The Missing Place
Colleen Mitchell's world had been reduced to the two folded sheets of paper she clutched tightly in her left hand. She'd been holding them since leaving Sudbury at four thirty that morning, even when she went through security at Logan, even during the layover in Minneapolis, where she paced numbly up and down the terminal. The paper was slightly damp now and softened from too much handling.
Nobody wrote real letters anymore. Especially not kids. All through middle school, Colleen had forced Paul to write thank-you notes by hand every birthday and Christmas; the monogrammed stationery was still around somewhere, up in the dusty shelves of his closet. Once high school started, they had bigger battles to fight, and she gave up on the notes.
When was the last time she'd even seen her son's blocky, leaning handwriting? There must be papers—class notes, tests—in the boxes he'd brought back from Syracuse, but Colleen hadn't had the heart to open any of them, and they too were stacked in the closet. Nowadays Paul texted, that was all, and in Colleen's hand was a printout of all the texts from him. God bless Vicki—she'd figured out how to print them in neat columns so they fit on two double-sided pages and had emailed Colleen the file too, "just in case."
Colleen had read them a hundred times. They went back four months, to last September. All the communications from her son since he left—and they fit on two pages. One more indictment of her parenting, of what she'd done wrong or too much or not enough.
September 27, 2010, 2:05 p.m.
Got it thx
That was the oldest one. Colleen couldn't remember what Paul had been thanking her for. Probably one of her care packages—she sent them all throughout last autumn, boxes packed with homemade brownies and Sky Bars and paperback books she knew he'd never read. But when Paul came home for Thanksgiving (well, the week after Thanksgiving, but she and Andy and Andy's brother Rob and Rob's girlfriend had delayed the whole turkey-and-pie production until Paul could be there; Andy had even taped the games and waited to watch them with him), he made it clear that the packages embarrassed him.
Next was a series of texts from her:
October 28, 2010, 9:16 a.m.
Hi sweetie dad has enough frequent flyer miles for u to come home when youre off
October 29, 2010, 7:44 a.m.
When are you off again?
October 30, 2010, 11:50 p.m.
Wish u were here for hween the flannigans have the pumpkin lights in the trees
Like he was eleven, for God's sake, and off at sleepaway camp, instead of twenty, a man.
A small sob escaped Colleen's throat, an expulsion of the panic that she'd mostly got under control. She covered the sound with a cough. In her carry-on was half a bottle of Paxil, which Dr. Garrity had given her over a year ago before they settled on a regimen of red clover extract and the occasional Ambien to treat what was, he assured her, a perfectly normal transition into menopause. She hadn't liked the Paxil; it made her feel dizzy and sometimes sweaty, but she'd packed the bottle yesterday along with her own sleeping pills and Andy's too. She hadn't told him, and she felt a little guilty about that, but he'd be able to get a refill tomorrow. She'd leave a message with the doctor's answering service when they landed, and then all he'd have to do was pick it up.
Colleen refolded the papers and rested her forehead against the airplane window, looking out into the night. The plane had begun its descent. The flight attendant had made her announcement—they'd be on the ground a few minutes before ten, the temperature was one degree, winds at something. One degree was cold. But Boston got cold too, and it didn't bother Colleen the way it did some people.
Far below, rural North Dakota was lit up by the moon, a vast rolling plain of silvery snow interrupted here and there by rocky swaths where the land rose up in ridges. Colleen tried to remember if she'd ever been to either Dakota. She couldn't even remember the names of the capitals—Pierre? Was that one of them?
A flare of orange caught her eye, a rippling brightness surrounded by a yawning black hole in the snow. And there. And there! Half a dozen of them dotting the bleak landscape, blazes so bright they looked unnatural, the Day-Glo of a traffic cone. Colleen's first thought was forest fire, but there were no trees, and then she thought of the burning piles of trash she saw sometimes in Mattapan or Dorchester. But people didn't burn trash at night, and besides, there were no houses, no town, just—
And then she saw it, the tall burred spire like an old-time radio tower, and she knew, even as they flew past, that she had seen her first rig. The plane was still too far up for her to make out any details except that it looked so small, so flimsy, almost like a child's toy—a Playmobil oil rig play set with little plastic roughnecks.
The plane tipped down, the engine shifted, and so did the men, the tired-looking, ill-shaven lot of them who'd boarded with her in Minneapolis. They turned off their iPads and crumpled their paper coffee cups and cleared the sleep from their throats.
Colleen closed her eyes, the image of the rig imprinted in her mind, and as they approached Lawton, she thought, Give him back, you have to give him back to me.
Lawton's airport seemed to be composed of several trailers welded together and sided in cheap plywood, plunked down in a large frozen parking lot. Colleen filed past the flight attendant, wondering if she imagined the look of pity in the woman's eyes, and down the metal stairs. The cold hit her hard, nostrils and lungs and ears instantly brittle with the ache of it, and she shoved up the hood of her down coat. Once she reached the ground, the men shuffled away from her so she was at the front of the group waiting for baggage. They stood there quietly, patiently, their bare hands hanging at their sides; none of them wore gloves. She'd noticed their hands in the airport: weathered and raw and red. Maybe they no longer felt the cold.
