fairview woke, early morning light was poking through the privacy curtain, and the air conditioner was already straining to keep up with the heat. Fairview glanced at the clock-radio—time to hit the road again. She started gathering the case files and realized that, as she slept, they’d been rearranged. The pattern on the bedspread no longer resembled America—rather isolated islands floating in a void. As Fairview repacked the cardboard box, her fingers became stained with cicada droppings. She’d read about a mind-controlling fungus turning the species into zombies and wondered if the condition affected people.
Fairview cracked a window and smoked a cigarette. She listened to the song of a lone cicada searching for its mate. Fairview knew the fungus made the bugs devour their own timekeeping glands. They emerged in the wrong year, finding that no other members of their species were awakened. Fairview knew well the torture of bad timing. Her son was kidnapped while waiting for her to pick him up after soccer; Fairview was five minutes late because she stopped to let a family of geese cross the road. That day, her breath and heart were forever knocked out of phase.
Fairview paid for her room and made her way through the parking lot to her rental. She climbed into the car and, from the force of habit, ran her hand along the sun visor. Her ex-husband liked to tucked love poems up there. Then their son was taken, and he got scary. He started leaving abusive notes accusing Fairview of being a bad mother and not grieving enough—or properly. After Fairview slit her wrists—more to escape his judgment than her own despair—her ex barged into the mental health unit and screamed at her for abandoning him.
Fairview opened the glove box and tossed the Mustang onto the pile of toy cars she’d been collecting to give to her son when she found him—or place in his coffin if they recovered his remains. She set the cold case files on the passenger’s side, fastened the seat belt around the cardboard box so the alarm wouldn’t chime, and headed back out to the highway. Most mornings, Fairview wanted to gnaw out her own eardrums to unhear the unspeakable silence of the missing. Today, though, she chose to stumble down the phantom songlines listening for signs of life.
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W. David Hancock is a neurodivergent fiction author and playwright, whose theatrical work has radically challenged formal and narrative dramatic conventions. Hancock’s stories have appeared in many journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Hunger Mountain Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Menacing Hedge (forthcoming). Among his honors are a Whiting Writers Award, the Hodder Fellowship, and 2 OBIE Awards for playwriting. Hancock’s latest play, Master, was a NY Times Critics’ Pick and received a NY Drama Desk nomination for “unique theatrical experience.” For more information about Hancock’s work, please visit http://www.wdavidhancock.com.