Mentions of drugs, kidnapping, sexual violence/trafficking
Word Count: 2218
“My sister’s name is Charlotte. She loves pizza, crop tops, and she has blonde hair. She’s out there somewhere, so please–if you see something, anything, please let us know. I just want my sister back.”
Charlotte went to Comet Pizza with three of her friends Friday night. That was two days ago. And she hasn’t come back.
It wasn’t like going to Comet was out of the ordinary. It was a regular thing–she and her friends met up at 6 o’clock every Friday night and went to the park to eat to, as she put it, “have fun!” The “fun” was something we tried to hide from mom, but after she called the police when Charlotte wasn’t in bed Saturday morning, she found out anyway. Sorry, sis. I really tried to cover for you.
The police thought she went off on her own. Drugs combined with friends led to adventures that were unplanned, the officer explained. It was common enough among teens, especially those entering adulthood.
Mom disagreed. “Charlie would never go somewhere without telling me,” she insisted, tears bringing mascara down her cheeks and head drooping low. She didn’t bother to wipe the tears away at this point. “She was a good girl, always had her location on. I always know where she is.”
“You didn’t know she did drugs,” the officer said.
Mom raised her head, fury in her eyes. “Get out.” Her words were colder than the freezer. “Get. Out. Of. My. House.”
They tried tracking her phone at mom’s insistence, but the signal from her phone, as well as the three others, were gone.
The police told her and the other parents that if their children didn’t return after 72 hours they should call again to report them missing officially. “I’m sure they’ll come back,” they said. An officer, who pretended to take notes (I saw his blank notebook myself) shut said notebook and put it in his pocket. “They usually do.”
Um. Okay? That’s it?
They saw themselves out as mom cried on the couch. Her shoulders shook and her sobs grew louder and uncontained after we heard the door shut. She didn’t look much like mom right now. Her curly hair was wild, poking in all directions, and was flat in random places. Strands of hair stuck to her wet cheeks in waves. She looked like she hadn’t slept all night and appeared small as she curled into the couch.
I didn’t know what to do. I sat on the couch next to her, patting her back. I suddenly realized the hole Charlotte’s absence left in our lives. She was the emotionally smart one of us: always knew exactly what to say or do in order to comfort someone. Whenever I tried she would tell me, “You think too much. Use your heart, not your head.”
The heart wouldn’t help me find her, though, and it didn’t help me with mom.
I went to the park after mom fell asleep. I had given her juice with sleeping pills, like she gives me before we travel anywhere. She hadn’t asked for it, but she knew what it was when I handed her the glass.
The park was where Charlotte’s phone last gave off a signal. The police had briefly searched it, so I did a more thorough look over. Because nobody could find it, it was thought that maybe whoever took her shut off her phone. I searched every inch of that park and all I had to show for it were a couple pieces of discarded pizza crust and acorns.
That night we got a phone call.
It was Mrs. Bronte, the mother of Charlotte’s best friend, and she was in hysterics. The only words I could make out were, “My boy! My little boy is gone!”
Alex was a bright girl. We all supported her, and her coming out was what really brought her and Charlotte together. Mrs. Bronte was generally good about addressing Alex as she wished, but in a moment of panic, she must have forgotten.
Later that night the news showed pictures of Alex from last year. She was in a football jersey and smiling, holding the ball above her head with a smile.
“...was found earlier this evening. Alex Bronte was discovered dead with a paper reading, ‘don’t lie to us’ nailed to her chest. If anyone has any information, please contact the police.”
The TV was shut off after that.
And I couldn’t sleep.
Alex was dead.
And Charlotte was still missing.
Ready to take us seriously now, the police showed up at our apartment at exactly 9 AM. They spoke with mom for hours at a time, a recording device always out on the table as well as a yellow notepad. Occasionally they gave her a break and turned to me for information and to fact check what mom had just told them. I desperately wished I had more to tell them, but I knew about as much as mom: that they went to get pizza and eat it at the park.
“And how do you know your sister’s whereabouts?” the officer asked. His badge was scratched, distracting me briefly.
“I was there for a little bit,” I explained. “Just long enough to eat before my boyfriend picked me up so we could go see a movie.”
“And you didn’t say this to us before?”
“I did. Your officers didn’t take any notes the last time I was here. They were determined to shut us down.”
The officer gave me a long look, asked me a few more questions about mom’s information and background, and then decided they had enough from us. They let themselves out. His partner, a newer police officer, offered her condolences and gave me a card with a few phone numbers on it. “If you have any questions or need anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
A few days later a man was arrested, believed to be the one to kidnap Charlotte and her friends, but was released once a woman and her baby were taken the following morning. The woman–a single mother–had a similar story as Charlotte: she picked up a pizza and was going somewhere to eat it. It was unclear what her plans were after she got a pizza, but her abandoned car was found just outside of town.
Mom kept expecting the police to come back. They didn’t. She was forced to move on, go back to work, and I was left to go to school without my sister in the passenger seat. Other than work, she refused to leave the house, so she sent me to the grocery store with her credit card. I kept my eyes out all the time.
