It might be that his smile could have been my smile. Or that he left his cell phone charger behind. That he played Frisbee golf; had a girlfriend, two kids, a nice boss. “Good people do stupid things,” a woman gossips in the grocery store. She jabs her chubby finger at the Traverse City Record-Eagle headline. Or stupid things happen to good people, I think.
It’s humid again and my thighs are sticking. I’m a Pacific Northwesterner trying to make it in lake country. I walk the sand dunes and wait for salt air to fill my lungs, then remember—Lake Michigan only looks like the ocean, but it’s fresh, every last drop. It’s terrifying how easy it is to get lost here, one dune indistinguishable from the next, their smooth, beige humps like the half-buried heads of giants bared to the sky.
Back home, when we say the ground is moving we mean earthquakes—little ones, the kind that let you continue sipping coffee. Here, the ground never stops moving; ghost-blankets of sand sweep across the dunes, quietly reshaping themselves into something different. In a very short period of time, the spot I’m standing on will have completely disappeared.
Twenty-three hundred people are reported missing per day. I imagine them trading lives, a discombobulated populous randomly selected to disrupt the natural order. One from Port Townsend ends up in Des Moines. One from Des Moines is later seen in Sarasota. The one from Sarasota ends up in Cheyenne. Like something lifted into a late-summer twister and deposited miles away, they wander in a fugue state, nameless, through unfamiliar cities.
Everywhere I go I see him—MISSING—his face plastered like a rock star’s on billboards, community signposts, public offices. There is no escaping his story. I find him on Facebook. I Google his name and watch news broadcasts. His mother and sister live locally in Traverse City. His brother lives on base at Fort Hood. A few days before he went missing, he was supposed to report for duty to the Michigan National Guard. Instead, his trail dried up in Sweetwater, Texas. There are perhaps ten facts I can piece together. Eleven, counting this one: He is never seen again.
There’s a story up here about the Sleeping Bear of Lake Michigan. When a great famine struck Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs looked longingly across the lake, hungry for food and nourishment on the Michigan side. Finally, they swam. Just twelve miles from shore, the first of two cubs drowned. Two miles later, the second cub sank down. Breathless, the mother bear reached Michigan only to collapse with grief in the sand dunes. Her sleeping figure can still be seen today, gaze ever-pointed at North and South Manitou Islands, two emerald land masses that rose where her cubs vanished.
Each night, I hear the lake lap against rocks as its soft waves jostle the shoreline. I can’t sleep, the humidity like a wetsuit I’m forced to wear all summer. I keep seeing his picture, the way his two sons were shown sitting on his lap, smiles that could crack you open. I need to understand this thing that is very hard to understand. This thing that belongs to all of us. This thing that doesn’t have an answer, and so I make one up. I imagine myself in his family’s living room, the stories they might tell me. It feels like looking into a wound that isn’t mine—the injustice of speculation—and yet I prod and dream, and my mind creates stories that hum like ghosts in the room.
She remembers losing him once. He was four. They browsed at a street fair in Ann Arbor, a family trip to see the grandparents, just something to get out of town. One instant he stood by her side in line for caramel apples and the next he was gone. Her breath caught, like she’d been thrust beneath the icy lid of a late-winter lake. Look left. Look right. Jesus, no. She ran to the next row of booths. Look left, look right, then—. She spotted him squatting near the ground, gazing into a puddle in the middle of the crowded path, not more than thirty feet away.
But her son had never been this kind of lost. Not this statewide search, call the sheriff, reward for information leading to the arrest of—of who? Now it was her son’s face plastered on every grocery store, gas station, and library bulletin board in Grand Traverse County. Everywhere she went she saw the poster: “Last seen March 31st in the evening. He dropped a friend off in downtown Traverse City after playing Frisbee golf…” She knew the rest; every syllable like the pulse of something sensed in the distance, just out of reach.
This morning, it happened at the post office. She pushed sluggishly through the front door that never opened like it should. Past the rows of PO boxes and priority mail slips, then up to the front counter and there—right there—her son. That damn laminated poster meeting her at every turn. He was everywhere and MISSING at the same time.
During this—the waiting, the searching—she felt closer to him than ever before. Closer, even, than those first bleeding moments after birth, his purple fists gripping their way into this world of fresh air and a tiny home, this world of decent schools and picnics at the volunteer fire department. This world of icy winters, the break up, then spring like a farce but always, the beach in summertime and yes, good parents. Hadn’t they been good parents?
The light in the post office worked just right. She swayed on her feet until she could superimpose her reflection over her son’s photo. Her face. His face. MISSING but right here, looking back at her on this chilly day, which she believed might never end unless something, anything, gave way.
Bud’s Café, Interlochen, Michigan, bulletin board flyer: Last seen March 31st in the evening. He dropped a friend off in downtown Traverse City after playing Frisbee golf. He was last seen wearing his work uniform which is a grey jacket with “Dave’s Garage” printed on it and grey pants. His 2002 Silver Chevy Malibu has minor damage on the passenger front panel and is also missing. 31 years old, 5’11” tall and weighs approx. 150 lbs. Please call Grand Traverse County Sheriff at 231-995-5000.
