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"In the Forest" by Andrea Rich

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Vinnie Hansen

The Disappearance

      “Hardship builds character,” Virginia’s mom said. “That’s why God made January and snow.”
      “Couldn’t He have done it simpler and just given us character at the start?” Virginia hurled another overshoe from the blue chest behind the table. On special occasions when her mother put the leaves in the table and they ate together as a family, she and Bud and her little brother Hans sat on the chest. The family called it The Blue Thing We Sit On.
      Her mom didn’t answer. Virginia fished up two more huge galoshes, the black rubber brittle, the clasps rusty. “None of these match.”
      “Plastic bags then,” her mom said.
      The idea was mortifying, but it was picture day at school and Virginia was intent on wearing her patent leather shoes.
      “I wish we had some galoshes that fit me.” Virginia hoisted herself onto The Blue Thing We Sit On.
      Her mom slid two loaves of homemade bread from the bags that swaddled them. “Be careful what you wish for. It could come true.” She hitched the bags around Virginia’s patent-leather shoes and fastened them around her tights with heavy rubber bands.
      “Then I really wish I had new galoshes.”

****

      Virginia post holed through the snowdrifts. With every step, the bags slid to her ankles. Each time she pulled them up, a rime of snow fell to the top of her Mary Janes, catching on the straps and sifting into her shoes. By the time she reached Highway 14, wetness burned her feet.
      A tan station wagon with wood paneling headed her way and she wanted to evaporate. The embarrassment would be even worse if Mrs. Piroutek stopped to offer a ride and Jeff saw the Super Value bags around her shoes. So Virginia flopped backward into the snowdrift in the draw.
      The car trundled by containing Mrs. Piroutek, the older twins, their friends (which explained why they were on Highway 14), and Jeff, with the curly dark hair she loved. Jeff liked her, too. When they were in first grade, his mom had driven him to Virginia’s house and Jeff had dashed up the steps to set a May basket at the door. Virginia had hesitated at the porch, astonished that she could be receiving this lacy white plastic basket filled with candies. Jeff escaped without a kiss. She’d been too dazed to chase him to the car.
      Then Holly Peterson wedged between them. Blonde with blue button eyes, Holly Peterson looked like a doll and was the tiniest person in third grade. She was so tiny her parents held her back a year hoping she’d fit in better.
      Now, since Virginia was lying in the drift, she flapped her arms to make a snow angel. When she rose, the perfect image glittered in the sun, blinding her.
      The angel shimmered and seemed to speak. “I’ve come to grant you three wishes.”
      Virginia’s heart leapt. “What?” She knew it couldn’t really talk.
      “You heard me.” The sparkling crystals twinkled at her. “Three wishes.”
      Virginia kicked loose snow onto the form, but the plastic bags slid around so that she delivered only a puny dusting. She stamped on a wing to get rid of what was in her heart.
      “Ouch!” Virginia made the angel cry out.
      “For that, I’m counting the two wishes you made this morning.”
      “What?” Virginia said.
      “Look, between you and the sun, I’ll be gone in a jiffy. If I were you, I’d hurry it up with the wish.”
      “Okay, already. I wish Holly Peterson would disappear.”


****

       “Does anyone know where Holly is?” Mrs. Clark asked.
      The students dumbly stared at the empty wooden desk.  It was a reasonable question. In Philip, South Dakota, everyone knew everyone’s business. The room remained silent. No one missed picture day.
      After recess, Mrs. Clark’s calm face arranged itself into a mask, as though she’d spent the fifteen minutes in a freezer. She announced to the class that Holly was missing and that school was dismissed for the day! Picture day was cancelled.
      Kids grabbed their parkas and mufflers from the wall pegs and scrammed, a couple of the boys cheering. Students pooled before the exterior doors to find their overshoes in the pile on the metal mud scrapers.
      “She’s such a midget, she probably fell in a drift and disappeared.” Bobby Thorvaldsen smirked. He’d been one of the boys cheering to be out of school. He scratched at his plastered down brown hair, returning it to its natural state.
      Jeff was pushed up behind Virginia. “Talk about disappearing.” He was shorter than Virginia and his breath landed on her neck. “We saw you this morning, and then—POOF!”
      “I was making a snow angel.”
      “Oh.” He glanced around the almost empty mudroom. “Where are your overshoes?”
      She shook her head.
      “Me neither.” Jeff looked even cuter than usual in his pressed white shirt and red bowtie.
      They exited together into a swarm of kids buzzing with talk of kidnapping and murder.
      “Do you think she’s dead?” Virginia gulped. She felt a flash of anger that God might have misunderstood her. Or, had he?
      “Nah,” Jeff said. “Her brain’s so teeny she probably got lost.”
      Virginia worked not to laugh. Lost, in Philip. That was funny.
      “Bye.” Jeff headed off toward downtown.
      Virginia walked in the opposite direction. After she passed the playground, Virginia stopped to pull the plastic bags from her coat pocket and to fix them over her shoes. Three of her brothers rushed by.
      “We’re gonna join the hunt,” Bud announced.
      “What?”
      “The hunt for Holly, dummy. Didn’t you see the shurf cars? The whole town’s gone crazy. Everyone’s looking for her.”
      When Virginia reached Highway 14, she flopped into the ditch, swished her arms, and said furiously to the new angel, “I didn’t wish her dead--just disappeared. For a little while.”
      At home, both her mom and dad waited in the living room with her brothers.
      “Get in the car,” her dad told the boys. “We’re going to search down by Bad River. They found a green scarf.”
      Virginia concentrated, but couldn’t remember Holly ever having a green scarf.  Plus, it was picture day. She’d be wearing her blue sweater vest and her new blue plaid skirt from Sears & Roebuck. The scarf had to be a false alarm. Holly wouldn’t be caught dead today with a green scarf.
      Dead. The word made Virginia’s stomach flip.
      Virginia’s mom plopped two shoeboxes on the table. “These are for you.”
      Virginia lifted the lid of the smaller box. Inside nestled a pair of shiny red overshoes meant for a girl. She couldn’t swallow.
      “Well, put ‘em on. We’re going to search the cemetery.”
      “Why would Holly be there?”
      “Kids do crazy things.”
      Shaking, Virginia pried open the second box. This was an unbelievable extravagance.
      “Two pair for the price of one,” her mom explained. “You’ll grow into those. Least we hope so.”


