Fine. This is the word I hear all to often. It is a word I hate with all fiber of my being. It is a word full of uncertainty and false hope. It is a word that makes my heart ache with indescribable longing. It is the last word my little Thomas ever said to me.
I live in Waxwool, Connecticut. It is a beautiful coastal town with cold, steely gray waves crashing against pyres of rock. An old lighthouse sits on a sheer cliff overlooking the turbulent waters. In fall, the trees are vivid shades of red, orange, and yellow. In all spring and winter, fog hangs like a heavy gray blanket over Waxwool. But in summer, the water becomes turquoise, the waves become soft and beckoning, and the trees have bright emerald leaves that rival those of a fairy tale. All in all, Waxwool is a hidden beauty.
But that doesn’t matter when your soul is blackened so much that the only color you can see is black, when the only emotion you can feel is sorrow, and the only temperature you can feel is the bitter cold biting your skin. It doesn’t matter when the seasons just feel like the constant turning of some game show wheel. It doesn’t matter when your little brother went missing during a lockdown drill on his birthday, and hasn’t been seen for 3 long years.
Because that’s what happened to Thomas. It was his 5th birthday, a milestone, and his first semester had just finished up at P.S. 24. The kindergarteners had been locked outside during the lockdown drill. Thomas was lost in the chaos, and never seen again.
The Proctor family mystery had baffled the Waxwool police. There was almost no evidence that hadn’t been trampled by a storm of terrified elementary schoolers rushing to get into classrooms. There were no fingerprints left in the cloud of dust rising from under the madly trampling feet. There was nothing whatsoever to explain Thomas’s disappearance. I, Ivy Proctor, was 10 when Thomas went missing. I remember waiting at home for him, then biking back to school when he hadn’t come home at 5:30. The teacher told me she hadn’t seen him after the drill and he had probably just left, and we most likely missed each other. So I biked back, but there was no sign of Thomas. When I got home, I texted mom and she was at work, and wasn’t coming home until 7:00. I remember I was always the one closest to Thomas, and the one who printed the missing posters, taped them on the street signs, and was most worried that first year.
After that, the years ticked by without a sign of Thomas. His room was dark, the bed dusty, the toys unused, his spot at the dinner table vacant. People brought casseroles and junk food, but it only seemed to be so that they could feel like they had done something. But they hadn’t. The old posters came down, and the age simulation posters went up. But no one batted an eye. I am 13 years old now, and the Thomas case has become what everyone calls a cold case. No longer investigated. No answer in sight. A tragedy they call it. But no one looks. No one calls his name as they bike home from school, or write letters to him on his birthday that they attach to balloons and let go, hoping they find him. No one does anything about him. It’s like he’s just vanished from their lives, or even like her never existed. That’s why I decided to go looking for him.
“Oh crap!” My legs plunge into the frigid water, and all my breath is sucked out of me. I desperately claw at the ice, trying to keep my head above water, but I’m sliding in fast. The water swallows my thighs, than waist, then arms, then my neck. My chin dips under the water and my heavy wool coat is dragging me down. It doesn’t help that my backpack is full and I have the weakest arms you’ve ever seen. My fingers slide on the ice, and my head goes under.
The water is frigid and so cold it feels burning hot. My lungs exhale and bubbles rise, finding their way to the surface as I wish I could. Black begins to encroach on the corners of my vision, and my lungs scream like a newborn baby. Slowly, consciousness fades from me.
I wake face up, slowly, languidly, floating in a small, icy pond. Then it dawns on me where I am. Why i’m here. My predicament is pretty terrible, if you think about it. I just hope against hope Thomas’s is better. I begin to sink again, and I grab the ice in a vain attempt to pull myself out of the water. My fingers don’t respond and have a blue tinge. I glance worriedly at them. Frostbite is an inconvenience if there ever was one. Glancing up, I spot a low branch that looks as if it could hold my weight. I reach up and grab it, and I can feel every organ in my body has a sheet of ice on it. Wrapping my numb fingers around the branch, I hoist my soggy body out of the water. Collapsing in a heap, I shake uncontrollably from the cold and the exertion.
Remembering the trail mix in my bag, I rip open a pack. Popping an M&M into my mouth, I shudder. The cold grips me like it’s trying to give me a heimlich. Pulling off my jacket, I shove it in my now drenched backpack and open a bottle of water. Taking a swig, I lean against a tree trunk and sigh. Pulling my knees to my chest, I tuck my hands into my armpits to heat them up. My body feels strangely detached, and I have never felt this cold in my life. Everything hurts, and I cringe when I think of my phone and money in the bag, probably soaked through.