There it was, her roll-aboard with the hot pink luggage tag she bought for their anniversary trip to Italy last year. Colleen lifted it from the cart and headed toward the building. Sharp crystals of icy snow stung her face, a drift from the roof or perhaps blown up from the ground by the wind. Her boots echoed on the ramp, and then she was inside, surrounded by warmth and a vaguely chemical smell.
The ticket counter—only one—was shuttered and dark. Same with the rental car counter. The entire operation was smaller than her family room. A man in a reflective vest was doing something at the front doors, kneeling near the bottom hinges. Outside, she could see the parking lot, half the vehicles heaped with snow. Beyond were the lights of town; a tall truck stop sign down the road advertised showers along with the price of gas.
"Excuse me," Colleen said to the kneeling man. He stood with some difficulty, as though his knees bothered him, wiping his hand on his pants.
"Ma'am." There was a faint tinge of the South in his voice, which caught her off guard even though it was one of the first things Paul had told them about the place: everyone was from places like Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia.
"I need to call a cab. Can you recommend one? A company?"
He looked puzzled. In his hand was the sort of knife Paul had carried ever since he started Boy Scouts: not so much a pocketknife as a collection of little tools on a central axis. "Well, now, where are you headed?"
Colleen shrugged, impatient. "A hotel. I need to go to a hotel."
"I—I'm not sure." She had been planning to save this discussion for the cabbie, but this man—who seemed kind enough—would do. "I don't have a room. I know they're booked up, but I was just hoping that—I have a lot of hotel points. A lot. And money isn't a concern."
"Hotels be full up, ma'am. All of 'em."
"Well, I know that. I did call, but my thinking was that there might be a cancellation, at the last minute, someone who didn't show up, I thought they might release the room now that it's . . . now that it's getting late." There was always a room to be had somewhere, she didn't add; the expensive rooms—the suites—often went begging, and she was willing to pay.
But as the man continued to regard her with polite consternation, Colleen had to admit what she'd been putting off thinking about: maybe there really were no rooms to be had. That was the issue with the private detective she'd tried to hire—he'd searched for a hotel room and said the only one he could find was more than two hours outside Lawton. He had managed to book a room for a week from now, and Colleen told him to go ahead and keep the reservation and if—God, she could barely stand to think it—if Paul hadn't been found by then, the detective would have a room waiting for him when he came out to North Dakota.
Andy thought they should give it a few more days. He'd actually used the term "vision quest," at one point and reminded Colleen that he'd gone off on his own the summer after his freshman year and not bothered to tell anyone where he was going. Andy had spent the better part of a month in Yellowstone with his guitar and a single change of clothes, come back with a beard and a case of crabs, and—the way he told the story, anyway—his parents had barely registered his absence.
But that was different. It was before cell phones, and Andy had been the artistic type, at least to hear him tell it, and Paul definitely was not. And Andy had something to get away from—his parents were in the middle of a messy divorce and his mom had developed a pill habit—while Paul insisted he loved working on the rigs, so why would he cut and run? It didn't add up, and every day that they delayed, they risked his trail growing colder.
Once Colleen made up her mind, she moved fast. She'd spent most of yesterday getting the flights lined up and finding someone to cover for her at the school. When Andy got home from work he'd watched her finish the laundry and pack, drinking a beer out of the bottle and saying little. He didn't try to talk her out of going, but he didn't volunteer to take her to the airport, either. When the car service came for her early this morning, he was still asleep.
"There hasn't been a room around here in months. Every one of them full up, some with whole families."
Colleen blinked and took a deep breath. Andy had asked her the same thing—what would she do if she couldn't find a room?—and she'd told him not to be ridiculous, worst case she'd sleep in the airport and find a room first thing in the morning, never believing for a second she'd actually have to do it. But it was obvious she wouldn't be sleeping here: the other passengers had exited the building while she stood there talking, clomping out into the cold in their heavy boots. In the parking lot, trucks were coming to life, their headlights illuminating the mounded dirty snow and exhaust clouding from their tailpipes as their owners chipped ice from the windows.
"Still, I can try." She forced a smile. "I'll have the cab driver take me around, and if there really isn't anything, I'll have him take me to an all-night restaurant."
"Well . . ." The man tugged at his collar, clearly wanting to say more. "Call Silver Cab, then, I'll wait until he comes. Shouldn't take him too long. It's just seven-oh-one-five-S-I-L-V-E-R. But you best tell him . . . you know."
Impatience flashed through Colleen. "Why? The longer he has to drive me around, the more I'll end up paying."
"It's just, the Buttercup, that's the only restaurant that stays open all night besides the truck stops, they won't let nobody stay in a booth all night no more. Not since folks started trying to sleep in them. They cracked down."
