BY: MARY JANE BRYAN
A thirteen-year-old solves the twenty-year old mystery of why six eleven-year-old children have gone missing, one every three years from this small Arkansas town and finds the father she never knew
Emily and Sheri
Emily and her mom had only moved to this small town three days ago but Emily was ready to go exploring.
She had walked several blocks from the house yesterday and met a new friend who was willing to go with her.
Emily spread mustard on bread while her mother did the breakfast dishes. She always took a sandwich and bottle of water on her trips.
“So, since you were born here and lived here through high school, where is the oldest cemetery?”
Her daughter’s question did not surprise Pamela. She had long since given up being shocked at the different ideas Emily came up with and the things thought about. Although Emily was only twelve, she had been very acquisitive and curious about things most girls her age would not think of.
Her fascination with cemeteries was just one of those things.
“Well, let’s see,” Pamela began.
She faced her daughter and leaned back against the cabinet.
“It might be a toss-up between the Baptist and the Methodist Church. They both
seemed as old as the hills, when I was a little girl, and both are still here. Both have cemeteries attached to them, going back to who knows when.”
She smiled at Emily, who smiled back.
“Take your best guess, then,” she replied.
“Oh, let’s say the Methodist, then,” Pamela answered. “You’ll be careful, of course. Rules of engagement still apply, even in a small town like this.”
Emily raised her eyebrows, teasing her mother.
Their “rules of engagement” were the usual ones for any child – don’t talk to strangers, don’t let them approach, and so forth.
“Of course. You know me,” she reassured her mother.
What she didn’t tell her mother was that while she walked just the few blocks away from her new home yesterday she had sensed something very wrong with this town. Or in this town, whichever way she wanted to think of it. Past experiences had shown her that the best place to start was in the local cemeteries. Names, dates, and anything unusual on the grave markers always led to further information.
“I’m stopping by to get Sheri,” she said.
“Your new friend. Good. But does she know where she’s going?”
“No, but she’ll find out.”
“Now, Emily, you know not to try to make her go into the cemetery if she doesn’t want to. You know how many adults avoid graveyards, much less children.”
“I know, but she seemed a good sort and ready to go with me around the town.”
“Well, okay, you’ll know what’s best. I know I can trust you. I just don’t want to hear a complaint about you from some parent just a few days after moving here. We have to live here now, you know.”
“You won’t,” Emily nodded.
There had been some complaints in the past. Emily was very persuasive sometimes which had led to others following her, when they really didn’t want to, and then complaining to their parents who in turn had called Pamela. It wasn’t always pleasant.
Their major complaint had always been that Emily was such a precocious child.
Emily picked up her new friend who had also packed a lunch. Sheri chatted away until they stopped, then she looked around. They had stopped in front of the entrance to the cemetery beside the old First Methodist Church. She had not paid any attention to the turns they had made on the streets.
“Why are we stopping here?” she asked, looking around.
The old church was at the end of a street with the cemetery even further. There was nothing across the street from it. The nearest home was “kitty-corned” across the street and was the old parsonage for the church. No one lived there now, however. They turned it into the youth building. The congregation was so small these days that a part-time pastor came from Fort Smith. He preached on Sunday mornings and stayed in the youth building all day Sunday. A couple of the rooms had been furnished as an apartment where he and his family could rest if nothing was planned for the church. After the evening services, they drove back to Fort Smith.
So now, the girls were by themselves at the end of this street.
In this quiet little town that made them seem very alone indeed.
Emily had long since stopped being afraid when she was by herself. It simply meant no one else was with you. It was not scary at all.
At least not to her.
She looked at her new friend.
“This is it. Haven’t you ever explored a cemetery? It’s so exciting looking at the grave markers, seeing the names and the years on them, don’t you think? Which part is the oldest part, or do you know?”
Emily was not going to give her new friend a chance to admit to being scared. She had taken the dominant role in their relationship yesterday and she was not going to give that up now.
“Actually, I do know that,” Sheri replied.
By possessing that knowledge and being able to pass it on to Emily, Sheri gave up her small fear of being here.
She pointed to a far corner of the small cemetery and across the back. That made sense. But Emily allowed Sheri to show her, giving Sheri a sense of importance.
Emily made friends easily and kept them by making them feel special. She genuinely liked most people. It was just some parents, at times, that worried about her.