Chance of rain through Sunday. Local activist charged with child pornography. Abilene prepares for mosquitoes. These website headlines might have felt amusing if the report about her missing brother hadn’t been sandwiched between Texas Big Country’s petty news and weather. Authorities tracked his credit card to a gas station in Sweetwater, just outside Abilene, then the trail ran cold. She stood from her desk and paced along the west wall of her downtown office. Four windows overlooking Grand Traverse Bay, eight stories up. Not too bad for a small city and her MBA—the loans for which she figured she’d pay off about the time his youngest started high school.
Her high heels made pointed impressions in the carpet. Four steps one direction, pivot, four steps back. How many times had she done this since he disappeared? It helped her think. Or not think. She gazed at the bay. When her brother was six years old, she nine, they played hopscotch in the street outside their house. Back and forth, back and forth. Come winter, they moved the game to Silver Lake, joining a mess of shanties and snowmobiles. Their father augered a pattern of holes through the ice, mapping a giant game that entertained them endlessly. He called it “leapscotch,” since the squares were so large. The children darted across them to keep warm.
One time, he misjudged the distance and sunk his leg through an ice hole straight up to his crotch. He giggled with shock, then reached for his sister. Dad was there in a flash, tugging, then carrying him into the house. In the bathroom, she saw the skin on his leg, puckered and bright as an overripe grapefruit. He’d been so helpless in that hole. Alarmed but smiling all the same, like this life was so good that nothing, not even the sting of ice water, could melt the warmth from his face.
My mother suffered three miscarriages during my grade school years. Three siblings that weren’t; three lives that bled out until the only evidence of their passing was a hollow womb, an empty space. I knew them more for what they weren’t than what they ever could have been.
One year comes and goes, the case still open, still unsolved. I become “friends” with the Facebook group dedicated to finding him. I follow the news, what little there is. Finally, I muster the nerve to call.
“Who are you?” Detective Gomez asks. He is wisely suspicious. “What did you tell my secretary to get her to transfer your call?”
I try to explain—I’m curious about the case, though I have no information—but already I hear his pen working nervously against the sketchpad. I give him my name, my cell number, my date of birth. Just like that, I’m part of the story. Just as quickly, I wish I hadn’t called.
“Who do you work for?” he asks.
I offer more than he needs in an attempt to prove my uselessness. Finally, he says we can talk. A little.
“So,” I say. “What do you think happened?”
“That’s not important,” he says.
“Alright, then, what’s the general sentiment around town? What are people thinking?”
“I’m not willing to imagine what other people think,” he says.
That’s the difference, I think, between you and me.
A State Trooper organizes the first annual Missing in Michigan event for families and loved ones. The family is there, bright yellow T-shirts and all, spreading the word and seeking support. His mother has come to give DNA so comparisons can be made and her son can be ruled out. His family says the DNA will be cross-referenced with data on “unidentified people.” What they mean is dead bodies, the corpses of those so mangled or so long gone that no one ever identified them. A mother sits in a chair inside Detroit’s Ford Field and gives detectives her genetic code, glimpsing the far shore of a fate that could prove false the very thing she hopes to keep alive.
He wasn’t coming to see me and I’m going to keep saying that until you get off this base. Fort Hood? Abilene? Almost two hundred miles apart and no, don’t go quoting that Lyle Lovett song about “a woman back in Abilene” ‘cause it wasn’t that, either. Trust me. I’m his brother. I’d know if he was pussy-whipped and I’d know if he went meth-crazy and I’d even know if he’d been kidnapped. It’s a feeling kind of thing and it’s not something you can understand so you might as well stop trying. He left his cell phone charger. He left two sons. Do you think he planned this?
What do I think? I think he’s deader than a duck on opening day but that’s not the kind of thing you can tell your own mother. I think somebody even sicker than you—you with your questions and your notebook, your wild imagination—somebody even sicker than you suckered him into helping out. Like a late-night roadside kind of set up.
You know about Dave’s Garage, right? Best garage in Grand Traverse County? He worked as their master mechanic. Would have pulled over on the darkest night of the year to help a stranger out. Thing is, these days, helping strangers can get you in trouble faster than lakeside quicksand…which reminds me—I don’t believe we’ve met. That makes you a stranger and you’d best be on your way.
People always think of the easy ones first—kidnapped, freak accident. They pray for a miracle reunion or a single clue that unravels the mystery. They’re unwilling to consider voluntary disappearance. What they forget is, voluntary could mean safe. Voluntary could mean still alive. But involuntary? Your guess is as good as mine.
Katey Schultz is an award-winning fiction author and founder of Maximum Impact: Precision Courses & Services for Writers, Artists, & Trailblazers. Her 2013 debut short story collection, Flashes of War, was awarded IndieFab Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews and received a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America. Originally from Portland, Oregon, and a graduate of the Pacific University MFA in Creative Nonfiction program, Katey now lives in Celo, North Carolina.
Photo of Lake Michigan, courtesy of the author