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   d i s a p p e a r e d    g i r l s

--- P E T E R   R O C K

Miranda had never been on such a long train ride. Not by herself, at least. Carrying a bouquet of pink and orange chrysanthemums, she stepped from the platform to the train and started down the aisle. Just ahead of her walked a man with a backpack like she had only seen little girls wear--it was made of clear plastic, so all the contents were visible.

The man was tall, which made it easy to see what he was carrying. A flashlight, and something wrapped in a brown paper bag, and a book with a brass lock across the pages, like a diary. Higher in the pack, there was a coil of rope, a pocketknife, and a small adjustable wrench; if he only had a candlestick, a lead pipe and revolver, Miranda thought, he'd have all the weapons from Clue. She had played Clue the night before, with her parents. She had been Colonel Mustard, and had solved the murder.

The floor of the train was sticky, strewn with old newspapers. Miranda chose a seat, and set her flowers gently down, next to her. She wore a wool skirt, a white blouse, her pea coat--a series of arguments lost to her mother. All Miranda was allowed to keep were her black Timberland boots; they matched her hair, dyed by her friend, Cindy, and cut as short as a boy's.

Out the window, two dirty pigeons shivered, hopping along the platform. The train began to roll. Miranda's mother, who had dropped her off at 30th Street Station, was already driving away, headed to work. Neither of her parents could make this trip, which was why they'd sent Miranda. They trusted her.

North Philadelphia slid past, crumbling buildings and windows with no glass; even the graffiti looked old. Miranda noticed, then, that the man with the transparent pack sat only two seats ahead of her. There was no one between them.

"Hey," she said, her voice just above a whisper. When he did not turn, she picked up her flowers and moved forward; she leaned until her mouth was close to his ear.

"One time," she said. "I saw a grown man wearing a backpack that looked like a teddy bear, with a zipper up its belly."

The man looked over his shoulder. His hair was pale blond, thinning on top, his blue eyes set close together. The skin of his narrow face was flushed, and very smooth, as if whiskers had never grown there.

"I found this pack," he said. "I didn't choose it."

When he spoke, she saw the braces on his teeth; he seemed a little old for braces, but it was difficult to guess his age.

"Everyone can see everything you're carrying," she said.

The man shrugged, as if he had nothing to hide. Miranda leaned closer, to see over the back of his seat, where his pack was resting.

"Is that book your diary?" she said.

He looked at her flowers and then, slowly, at every feature of her face. He paused, as if to understand them all in relation to each other.

"Do I know you?" he finally said. When she didn't answer, he turned to face forward again.

Miranda stared at the back of his neck, where dark, twisting hairs grew. Past him, in the front of the car, two black boys about her age--fifteen--sat, handing a pair of headphones back and forth, rapping with a song. The land outside looked gray and cold and dreary, dirty snow on the ground. Wissinoming, Tacony, Holmesburg Junction. The conductor called out the names. Miranda would switch trains at Trenton, then meet her grandmother at Princeton Junction, on the platform. A man from the retirement home was driving the old woman to the train station. She wore diapers, and needed a walker to get around. Miranda would bring her back to Philadelphia; tomorrow was Thanksgiving.

Now she watched a man with long sideburns who was brushing a little girl's hair. The girl was missing a tooth. Strands of her hair rose up, full of static, and the man licked his finger and smoothed them down. He and the girl got off the train at Bristol.

"Listen," said the man sitting in front of Miranda. He turned slightly; his voice was low. "It's not a diary. It's more like a journal. I write my dreams in it."

"Fine," Miranda said.

"That's why I'm on this trip," he said. "Why I'm on this train. Because of a dream I had last night."

"About this train?"

"Well, I'm not really certain." He licked his chapped lips, which looked sore, cut by his braces. His hands came up and gripped the top of his seat, and he twisted his body farther, as if he'd decided to let Miranda deeper into his confidence. "All I remember from this dream," he said. "is an address. It's a street in Hamilton--I know that, because I grew up there. I didn't have to work today, so I thought I'd ride up there, see if I remember any more."