This cemetery was a typical small one in this part of the country. They stood under the gate that stretched above them across the entrance, with the name of the cemetery in wrought iron. Usually it was the name of the church and this was no exception.
A dirt lane wide enough for only one vehicle went straight down the center of the cemetery in front of them. About halfway down on each side, lanes went to either side of the cemetery, then down the outside and around the back, meeting again in the middle.
This formation allowed for one-way funeral possessions. No one was ever in a hurry so waiting for the car in front to move was no problem.
Emily glanced to their right and left, toward the “new” sections of the cemetery. It did not look as if it had been used for quite a while. Perhaps all the grave sites had been used. Usually, though, there was the odd family plot that still had a site or two left and someone in the family remembered and used it. It beat buying a new plot at modern prices.
They started down the middle lane. Emily took the left side of the oldest section and Sheri went toward the right side. They were to look for any epitaphs, unusual names or unusual dates or anything that just caught their eye.
After a while, Emily called to Sheri and they took a break under a large tree that provided adequate shade from the mid-morning sun. They drank some water as they compared notes.
Just birth and death dates, back to the middle 1800s, was all Sheri seemed to find interesting, along with some older names like “Tobias,” “Malachi,” or “Zachariah.” Emily assured her that some of those were just typical “Biblical” names that boys were given back then.
“I ran across something I think is strange,” Emily began.
Sheri put down her water and gave Emily her full attention. She was enjoying this time with her new friend. She had never thought of the cemetery as being this interesting.
“Well, it seems that two little girls, both aged eleven, evidently died around the same time of the year, but different years, of course.”
Sheri shrugged her shoulders.
“And that’s unusual because of what? If it’s very far back, kids died of things they would not today. Sudden attacks of appendicitis were even causes of death. They just couldn’t get a doctor to come out quickly enough or get the child to Fort Smith fast enough.”
She knew this because of her mother. She had heard the family speak of a cousin who had died in the late 1930s because of that problem. He was the first-born in the family, a boy, and the aunt never seemed to recover from it. They had three girls after that but the husband mourned the loss of the boy.
“It wasn’t the date so much as what it said on the marker. Both markers have the girls’ names, then date of birth, and then simply “Missing” and a date. They did not say “died” and the date like most do. That just strikes me as being strange.”
Sheri frowned. She looked out over the part of the cemetery where she had been before.
“You know, there was one on my side. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. It wasn’t all that long ago and I didn’t pay attention to the writing that much.”
Emily was already getting up.
“Let’s go see what yours says.”
It took Sheri a few minutes to locate the grave.
Sure enough, the same word was on this one – “Missing” – not “died” and a date. The girl had been eleven years old when she went missing.
Emily bent down to read the wording on the gravestone. She needed to get closer so she reached out to put her hand on the gravestone to steady herself.
Instantly, she was transported to another place, and another time.
She was standing in a living room of a house. She was facing an old black-and-white television set, one she recognized from watching old I Love Lucy reruns on Nickelodeon.
She looked past the living room to a dining area and saw one of the retro dining sets with the metal legs on all the chairs and on the table. She knew it was retro because her grandma had one and she had never seen one until they moved in with her a few days ago.
The only difference between this one and her grand-ma’s was that this one had green vinyl on the backs and seats of the chairs, and green Formica on the top of the table, and her grandma had yellow vinyl. Otherwise, the style was the same.
Emily saw a woman sitting in the living room watching the TV. She sat in a chair of some weird brocade pattern and the sofa matched. The fabric was almost ribbed. There were armrests on the arms of each of the chairs and across the back, a matching set of all. They were crocheted.
As Emily watched, a little girl about her age came into the living room…
…neither one could see her…
…it started the day Little Annie Mercer disappeared.
Little Annie Mercer was not little at all.
Actually, she was an All-American tomboy, stocky and robust, and could put some of the boys to shame at baseball or just about anything else. Her parents named her “little” from birth, when she was named Annie after her mother. To distinguish between them, she became “Little Annie” while her mother was “Big Annie.” Like all nicknames, it had stuck through the years.
Little Annie played shortstop on the local boy’s baseball team, a position not readily sought after by girls of the day. Not only did most girls prefer to simply look pretty on the sidelines, most young men preferred them there.
But Little Annie was different. She had grown up as “one of the boys” and it seemed natural for her to be on the team.
“Mom?” asked Little Annie, from the doorway.