****

      The sheriff located Holly trudging miserably along Highway 14 almost seven miles from town. Holly had thought she was getting a ride to school with the neighbors, but when she arrived at their house, they had already left. Her mom had gone off to join her dad at their gas station. She started to walk to school when a guy in a blue car pulled over and offered her a ride. She didn’t know him, so she wouldn’t have accepted, but his wife was with him. Plus, she didn’t want to ruin her outfit for picture day. The woman scooted over on the front seat to make room for Holly.
      The man driver looked older than her parents—older than Mrs. Clark. He turned on Main Street, heading toward the west side of town. “There’s a faster route,” Holly said.
      The man and woman glanced at each other.
      “Route?” the woman said, but not to her.
      At that point, the man turned the wrong direction on Highway 14 and sped toward Cottonwood. Holly considered jumping out, but she was sure if she did, she would die. She punched the woman in the face and knocked her glasses off. The woman squished her in a bear hug and said, “Now you behave yourself.”
      Driving with one hand, the man unzipped his pants, extracted his wiener and let it curl in his lap.
      “So?” Holly fought to keep the quiver from her voice. “I’ve seen the dong of a black Angus bull.” The bull’s dong had been amazing, red and meaty, lowering down and down, until it was swinging, lapping the earth.
      “How old are you?” The woman’s wrinkled forehead pressed near. She squinted right into her face.
      “Almost ten.”
      “You’re not six?” the woman puffed in a cheesy breath.
      The car swerved onto a gravel section road. Holly thought maybe the man would kill her for not being impressed. He drove too fast, the back of the car fishtailing. After a couple of miles, he slammed on the brakes nearly putting them into a spin. The woman reached across Holly, opened the door, and pushed her out onto crusty glare ice. As soon as the woman slammed shut the door, the car made a U turn, skidding a bit, and zoomed off.
      “Like a bat out of hell,” Holly boasted to the sheriff, as though she had scared them away.
      Because of her experience, neither the sheriff, nor her parents, nor the reporter from the Pioneer Review admonished her for swearing. The next day at school, students swarmed around her, hungry for details. Bobby Thorvaldsen claimed he had seen the blue car cruising around downtown.
      “You did not.” Jeff pushed through the throng to stand by Holly’s side.
      She latched on to his hand.
      On the outside of the circle, Virginia melted away. She trudged into the school building and slouched, alone in the classroom. Her heart felt like an empty overshoe.
      She rested her head down into her folded arms. Her wishes had evaporated into stupidity. She’d only made Holly more popular.
      Raising her head, she shuddered a sigh. New overshoes were nice, but what she had really wanted was to have a great picture day—and Jeff. Both had disappeared. Still, she was relieved that God had not made Holly disappear forever. Pain knotted hard under her heart. Instead He’d obviously decided to build her some character.

Vinnie Hansen’s seventh Carol Sabala mystery, Black Beans & Venom from misterio press, will launch at a Bookshop Santa Cruz reading on January 8, 2015. Black Beans & Venom was a finalist for the Claymore Award. Please watch for Vinnie's short story "Novel Solution" to appear in Fish or Cut Bait, a mystery anthology from Wildside Press in May. For more information, visit Vinnie on Facebook, Goodreads, and www.vinniehansen.com.

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