Yet another Acela Express train pulls into the Upstate New York station. It empties and pulls out again. All of the disembarked passengers scurry away, like skittish mice, disappearing down the long tunneled corridors to their various destinations, except for a small klatch of people moving to and fro at one end of the platform. It’s late; I’ve sat through the arrival and departure of three different trains, each 20 minutes apart. I’ve observed the sea of faces: strange faces, tired faces, excited faces, but not her face. The eyes of every redhead I met produced no flicker of recognition. At first I thought I needed a flash card labeled, ‘Elle.’ But no, I had her photograph – the one before, the one after, especially that after. Not the aged images we’d grown so accustomed to seeing on milk cartons, but the one the police had taken just two weeks ago. Out of the blue, she had shown up at the police headquarters all the way down in West Virginia. She was indeed the snatched Elle Griffin as her fingerprints matched the ones we’d diligently provided. They had been taken before her disappearance during a Safe Children campaign at our local MacDonald’s in Albany, New York. After years of grieving our lost only child, our daughter was finally coming home.
Elle was a high school sophomore when she disappeared after her school soccer practice. Searchers found only her pink duffle bag on a well-travelled footpath behind the soccer fields. Yet no one had seen the bubbly flame-haired youth who’d just won a scholarship to the most prestigious art school in New York City. ‘No trace.’ That’s what the officer assigned to the case had said was written on the file. His daughter was Elle’s best friend so he had a special interest in the case, an interest that drove him to search for Elle long after he was due to retire from the force. When most officers were hanging up their gun holsters and trading in their police badges for Florida time-shares and Caribbean cruises, Hal was stepping up his efforts to solve a case that had gone from cold to icy. He had always sensed that Elle was alive.
The sightings and tips came in from the beginning, all pointing to a blue van with an out-of-state license plate. But the New York State line was where the trail ended – at a seedy remote truck stop where the gum-chewing waitress had noticed a reticent red-haired girl as she used the ladies room while an older scruffy looking man paced outside the door. The waitress had told me when I accompanied Hal, “That was some odd couple,” cracking a wad of sweet Bazooka bubble gum. The smell of the stuff still nauseates me.
Marie had left Elle’s room the same way it was that morning when Elle had gone to school – her clothes for that night’s planned movie outing with friends neatly draped over the corner chair; and her high four-poster bed made with its pink and white comforter and matching pillows. It was as if preserving the room’s original state would bring Elle back to us or at the very least, make the abode ready for her when she returned – like she were just on an overnight sleepover at her best friend’s house. That was nine years ago to the month.
At 25 Elle is now a young woman. I stare at the glossy 8 x 11 police photograph in my cold, trembling hands. She has that same sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her small nose. Her fair cheeks are still rosy but the girlish looks have given way to the finely chiseled features of a young woman. She looks so much like how Marie, her mother, had looked as a bride. I cringe inside thinking about it. Marie is gone. The ovarian cancer had eaten at her as she pined for the child she’d never again hold, never see graduate, never help set her wedding veil and never accompany through childbirth – those special firsts shared by mother and daughter. Marie had died of heartbreak, clutching her womb in memory, in pain and in a way that no mother should.
Searchingly, my eyes settle again on the group at the other end of the platform, straining to see one with red hair – auburn – but not quite red enough. I stand to stretch my legs and begin the long walk down the platform, consulting my Timex watch. Another train will arrive in 15 minutes. Two police officers suddenly walk toward me determinedly. A cold sweat settles over the back of my neck; seeing police officers approach stirs up those old feelings of dread. The younger officer addresses me.
“Have you seen a little girl in green overalls about this high?” His hand reaches out to the level of my waist as he continues: “This tall. Red hair, green eyes…”
I lose him as my mind goes back to that day nine years earlier.
“…Freckles. She’s carrying a pink knapsack.”
My head is reeling now.
“Sir? Sir!” The police officer persists, “Did you hear me?” He touches my arm.
“Uh, yes…I mean, I’m here for Elle – she’s coming, isn’t she? She’s my 25-year-old daughter. It’s been a long time.” I hear my own voice echo in my head as if it’s bouncing off the concrete walls of the empty train platform.
“I don’t know, Sir. We’re looking for Amanda – Amanda Wheeler. Her mother down there said she got separated getting off the train.”
His authoritative voice reminded me of the rookie officer who had sat with me on the soccer bleachers that day nine years ago.
“She’ll turn up,” he’d said confidently, “Probably went off with her boyfriend.”
What did this young guy know, I thought. He was barely out of his teens himself, let alone understanding the anxieties of a father?
“Elle doesn’t have a boyfriend,” I corrected him.
What did he know about the studious girl who volunteered at the local animal shelter in her spare time?
I answered his query: “No, I haven’t seen a little girl. I’m just waiting for my daughter. She was supposed to be on that train.”
I feel cold with a new fear. What if she isn’t coming? Maybe it was all some big mistake, like I’d first thought when she’d disappeared. I’m trying to wrap my mind around all the events of the last nine years, the ones told to me by the police in a phone call. There will be time later to learn about those lost years.
“Right, then! Well, hope she’s on the next train. Maybe she decided to visit ‘her’ boyfriend instead,” the rookie insists and laughs good-naturedly. And the two officers turn back toward the now dispersing group of people at the other end. I stand frozen on the empty train platform.
“Would the mother of Amanda Wheeler please come to the Amtrak Customer Service Counter? Mrs. Wheeler to the Amtrak Customer Service Counter!” A professional voice booms over a loud speaker.
Lost in thought, I’m back at the soccer field nine years ago. The new metal bleachers are gleaming in the high afternoon sun. An official with a megaphone directs volunteers and students to form teams and tells them where to search. People swarm the path like bees looking for pollen. They search until the sun goes down below the pine trees bordering the footpath, replaced by a bright yellow moon, its glow casting eerie shadows among the trees. In the end, all we had was her pink duffle bag – a cold trail – until last week when the chief of police from Upstate New York called with the news…
“Excuse me.” A voice pierced my thoughts. “Can you help me find my Mommy,” a child’s voice asks from the shadows.
I don’t immediately answer, still in my nightmare. Our eyes meet as I look down, turning over the picture in my hand.
I glance from the glossy print to her face and back again, disbelieving. I’m confused. The small figure is crouched in a dark corner. My gaze rests upon the cascade of bright red curls flowing round an impish face blowing pink bubbles. And that smell…I wrinkle my nose unconsciously. She grins and turns her head. I stare at the picture of Elle in my hand and note the profile of the face before me. It’s like looking at twins two decades apart.
“Are you Amanda Wheeler?” I suddenly find my voice.
“Yes.” She bows her head, playing with the zipper on her pink backpack.
“Your Mommy’s looking for you—” Amanda rises to her feet and offers me her hand and we walk down the platform to the Amtrak Customer Service Counter.