"Well, I—" Colleen wanted to protest that she wouldn't be like them, those other people, trying to sponge off the restaurant. She was only even considering it out of desperation. She'd leave a very large tip, payment for the time she spent there, the pot of coffee, the restroom, all of it. "I won't sleep, then."
She tapped the number into the phone and waited, forcing a smile, staring at the man's shirt. The vest gapped open, and Colleen saw that above the pocket was stitched the name Dave.
The phone rang and rang. After six or seven rings, Colleen gave up and lifted her gaze to Dave's face. His expression had gone from concerned to something more like dread. She supposed he thought he was going to get stuck with her.
"Didn't answer, huh?" Dave didn't wait for her to respond. "They get busy. Him and the other outfit, Five Star. Doing runs from the bars, see. They'll be pretty busy from now until after closing time. Which is one a.m.," he added.
"I understand, but—" The feeling of panic that had been simmering inside Colleen threatened to burst into full bloom. "I wonder. Is there any way—I mean I would pay you, of course, and I'll wait for you to finish here, but could you just give me a lift to that restaurant? The one you were telling me was open all night? I'll wait there until the cabs are available."
The building was eerily quiet save the buzz of some fluorescent fixture. A moment passed, Colleen's fingers tight around the handle of her suitcase.
"I'll be glad to take you," Dave finally said, sounding anything but, "but do you mind me asking what you're doing here? In Lawton?"
Colleen had prepared an answer to that question, but she'd hoped she wouldn't need it until later, after she'd settled in. In the morning, when she came back to rent a car, they would ask her where she was taking it. She had planned to say she was visiting relatives, but now it seemed painfully clear that she could never have relatives in a place like this. Who would live in a place where the nearest civilization was two hours away, where there were only two flights in and out per day?
"I came . . ." she said, and tried to come up with another story. If she invented relatives, she had a feeling Dave would insist on driving her to their house. If she made up a job, a company whose business brought her here, he would want to know why they hadn't booked her a room—and besides, what could she possibly say she did? She knew nothing about the oil industry, only what Paul had told her, and that had been precious little.
Dave waited, and the fluorescent light buzzed, and the smell of exhaust reached her. All of it harsh, all of it wrong.
"I came to find my son," she blurted. A huge sob bubbled up from inside her, taking her breath and leaving her gasping, and her eyes filled with tears.
"Hey," Dave said, alarmed. "Hey. Here." He plucked a box of tissues from the rental car counter and offered it to her. "Did your son come up here to find work?"
Colleen nodded, pulling tissues from the box and dabbing at her eyes, but she couldn't seem to stop crying. "Back in September. He got a job right away, with Hunter-Cole Energy. He stays at the Black Creek Lodge. He was just home over Christmas. And then he came back here and we didn't hear from him and that's not like him . . . last week my husband called the company and they said he hadn't come to work. No one let us know. I'm sure he would have listed us, an emergency contact at the very least, but they didn't call or anything. They didn't tell anyone. If Andy hadn't called them . . . And he hadn't been in his room at the camp, either, Andy talked to someone at the lodge, they gave away his room. Paul wouldn't do that. He wouldn't just . . . quit and not tell anyone. They said, the police said they can't do anything about it. So I'm here. I've come to find him."
A change had come over the man's face. He already knew the story, Colleen could tell; recognition mixed with concern in his eyes. Well, so at least people up here were talking about it. The cops had made it sound like boys went missing all the time, but that wasn't true, and this man Dave knew it.
She put her hand on his arm, feeling the warmth of his skin under the rough cotton of his shirt. "Do you know something? Have you heard something?"
"I heard . . . I mean, I don't know if it's the same one, if it's your son, but they say two boys went missing from the Black Creek camp a couple weeks ago. Hunter-Cole Energy boys—one was still a worm. Went by Whale and, uh, can't remember the other boy's name."
"Paul. My son is Paul." She didn't know about any other boy. The police, the men from Hunter-Cole Energy—she'd kept calling until they transferred her all the way to the company's headquarters in Texas—had never mentioned that. She didn't know what he meant by "worm" and "whale," and what did it mean that there were two of them—that had to be worse, didn't it?
"All I know is the handles they used up here. I'm sorry, I shouldn't even, I don't know if it's the same ones."
"When did these ones go missing?"
The man squinted, as though the question caused him pain. "Let's see, I heard it Thursday last. They were moving a rig out Highway Nine east of town, the boys didn't show. I got a friend on Highway Patrol, is how I know."
"It's him, then! He went missing the same day, that's the first day he didn't come back to his room."
"Well, listen. There's someone you maybe ought to see."
"You know something? Anything. Anything at all, please tell me."
The man took a deep breath and let it out, shrugging out of his vest. He folded the vest in half and began to roll it up, not meeting her eyes. "I don't know a damn thing. Wish I did. But she might, and I'll take you to her right now."
"The other mom."
© Sophie Littlefield