“Yes, dear?” Big Annie answered, absentmindedly. She had knelt down in front of the TV set, adjusting the knobs. Her favorite soap opera was coming on in a few minutes, and she couldn’t wait to see what the characters would do next. She had quickly become an ardent fan of several shortly after “As the World Turns” began airing.
Little Annie knew better than to disturb her mother while her favorite show was on.
“Some of the guys are meeting down at the field for a little ball practice.”
Big Annie glanced up, noting her daughter standing there, already dressed in her usual practice clothes, complete with cap. Little Annie held her ball glove in one hand and a bat in the other.
Emily could tell that neither the girl nor her mom could see her.
So, when Annie told her mother she was on her way to ball practice, Big Annie merely nodded and told her to have a good time. Big Annie’s soap opera was about to begin. Her concern was directed to her new TV program and not to Annie.
But, then, there was nothing unusual about Annie heading out for ball practice. The field was only four blocks away. In fact, it was a normal day in the life of this sleepy little Arkansas town.
Only Annie never made it.
“Sure, run along, dear. Have a good time, okay?” Big Annie smiled. She loved her daughter, her only child, and had long since given up on the bows and frills. If being a “tomboy” was natural for Annie, then she let her be one.
“Thanks, Mom, see you later. Enjoy your show.”
“Thanks,” was the reply. She did not turn around for a final look at her daughter.
Little Annie left the house humming the tune to “The Mickey Mouse Club.” As she reached the street, she was singing M – I – C – K – E – Y M-0-U-S-E out loud. Little Annie was a happy girl, content in her world of baseball, watching The Mickey Mouse Club, where Annette was her favorite, and secure in the love of her parents.
Some force beyond herself compelled Emily to go with this girl, almost step for step, a few feet behind. She couldn’t understand what was happening, but had no power to stop herself. She had to be with this girl.
She was not conscious of taking each step, of putting down one foot in front of the other, she just seemed to move along with the girl.
Little Annie’s house was in the middle of the block on Oak Street. At the corner of Oak and Elm, she turned left on Elm. Elm Street was on the edge of town. It circled the town and was the quickest way to the town’s one and only baseball field. Also, using Elm meant you’d miss the Black’s old mean dog, Buster, who lived further down on Oak. He’d never actually bitten anyone, but no one got close enough to test him.
All in all, it was a beautiful, perfect summer day.
As Little Annie continued down and slightly curved around on Elm, she started feeling funny. “Funny” was the first word that came to her mind. And she didn’t mean “ha-ha” funny, but “strange” funny. She felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up with the feeling that someone was watching her.
She stopped. She turned first one way and then the other, looking for someone, anyone that might be near.
Emily stopped when she did. She watched the girl look around, wondering what she was looking for.
Little Annie did not see anyone in the direction of Spenser’s Lane when she looked that way, but as she turned back toward town, she was grabbed from behind.
Emily gasped and put her hand to her mouth.
Although Little Annie was strong for her age, she was no match for the strength that held her. A large hand on her mouth prevented her from screaming and a large arm around her body, holding her arms to her sides, made struggling impossible.
Little Annie dropped her glove and bat.
The terror Little Annie felt made her faint.
Emily wanted to run to her, try to take her out of the long…elongated…arm and huge hand that grabbed Little Annie and rescue her but she could not move.
She could only watch.
Little Annie was not aware of being lifted off the ground. She stirred once as she was being carried along and her eyes fluttered open. For one fleeting second her mind became aware of where she was and she panicked.
Emily could only watch as the little girl struggled against the arm that held her without being able to free herself.
As she watched, she saw one of the girl’s shoes fall off. Then the little girl in the big arm and huge hand disappeared through the tall grass out of sight.
As she disappeared around the corner, Little Annie cried, “Spenser’s Lane! I’m on Spenser’s Lane!”
A bumblebee buzzed around her head and she tried to raise her right hand to swat it away, struggling as she did so. The one and only thing Little Annie was afraid of was a big, fat yellow-and-black striped bumblebee. She was unaware she knocked off her baseball cap. She lost consciousness again.
Then, for a split second, she again became aware of her surroundings and a horrible odor that made her gag. Her eyes opened wide. She had only seen this place once before, when a large group of adults and children had walked this way to swim at Number Six.
