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The Tale of the Missing Girls
The term began as any other at the mid-range state school in Virginia. The early reaches of autumn hadn’t burned off the humidity in the valley, but the imminent change of leaves that hovered over the patches of mini-reunions on the quad marked the unofficial commencement of another academic year.
Everyone was here—the returning students, the rumpled professors, the eager freshmen, the apprehensive groundskeepers, the haggard librarians, the dipsomaniacal grad students, and the haughty administrators—marching across the grounds and through the hallways of the “historic” campus. Even the girls who would soon go missing were here.
On the first day, the lecture hall was so full it was difficult to find a seat. Students, it seemed, sat on one another’s laps, twined their arms around each other to stretch their pens to the college-ruled lines of their notebooks. They leaned forward, breathing hot on the backs of others necks, anxious to hear every word, record every point, take a copy of every class syllabus from the giant stack that slowly made their way around the room, winnowed one copy at a time, each pause a painful interval for those waiting in back. In the meantime, they distracted themselves by scribing in furious silence as the professor delivered, with oratory flourish, the foundational lecture of the course.
The professor, who was not a tall man, managed to dominate the space at the front of the hall, of which he was the sole occupant. He paced back and forth as he revealed the distinctions between the two dominant theories, inserting, through facial expressions and a variety of arm waves, his own opinion as to the validity of each. He was, the students realized all at once and in awe, an expert on the subject.
This scene was repeated in every classroom in every subject in every building throughout the day, except sometimes the professor was female. At night, this enthusiasm, diverted from the academic buildings, overflowed from the dormitories to inundate the roads, sidewalks and well-traveled shortcuts that snaked to and from campus as busty coeds and stalwart young men made their way to parties and bars. Though a university, unlike a middling city, has a limit on the number of entrants, when every one of that number is simultaneously wandering the streets and footways of the town at night, the possibilities seem endless.
Best intentions, however, even when enacted en masse, only last for so long. Within weeks students began to sleep in and miss early morning classes. The sense of camaraderie among the student body fizzled as it broke into cliques. The professors’ lectures, once so robust, took on a new lethargy that reciprocated the thinning class size. Some professors, especially the males, observed this trend each year and could not help, especially the literary ones, to see this as a metaphor for their thinning hair, muscles, and will.
In reverse proportion to the attendance in classes, the bulletin boards located in the common areas of the dormitories and academic halls filled with flyers, mostly promoting events. No one ever took it upon themselves to remove outdated signs, so papers were stapled over each other, creating an unofficial records hall of things you may or may not have known had happened. It was on such a corkboard in one dorm’s foyer that the first flyer of the first missing girl appeared. She had gone out one night. She did not return. She was last seen 10/19/1987. She was wearing a blue shirt and jeans. If you had information you should call this number.
You had to act quick though, because suddenly a notice for a concert at the Larimer Lounge had been tacked over her face. You had to be 18 and older. If you brought a girl friend, you would get $5 off.
Things like this happened again and again in the following weeks. Two girls, tired of walking in their heels up the steep hill to the party would stick out their thumbs, jut their slender legs forward as they’d seen actresses do in movies to sometimes seductive and sometimes comic effect. The next day, black and white photocopies of their pictures would hang from bulletin boards across campus, reading, “Missing. Last seen. Call.”, and were quickly covered by notices about events, “Meeting. Concert. Tomorrow. Next Week. Free. $5 cover. Come.”
When she returned to her dorm one evening after a late class, a man and a woman were standing in her room.
“Have you seen our daughter?” the man asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“She’s your roommate,” the woman said impatiently.
“I don’t remember when I last saw her,” she replied.
The girl’s mother was incredulous. “She’s been missing for over two weeks!”
“I thought she was at her boyfriend’s place,” she responded. She had no precise recollection of when she last saw her roommate. If pressed, she doubted she would have any precise recollection of her roommate at all.
Soon other parents arrived, also looking for their daughters. Some girls had been missing for weeks as well, some for months, a few for years. They wanted to know who had seen them, when and where. They wanted to know what was being done about the situation. They wanted to hang more flyers and resurrect forgotten faces. They wanted anonymous tips and surveys of the surrounding town.
Even more parents made the pilgrimage to the place of their daughters’ last known whereabouts. They erected a marquee in the middle of the quad and filled it with telephones and fax machines and photocopiers. They stretched dozens of electrical cords like a sinuous root system across the manicured ryegrass of the campus grounds and into the nearest outlets of the surrounding historic buildings.
The parents organized search parties. Local volunteers, university students and town residents, were formed into groups standing shoulder-to-shoulder, beginning at the tent, and slowly marched across a marked swath of ground in different directions, radiating like spokes on a wheel, on the lookout for clues. Some prod the ground with sticks, others with metal detectors, but the only things recovered were a few bottle caps, hundreds of cigarette butts, a missing wallet that was returned to its owner, a stripped and abandoned bicycle, a set of unlabeled keys that looked as if they belonged to the stout locks of a dormitory, and a notebook whose last entry on Henry David Thoreau yielded nothing of significance.
Despite the lack of success, the parents pushed on. Class attendance continued to dwindle, along with the trees, whose colors blazed brightly for a moment before a leaf broke free to inter itself with the others lining the grounds. “Much like,” the parents who could not stop themselves from thinking such things though, “our daughters.”
“This seems to happen every year,” the Resident Assistant, who was hanging new flyers on the boards in the dormitory’s common area, told her when she walked in. “Last year, two from my floor alone went missing.”
Not knowing what to say, she said, “They should really mention that on the campus tour,” which sounded more reasonable than she wanted it too.