Christmas came and went, marking six months since Charlotte disappeared. We bought a few things for her just in case the police were right and this really was just a runaway case.
Mom prayed all day.
The house felt too cold.
My boyfriend’s house wasn’t any warmer.
December 26th, two teens went missing. One of them was a male, but they didn’t kill him.
Instead of reporting the news that night, they broadcasted a warning.
A warning against meeting online friends.
It made me sick to my stomach. Instead of plastering the photos of all the missing people across all media, what did they say? Met someone online? Now may not be the best time to meet them. News of two more missing customers of Comet Pizza weren’t advertised at all. I had to look for the information after my locker neighbor came to school crying because now his brother was gone.
Something wasn’t right. Nobody was doing anything.
I asked my locker neighbor what the story was with his brother.
“He and Cindy were going to get pizza for us and come right back home, except they never came back. We thought maybe they got into an accident, because Brent just got his license, so we called the non-emergency line to see if they could get us any information. They didn’t have any information for us. The police haven’t even gotten around to talking to my parents yet.”
“And they went to Comet, right?”
My boyfriend broke up with me. He said I was becoming “too obsessed with chasing conspiracy theories” and that he “wasn’t aware he was dating crazy” when he asked me out. And at the time, I wasn’t, but my sister was driving me to a point of no return. I needed her back and the people who were supposed to be helping me find her weren’t doing anything.
I related to Scooby-Doo in a way.
I emptied my bedroom trash one day and when I checked the bottom to make sure everything came out, I saw a business card. It had the contact information for a new officer named Alicia who was there for the last visit the police gave us. Alicia was nice, didn’t say much, but said I could call her if I had any questions or concerns and she’d do her best to help me. She was the most helpful officer I’d encountered so far, but that wasn’t saying much.
I entered the number into my cell phone, holding the card in my left hand. With a long thumbnail, I punctured the card and felt the thick paper move up and down on my nail as I listened to the dial. I stared at Charlotte’s bed while I waited, wondering if we’d ever have late night talks again.
After a few seconds my call was answered. “This is Alicia, how can I help you?”
“Hey, this is Anna Webber. You gave me your business card a few months ago?”
“I assume you’re calling about your sister.”
She alluded to some sort of secret she wanted to share with me, and we agreed to meet at an ice cream shop. Years of social training was telling me to go to Comet Pizza, but uh… I really didn’t want to be kidnapped.
The next day I met with her. Having arrived first, I chose a table to wait inside at. Alicia was running a little late, and informed me as such, so I began to scroll through social media on my phone. When I looked up just a few minutes later I saw Alicia with a thick, dusty looking accordion folder. I waved at her, she saw me, and came in to sit with me.
She insisted on buying my ice cream. I didn’t argue.
“I’m really glad you called me,” she breathed as she sat. Chewing her ice cream, she brushed a hand over the disintegrating folder. “Especially now.”
“I have a theory, and I think you’ll agree with me after I tell you why I think this.” Alicia untied the string holding the folder closed. Her voice lowered when she continued to talk. “The whole thing is a conspiracy. Everyone at the station is acting like they never happened. I’ve asked around, everyone tells me to stay out of it. And I’m just a rookie, so nobody listens to me anyways. But…” She spread the folder apart so I could see it was packed with papers, grouped by year going back until the mid 50s. “These are all the mission people involved in Comet Pizza. I think they were separated from all the other disappearances so it would be easier to hide them. But I think it’s a sex trafficking ring, and Comet is the front.”
What the heck?
“Comet Pizza?” I questioned. “You’re sure?”
“Think about it,” she insisted. “They go to one place and then just disappear. No phone signals, no news coverage, the police aren’t trying–-it’s gotta be for a reason!”
“Do you have any other proof?”
My heart sank. “You’re kidding.”
“No, I do! I have proof! It’s just–I found it through snooping after hours. But turns out Franco Ricci, the owner? He owns several shipping containers in New York. I traced shipment records going back 20 years, and there’s a pattern. The containers are gone for three months at a time, and every three months there’s a spike in kidnappings. Not just here, though, everywhere in the county! Which means it goes beyond Ricci.”
I took a huge bite of ice cream and let it melt in my mouth. It would make sense. And, looking at her face, I believed her.
Two days later a news report came out. The headline of the day went like this:
Pizza parlor owner Franco Ricci arrested for money laundering. Faces two years in prison.
I couldn’t believe it. After everything Alicia told me, it didn’t seem possible. There were too many coincidences for the news to be true. It had to be a cover up.
Charlotte still had to be out there. If she was alive, my heart ached for what she might be going through right now. I just had to keep looking, keep an eye out. And from now on, I’d never stop talking about her.
My sister’s name is Charlotte. She loves pizza, crop tops, and she has blonde hair. She’s out there somewhere, so please–if you see something, anything, please let us know. I just want my sister back.