My numb fingers fumble with the zipper as I struggle to open my backpack. Sure enough, when I open the bag, my phone won’t turn on and the money is soaked. Great. Just perfect. Exactly what I need right now. Pulling myself to my feet, I zip my backpack and begin my walk.
It seems like I’ve been walking for an eternity, and I’m my legs are begging me to stop when I hear a rushing noise. I follow my ears, and sure enough, there’s a highway on the border of the woods. I wave a gray bearded old man in a rusty blue pickup truck down, and he pulls over.
“You got yourself lost, kid? What’s your name?” He asks like a concerned parent.
“I’m Ivy.” I have to yell over traffic and the man squints at me.
“You look like a mess, Ivy. Tell you what, I’ll take you into town and we can call your parents. My Name’s Chuck.” Now normally, I wouldn’t accept a ride from an old dude I’ve never met before. But I’m desperate. Chuck pulls back onto the highway, and we speed towards town.
The cold air blows in my face, and I close my vent, shivering. Chuck sees this and turns on the hot air, and it feels like sinking into a hot bath.
“So,” I say, trying to start a conversation, “What do you do, Chuck?” The question hangs in the air for a second, and I can see Chuck trying to think of his answer.
“I hunt, mostly. Do some police work down at the stations sometimes. That’s all.” He doesn’t seem keen on talking, and I weedle the words out of him.
“What kind of police work you do?” I ask trying and failing to sound interested.
“Oh, just some morning patrols. Used to be a sheriff in my old town, but it just didn’t suit me.” He lights a cigarette and takes a deep inhale, then lets out the smoke. I set my hand on the window sill and doze for a while, staring at the frosty pines lining the highway.
I jerk awake suddenly as the car stops. We are pulling into the parking lot of a Walmart. I open my door and slip out of the car, thanking Chuck for the ride. I jog inside Walmart and look around for the clothes section. Finding the girl’s clothes, I dart to them and pick a variety of items, including an inordinately large amount of rootbeer. Then I change into my amazingly warm clothes and leave, guzzling root beer. I’m already feeling better.
The wind feels less biting, but I feel so tired I could sleep on the road. I might have to. Walking along a street, I see a missing poster for Thomas Proctor. I feel a lump rising in my throat, and struggle to hold it down. Ripping the poster off of the light post, I stuff it in my pocket, just so I know why I’m here. Sometimes you miss someone so much it hurts. But with Thomas, it hurts so much it’s like i’m dying a little. Bleeding to death. Continuing past the lamp, I sip root beer and ponder why people don’t do more. The sharp carbonated fizz on my tongue feels satisfyingly sharp and real. Stopping under a bridge, I lean against a wall, wondering why I even ran off in the first place. I regret leaving mom and dad without me, and I hope they’re okay and not worried sick. Knowing them, they probably haven’t noticed I’m gone. I just hope that they are okay.
And now I’m not so sure about this whole looking for Thomas thing. It seems kind of unlikely that I’ll find him. After all, the police couldn’t even find him. And they had dogs and clues and evidence and all that stuff. But I’m here now, and I can’t go back home without him. I know it will feel like I’ve lost him for good if I can’t find him. I guess that’s why I went looking for him. I twist the cap on the root beer and stuff it in my backpack with my old clothes. I guess I should find a place to sleep.
Curling up under a tunnel is actually pretty comfortable, and I’m out cold in no time. I wake up sometime late at night, and sit up groggily. Blinking my eyes, I stagger to my feet and pack my bag back up. Now I have to decide where to look next. I should probably go back to the woods and keep looking there, but something holds me back. Thomas was always scared of the woods, so I don’t think I would find him there. Something tells me to look in town first. So I set off towards the Walmart from yesterday.
As I walk, I realize that I don’t even know what town I’m in. In old movies, people check the newspaper in the box on the corner. But all the newspapers went out of business when people decided that the app on their phones was better. Personally, I liked newspapers with their funny comics and insignificant stories. They were like a break from all of the stress after Thomas went missing. I’m suddenly ripped from my thoughts a drunk homeless man wandering the street. He calls to me from his spot by the light post.
“Hey pretty. Wh-” His words are punctuated by a loud and forceful hiccup.
” What are you doing out here by yourself? You’ll go missing like that Thomas Proctor character. Funny movie, that one.” Then he falls right asleep on the light post. I shudder and walk faster, wondering how much he knows about the Thomas mystery. Maybe, just maybe, I should ask what he knows. No! I have taken advice from random people before, but I dont think a drunk hobo is a reliable source. So I continue on, trying to calculate where to go next.
