S H O R T S T O R Y
WE MISSED YOU
b y w y a t t b o n i k o w s k i ~ m a r g i n
1. The ArrivalRUMORS BEGAN circulating the moment the man arrived in town. Fleeing a dark secret, some said, he had come to settle here, bringing his darkness with him. Others said he was tracking someone and would end up embroiling them all in his dubious revenge schemes. Still others pegged him for a rabble-rouser, one of those outsiders who, seeing a stable community, seek only to disrupt it.
He moved into the only unoccupied house in town quite unexpectedly. Out of the blue. The real estate agent knew nothing about it. She ushered a client and his wife into the house, walking backwards while she mentioned hardwood floors, fireplace, movable kitchen island, and stumbled into something (what's this?), a piece of furniture (how did this get here?), a small table in the foyer with a few pieces of mail fanned on top. Keeping her composure, she walked forward back the way they had come, forcing the couple out the front door backwards, passing off the incident as mere forgetfulness on her part. "We forgot to remove the sign out front. Forgive me. Things have been busy at the office lately." A blatant lie.
As soon as the couple, protesting in stammers as they slammed the doors of their four-wheel drive and angrily drew their seatbelts across their chests, drove off, the real estate agent re-entered the house and confronted the man. "You move in without any warning -- 'move in?!' listen to me. Have you ever heard of breaking and entering? And just how are you receiving mail?" The man informed her he'd been living there for three months. The down payment and mortgage installments had been directly deposited in the agency's bank account. He had sent a change of address form to the post office where he used to live, and they were forwarding his mail to his current address. "Oh," she said. "I haven't been at the office lately. Business has been slow."
2. Welcoming the StrangerHis next-door neighbor, Martha Frank, decided to invite him for dinner. Her husband, Edgar, said nothing when she mentioned it. The man's got a knack for landscaping, I'll give him that, Martha thought as she walked up the path to her neighbor's front door. He had planted two saplings in the yard and a border of azaleas. She knocked and waited.
When he opened the door, she thought, What an attractive man, especially the eyes. Bewitching. "I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood," she said. "I'm your next-door neighbor, Martha Frank."
"Nice to meet you," he said, shaking her hand.
"I was hoping you'd be free this Saturday evening for dinner with my husband and me," she said.
"But that's when I'm having my party," he said.
"Yes, I've invited the whole town. Did you not get my invitation?"
"I . . . ," she said, "I must have . . ."
When she returned home she flipped through the stack of mail on the desk in the living room and, sure enough, the invitation was there. "Welcome to My House," it said. "This Saturday at 8 pm. Food and Beverages Provided." How nice, she thought. But she was also embarrassed for overlooking the invitation. Edgar must have misplaced it, she decided, but he said nothing when she mentioned it.
3. House WarmingThe party was a grand affair. Practically the whole town showed up, although there were a few exceptions -- the mayor, for one, but he never attended private engagements. They all crowded into the living room and kitchen, drinking, eating, and admiring the host's talent for interior design. He took them on a tour of the place. They squeezed up the staircase in rows of five, the outer two pressed uncomfortably against the wall on one side and the banister on the other. Those first up the stairs got the best view of the bedrooms, while those further down had to crane their necks for a glimpse. There were a disappointed bunch who managed to reach only the second stair and whose disappointment was only intensified by the oohs and ahhs of those with the best view. The line up the stairs reached all the way back to the kitchen, but those at the back of the line had unobstructed access to the bar so they didn't complain.
The party lasted until two in the morning. There was dancing. Somebody broke a vase. A few drunks were ushered into cabs, and one vomited on the azaleas. The host sent the final stragglers home with leftover hors d'oeuvres. He considered the evening a success overall.
4. DisappearanceThen things settled down. Rumors ceased circulating, and the one-time stranger gained acceptance as a member of the community. People waved to him when they passed on the sidewalk, stopped by his table to chat when they encountered him in restaurants, exchanged recipes with him in the supermarket. The owner of the bookstore flirted regularly with him, and his blushing only increased her enthusiasm. He never left the store without buying something she recommended and never entered without thanking her for the recommendation and giving his own brief review of the book. They did not always see eye to eye: on matters of style they were especially divided, she favoring the jaunty and ironic, he the lush and sentimental. "If only someone would write a novel combining all of those elements," she said, "then we could spend our evenings reading to each other." He blushed.
But one day he was nowhere to be found, and the town immediately felt his absence. Everywhere people asked about him. The owner of the bookstore asked the employees of the natural grocery if they'd seen him, but they hadn't. The bank tellers called their friends at the post office, but he hadn't appeared there either. Martha Frank, assuming her neighbor was ill, dragged Edgar with her to deliver a Get-Well fruit basket, but he didn't answer his door. Thinking him in bed, she left the basket on the doorstep for him to pick up when he felt better. The fruit rotted overnight.
The police declared him officially missing after 48 hours. They took an ax to his front door and searched the house, but nothing turned up, no evidence of vacation preparations, no evidence of foul play, nothing. His suitcase and toothbrush were still there. His bed wasn't made. His calendar showed no meetings scheduled and his answering machine contained no urgent message. "He led a pretty lonely life," the detective said to his assistant. "Don't speak of him in the past tense," his assistant said.
The mayor called a town meeting. He sought answers from the public. He urged them all to remember the last time they saw him: was there any detail, no matter how small, that seemed strange or out of place, anything at all? They thought hard, but nothing occurred to them. Did he ever mention family? the mayor asked. Friends from out of town? Business interests in other parts of the country? Once again, they searched their memories but recalled no mention of any of these things. How could a man, a member of their tight-knit community, simply disappear? he asked, and the only answer they could give him was an echo of his question.
Frustrated, the mayor tried a different approach. Later, he considered it rash and inappropriate, but he blamed his actions on intense distress and because of how it all turned out no one seemed to hold it against him.
"That leaves only one option," he said. "Only one. Someone here in this town has kidnapped him, is holding him hostage right now, as we speak. Which one of you is it?"
When no one answered, he continued.
"Who isn't here?" He charged his assistant with the task of figuring out who in the town was not in attendance. As his assistant went about the meeting hall, the mayor said, "I will find him, and I will punish those responsible. And I hope for the sake of whoever did this terrible thing that I find him alive!"
The citizens were stunned into silence. The assistant handed the mayor a sheet of paper with a list of names. The mayor left with the police in tow.
Their searched turned up nothing. Those detained for questioning were released. The mayor took to his bed with a migraine that lasted for a week. On the last day of his sickness, he raved to his empty bedroom about the darkness that had descended on the town, the darkness that threatened to swallow them up. It had claimed one victim and they were all vulnerable. Who would be next? The throbbing of his migraine stood outside his head in the shape of the one who was missing, and the shape pulsed darkly with every aching beat of his heart.
5. AcceptanceMonths went by and the man was never found. A group of citizens banded together to propose a memorial, some form of remembrance to help the community heal. They decided to erect a simple headstone in the churchyard, set apart from the others. The town held a memorial service, a funeral without a burial. They gathered around the headstone and bowed their heads. Speeches were made by those who knew him best. The mayor said a final prayer and read aloud the inscription on the stone: "We missed you when you arrived. We missed you when you left." They piled flowers at its base.
The "For Sale" sign went back up in front of his house. It remained unoccupied for a while, but eventually someone moved in, not a stranger but a young married couple both of whom had grown up in town. Only a few weeks after the memorial service, some teenagers vandalized the headstone, knocking it over and digging a hole beneath it, as though attempting to rob a grave that didn't exist. The hole is still there.
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