The RA paused and looked at her. “It’s a serious problem, you know.” Then she picked up the cardboard box full of flyers and headed for the exit. She considered running ahead and holding the door open to demonstrate mutual concern about the situation, but instead she stood there and watched the RA balance the heavy box across her thigh and reach her free hand for the handle. When she glanced again at the bulletin board, the photo of the most recent missing girl that had just been posted was already covered by a flyer promoting the Spelunking Club’s next expedition.
Eventually, the parents who had been there for weeks, months and years, who had posted hundreds of notices and manned silent phone lines, who had organized fruitless searches and interviewed absent-minded witnesses, who had fought off the hollow cries of their daughters in their dreams to maintain their last semblances of hope, these parents, all of them, began to lose their curiosity. It’s not that they didn’t want their daughters back, (in fact, that’s all they wanted,) but they no longer cared what had happened or was happening to them. They no longer cared to find and punish those responsible. In short, they no longer cared about justice; they just wanted their girls back.
They increased the reward. Maybe, they thought, it’ll be enough for someone to rat someone out. Though in their unspoken minds they knew crimes like these, crimes where people go missing, are not driven by money but by some darker desire. All the information that could be gathered was synthesized into a profile of a single suspect. They were looking for a
White male, 20 to 40, above to below-average intelligence, who may or may not stand out among the campus’ 20,000 residents. He lacks a moral conscience and/or fear of consequences for his actions as well as a respect for cultural impediments—such as religious beliefs, the legal system, or social inhibitions—that normally prohibit the average person from doing anything he wants. The suspect most likely suffers from narcissistic personality traits and exhibits anti-social behavior, though at times can seem both charming and outgoing. He’s likely attempting to rectify issues with an overbearing mother figure and/or to compensate for feelings of or actual impotence. He has access to a vehicle large enough to transport a college-aged female, and owns or rents a private dwelling.
This description was distributed around campus, and many professors began their lectures by reading it and asking anyone who met the criteria to proceed to the large white tent in the center of campus for questioning. Several young men (and some young women) would stand and leave, but only a few went to the tent. Most simply wanted to an excuse to cut.
In History class the professor read the profile of the suspect and also held up a copy of the Missing Persons flyer that the parents-turned-detectives had distributed. He needed only one flyer because, much like the parents had created a single profile of the suspect, the parents also, through a police sketch artist, created an amalgamation of all their missing girls. They circled the artist and each described their daughters until a single photo emerged.
This new missing girl, this Everyvictim, had straight brown hair interrupted by that wave caused by swooping it behind an ear; a nose with a linear bridge and rounded nostrils; lips that were not too full, not pouty or inquisitive; cheeks that had just lost their baby fat; and eyes that, either due to their own constitution or to the poor resolution of black and white photocopies, revealed nothing at all. She was any and every girl, and she was missing.
“Let’s tell her story,” the professor said to the class, shaking the picture to make a slight crinkling noise.
“She is young,” he began. “She has just graduated high school and is looking forward to college. She will miss her friends from back home, of which she has plenty, mostly from the field hockey and student government, in which she played a minor role, such as treasurer, because it was easy and looked good on a college application. She has chosen a college, this college, because it has the right balance of academic rigor and social outlets. She plans to pledge a sorority partly because she admires the pseudo-Victorian style of the houses on Greek Row that run alongside the piddling stream cutting through our campus.
“After her parents drop her off and buy her some dorm room necessities, she says her tearful good-byes and then is on her own for the first time in her life. It doesn’t take her long to adjust to campus life, and she quickly befriends the girls in her pledge class.
“One night she finds herself at the brother-fraternity of the sorority she is pledging. There is a tradition. She is sent to one of the senior brother’s room. She is told to do whatever he asks. She is drunk, and on her way up the narrow wooden stairwell she plays out in her head the things she is and is not willing to do. She is willing to do more than the average girl since she is both drunk and pledging, but she does, she tells herself, have limits. As she gains the top of the steps, however, the clear line she has drawn in her mind wavers. She enters the room.
“Three minutes later she returns downstairs. We are left to wonder what happened there.
“Later that night, after still more drinking, she wants to go back to her dorm room and sleep. She tells this to a fellow pledge who lives in the same building. This girl does not want to leave the party however, and so our girl sets out on her own. Her dorm is not even a half-mile across the well-lit campus.
“On her walk she crosses the small bridge that swoops up and over the tiny stream separating Greek Row from the body of campus. A young man approaches. How young we do not know. He is average height and build and his face is shadowed from the lampposts along the walkway by his ball cap. He begins to walk with her, making polite conversation.
“When they come to an area of the path that is shadowed, he pauses and she pauses too. They do not hear any voices from late-night revelers floating across the manicured lawns. This suggests they are alone. Not necessarily in this order, he bludgeons, rapes, kills, transports, and then buries her body in a shallow grave.”
The professor set down the flyer on the table in front of him and paused as a few students finished jotting notes from this lecture. He reminded them of the reading due for next class and dismissed them. The students filed out of the room, through the building’s heavy double doors, down the stone steps and stood on the lawn to shield their faces against the burning sun. Or was it the glare off the taut white top of the tent in the center of campus that they were protecting their eyes from?
Born in New England, Dani Rado bounced around the country until she settled in Colorado, where she currently divides her time unevenly between work, the outdoors, and writing. Her stories have appeared in Mochila Review, 5th Wednesday, Floodwall, Bloom, Clackamas Review, Unstuck, and Liar’s League NYC, among others. She’s been awarded an artist’s residency at the Prairie Center for the Arts and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. She was a professional student for as long as she could manage, but is now a Professor of English at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, where she teaches writing and literature. She currently lives in that city with her fiancée and their four accidental cats.
Image: Flickr / Hernán Piñera