The Tavern is warm and bright. My goosebumps instantly vanish when I step inside. I figure if anyone would tell me stuff about Thomas, it would be someone so drunk they couldn’t remember me the next day. I edge my way between the cramped tables to the counter in the back. A top heavy 23 year old lady is squeezed into a small leather blouse and red leggings. I approach the counter and place my $2.36 on the counter.
“What can I get with this?” I ask, holding up the bills and change.
” You could get a small cookie or cherry water.” The woman at the counter replies. I get a cookie ( I hate cherries) and sit down at an empty table. The warm chocolate chips melt in my mouth and I just savor them for a second. Then I think. Who should I ask for the whereabouts of my brother? I scan the room, and my eyes fall on a toad looking man with a jacket pulled tight around his shoulders. His collar is pulled up around his neck and he appears to want to be unnoticed. I pick up my cookie and move right over to his table.
“Mind if I sit here?” I ask the man. He looks peeved and very frustrated, but nods all the same.
“So,” I say, choosing my words delicately, “My name’s Ivy. What’s yours?” I ask, deciding to start simple.
“I’m Bodhi.” The man has a throaty, dry voice and bulging eyes, enhancing his toad like features. I wonder if Bodhi has webbed fingers. The thought makes me chuckle, wich I disguise as a cough. I clear my throat.
“I was wondering if-” I break off, doubting myself. “I was wondering if you know anything about…about…about…Thomas Proctor.” These last words I spit out of my mouth, as if they’ve burned my tongue. Bodhi stares at me for a moment, and when he speaks, i’m half expecting a croak.
“He’s that kid who went missing, right? Down in Waxwool. I can tell you I thought that crimes like that had stopped here in Connecticut. Well, that caused a ruckus, that did. But what I know, I can’t tell you, doll. Sorry and all, but I can’t say.” I glance curiously up at him, and his face is expressionless. I know that he’s not drunk enough yet. But I don’t know how to get him more drinks. I am at an utter loss, until I see the bartender, standing behind an aged barrel of wine, eying Bodhi with a doe eyed expression. Could this be love in action? I snigger at the the thought of the bartender and Bodhi dancing in a moonlit clearing in the woods, romantic music blaring in the background. Then it clicks. If I could tell her Bodhi wants a drink with her, then maybe, just maybe, she would give him a free drink. He could come back drunk, and tell me all I need to know. Bodhi interrupts my thoughts with a turse cough.
“Ahem! Doll, nice to meet you and all, but you should scoot on off now. I’m fixing to go talk to that bartender.” I smirk and scoot off of my chair.
“Please come back when you’re done sir. I’m very lonely, see.” I make my eyes as round and pleading as possible. Playing up the poor little kid card always works. At least it did until I turned 10.
“Fine. But don’t interrupt this opportunity.” Bodhi rolls his eyes and slips off of his stool. Squaring his shoulders, he swaggered up to the bartender and leans casually on the counter. She giggles and shimmies down deeper into her blouse. A tankard of ale sits on the table in front of Bodhi, and I watch as he downs the whole thing. Now a glass of amber colored bourbon sits on the counter in the place of the tankards. My glee reaches the climax as he drinks the bourbon, whiskey, a martini, vodka, Bailey’s, and a pint of Fireball. Finally he staggers to his feet and makes his way drunkenly back to my table. I help him onto his stool and he burps loudly. Then I steel myself and ask the question.
“What is it doll?” His words are so slurred I can barely understand them.
“Do you know about Thomas Proctor?” Bodhi pauses for a moment, contemplating the question.
“Yeah. He went missing years ago. Then my buddie, Edward, found a balloon in the woods. Had a strange letter attached to it, he told me. Said it was for Thomas himself. Some girl missed him, or something. Wanted him to come back.” I stop, clammy and wondering. Was that my letter to Thomas? It must have been. Bodhi seems not to notice my shock, as he just keeps talking. His voice is getting louder and louder.
“Then he found a trail. He’s the P.S. 24 custodian, see. Very interested in this Thomas mystery.” Then it clicks. The custodian Edward Glenhill. He always seemed to be nice, but I never talked to him. He was always just the custodian to me. He got fired soon after Thomas disappeared, but I was too upset to notice for a while.
“He followed that trail to the woods behind the school. He found a kid’s sneaker there, then the trail went cold. Tried to find out more, but he got fired for snooping around on the campus. Well then Ed had no restrictions. He went after the path, and came across a garden. There were pictures of kids glued to steaks and under each one was the kid’s body. Dead body. Then he dug up Thomas’s. Nothing was there. He went home, wrote to me, and was never heard from again.” Bodhi vomits all over the table and falls off of his stool. I get up from the table, grab my backpack and run. I need to find a garden.