On December 22 2001, Alice Murphy stepped off the school bus and walked home. Then, she completely vanished. No one on the bus claimed to know what happened.
Joe Winston, the bus driver and all but the youngest children on board were questioned by police and said they saw nothing unusual. This was the last school day before the Christmas holiday and the kids were too preoccupied with outdoing one another, bragging about the awesome presents Santa would be leaving under their trees.
Joe Winston had other things on his mind as well. He planned to
meet up with a woman he’d met on a web sight. At the Emerald Bar over in Westgate. Away from his wife.
It wasn’t surprising that Alice vanishing without a trace would go unnoticed. She was a tiny girl with a pale face and a painfully shy demeanor. She rarely spoke and shrank back whenever she was addressed by a teacher or asked to participate in anything. In fact, the fifth grade teacher who’d had her in class the year before barely remembered the child.
The Murphy’s as a general rule were not widely accepted in the community. They resided in a ramshackle house off a dirt road a mile or so from the highway. They rarely visited town and never attended any events at Alice’s school. When they were seen in town at the grocery store or diner they were described as being polite in a perfunctory manner but never friendly.
Eloise and Charles Murphy called the police within any hour of their daughter not returning from school. They were told to come into to the station for questioning even an official investigation could not yet be opened.
The young officer who was new to police work and new to the town asked the parents the standard questions asked when a child disappears.
Officer: Do you think it’s possible your daughter was involved in an activity at school and forgot to tell you?
Mrs Murphy: Officer, my daughter was not involved in any school activity. She doesn’t do any of that stuff.
Officer: Could she have gone to a friend’s house? Have you called her friend’s parents?
Mr. Murphy: Officer, our daughter don’t have no friends and she ain’t involved in nothing at school. She’s a real shy kid who don’t have nothin’ to do with no one.
Officer: I hate to bring this up, but could she have simply run away?
The word spread around town that the Murphy’s angrily departed the police station after this question. The idea of an eleven year old up and leaving was simply absurd to them.
Somehow the news media got ahold of the story and it ran on the local news for several weeks. The town organized a search party through the woods and the obligatory candlelight vigil and church service was held.
Time passed and the disappearance of Alice Murphy was forgotten. The children she had ridden the school bus with grew up, graduated and had families of their own.
Joe Winston, the bus driver, divorced his wife, married a woman fifteen years younger and moved to Florida.
The Murphy’s were seen around town less than ever. The looks of fake sympathy tempered with suspicion were most likely too much for them to bear.
Charles Murphy died ten years after Alice disappeared. His wife continued to live alone in the dilapidated house, becoming increasingly reclusive with each passing year.
I was on the bus that day with Alice. I admit to not paying much attention to what was going on because I had my nose buried in a book as was usually the case.
I think Alice and I might have become friends. Only we were both such backward children that we were afraid to approach each other.
I am came back to town after college and got a job teaching at the middle school where Alice and I had gone. Alice’s name was never uttered by anyone anymore except occasionally as a cautionary tale from a mother warning a child to avoid strangers.
Recently I was in the local coffee shop with my older sister when Mrs. Murphy walked in with a pale, thin woman with dirty blonde hair cascading down her back.
“Oh my God. That’s Alice Murphy. I feel like I just saw a ghost,” my sister gasped.
I didn’t know who this woman was, but I knew it couldn’t be Alice. Alice Murphy was dead.
I don’t know how I know this. I do know that I’ve kept a secret about that day for twenty years.
I had looked up from the book I was reading for on minute and saw Alice Murphy forced into a blue minivan.
I don’t know why I never told the truth to the police or my parents. Perhaps because I was a frightened child who thought she might somehow be responsible. Maybe they would send me to jail for not speaking the truth.
The nightmares began soon afterward. I knew instinctively somehow that Alice Murphy was dead, and that it was my fault.
“I don’t know who that is, but it’s not Alice Murphy. Let’s get our Vanilla Lattes and get out of here.”
I dropped off my sister and drove home, unable to stop thinking about Alice. A child equally ignored in life and death. What might she have become? Would she have broken from her shell and become a butterfly? Or would she have always shrank back? An observer of life and not a participant?
I went to the refrigerator for a bottle of wine when I got home and tried to drink away the angst and sorrow, to no avail.
When the bottle was empty I went to the and poured a shot of Jamison.
“To Alice! May you have found the peace in death you lacked in life!” I exclaimed with only the cat there to hear me.
Needless to say, the nightmares began again in earnest that very night.