The children had all groaned and squealed, while the adults tried to calm them. There was nothing to be afraid of, they told the children. It was just an old abandoned house, like others, that occasionally dotted the country-side. Anyway, the adults had taken the children’s hands and hurried past the place.
No, I can’t be here, she thought, before, once again, she struggled feebly to free herself from her captive.
She did not feel her neck snap to end her struggles.
As she was lifted through the house, her barrette fell out of her hair. It was her favorite blue barrette that she always wore to ball practice or ball games to keep her bangs off her forehead. The barrette hit the hard floor with a slight “clink” sound. It stayed where it landed.
Little Annie had no more thoughts.
And although it started that day, no one knew it start-ed…
As soon as she felt the “zap,” like an electrical jolt, Emily quickly snatched her hand off the gravestone. She gasped. She sat back, totally stunned. Her heart was racing. She felt out of breath, as if she had just run a race, and won.
What just happened? she thought.
Although it had seemed as if it took them ten or fifteen minutes to walk from Little Annie’s house to where she was grabbed, in real time it had only been a few seconds, if even that.
Sheri heard the sound. She saw Emily sitting back on her heels.
“Are you okay?” she asked. She started toward Emily.
There was no way Emily was going to tell Sheri what just happened, before she even had time to think about it herself.
“I think I might have gotten too much sun,” she replied, so Sheri would not worry.
“Oh, then let’s knock off here and walk over to the store and get a Coke. I have just enough for a Coke. We can eat our sandwiches with it. Do you have any money?”
“Yes, I do, and that’s a great idea. Did you find anything interesting?”
“Yes, another gravestone with a little girl that went missing at the same age as Little Annie, almost to this day, but three years later. Is this the something unusual you hoped to find?” Sheri asked.
“Yes, I think it is. What it means I don’t know and maybe it doesn’t mean anything. It might just be the way that particular stonecutter worded his markers. It probably is that simple.”
Emily already knew better. She felt this was a part of what she felt a few minutes ago, but, she wasn’t about to start talking about strange things, in the town, with her new friend. She had discovered soon after her adventures had started that it was best not to involve other people in her investigations too soon.
At least, not until she wanted them on an “as-needed” basis. Then, she had no choice.
She decided to downplay it to Sheri.
“Just a coincidence, I’m sure.”
She started to turn to the unsearched part of the newer end.
“Let’s see what else is here before we have that Coke.”
Sheri was eager to do that.
Emily smiled to herself as she turned away from Sheri. That was also typical. She was sure Sheri would forget about the two girls. Most people did not want to get involved in anything they could not explain immediately.
By the time they broke for their Coke, they had found nothing else unusual.
They walked to the only grocery store in town.
An old, original metal Coca-Cola machine was still on the front porch, the kind you put your nickel in the slot and pull the glass bottle across and up out of the machine. As each held the heavy metal lid up, the other slid the bottle across. They used the metal can opener attached to the side of the machine to open the bottles.
“Let’s buy a bag of peanuts to put in the Cokes,” said Emily. “Mom says that’s the way they used to do it when she was a little girl, but I’ve never tried it.”
“I don’t have enough money for a bag of peanuts, but I’ve never tried that, anyway, answered Sheri.
“That’s okay, I have just enough for both of us,” replied Emily.
They bought the peanuts and put them in the bottles. The Coke fizzed, as her mother told her it would. They both agreed they had discovered something really good. With each drink, a peanut or two seemed to get in their mouths, which they ate. The salt on the peanuts seemed to change the taste of the Coke just enough to be different.
They had just finished the remaining peanuts in the bottom of their bottles, when they heard a loud bell ringing.
Emily looked questioningly at Sheri. This was her town, she should know what that was.
“My mom,” said Sheri, grinning. “She knows that bell can be heard anywhere in town. It tells me, and everyone else in town also, I guess, that it’s time for me to come home, usually to eat. This time it’s lunch.”
The girls put their bottles in the wooden crate stacked up beside the machine, with other empties below it, and headed to Sheri’s house.
On the way, Sheri told Emily that she would not be back until Sunday afternoon. They were going to visit with her grandmother in the next county until then.
This was Saturday.
Emily was happy to have found a friend in her new town so quickly, but also glad now to have some free time.
She had to decide what her vision had meant and whether she wanted to touch the other gravestone, or not. Although she was super curious, she was also afraid.
This was the first time she had felt afraid.
She wondered what it meant.