"You don't have anything better to do?" Miranda said.

"Not really," he said. "I mean, I never know what this kind of situation might lead to. You'd be surprised."

"I'd like to see that," Miranda said, almost laughing.

"No," the man said. "I didn't mean to give you that notion. This will have to be more of a solo type of thing."

"Whatever," Miranda said.

"Trenton!" the conductor shouted. "Final stop! The New Jersey Transit to Penn Station is on this track, directly in front of us. Walk forward, please. You have five minutes to make the connection."

Everyone rushed to get off the train. The air outside was cold and greasy; the edge of the platform was covered in yellow nubs, rubberized. In the crowd, the tall people and backflung scarves and shopping bags, Miranda lost sight of the man with the transparent pack. This both frustrated and relieved her.

She walked further than most of the crowd, until the doors of the new train were about to close. The cars at the front were mostly empty; she chose one, then sat in a seat that faced backward, just as the train began to move. In less than an hour, she'd be with her grandmother, responsible for her; Princeton Junction was the second stop after Trenton. Her grandmother was probably getting ready, fixing her make-up in her room at the nursing home. She was old, but lively. Peppy, everyone said, and that wasn't always a compliment. Whatever passed through the old woman's mind came out of her mouth, as if nothing could be held inside. Miranda knew it would be a long ride back to Philadelphia, listening.

The door at the end of the car slid open, and the man with the transparent backpack stepped through. He wore a red cardigan sweater, scuffed penny loafers with waffled soles. His pants rode high, revealing socks that were the same red as his sweater. Seeing Miranda, he waved, his approach not slowing. She picked up her flowers just in the time. He sat next to her, blocking the aisle.

"Here you are," he said.

"What do you want?" Miranda watched him out of the corner of her eye. He seemed too nervous, too timid to be afraid of.

"Actually," he said. "I've changed my mind. I think you should come with me. I don't know why. It's a feeling."

Miranda thought of the stories she'd heard about disappeared girls. Girls with duct tape over their mouths, girls who left nothing but their shoes behind. She shifted and stared at the man, trying to figure if that was what he wanted, to make her disappear.

"How old are you?" she said.

"Thirty-one," he said. "My name's Edward."

"I'm not going to tell you my name," she said. "And I want you to show me where you wrote the address, in your diary, so I know you're not just making up the story to trick me."

Leaning forward and shrugging his bony shoulders, Edward pulled his left arm free of the strap, swung the pack around, and unzipped the top. A tiny key, treaded onto a rubber band, circled his left wrist; he unlocked the book, thumbed through the pages, then held it out, open, for her to read.

763 Sandalwood Avenue, the last line said. Yesterday's date was written above the address; over the date, a thick line had been drawn, as if to cut off this dream from the one before it. Squinting, Miranda tried to read what was written above this line, the record of a previous dream. Edward's fingers covered all but a few words: She screamed and screamed and screamed.

"You could have written that address in after you told me about it," Miranda said. "Before you found me on this train."

"I could have," he said. "True. Either you trust me or you don't."

"Hamilton," a voice said, through the static of a speaker.

"All right then," Miranda said, standing at the same time Edward did.

They did not pause, on the platform at Hamilton. Miranda hurried to keep up with Edward as they exited the station and crossed the icy parking lot, between the empty cars.

"You didn't think I would," she said.

"I had a feeling," he said.

"Another feeling," she said, trying to tease him, and then she had a thought. "Was I in your dream? Was that it?"

"No," he said. "Not that I know of."

They entered a neighborhood of tall houses, some fixed up and some run down. There was slush in the gutters, snow in the yards, ice in the bare branches of the trees overhead. Miranda's orange and pink flowers looked out of place. She walked behind Edward, looking at the contents of his pack.

"That thing wrapped in the paper bag," she said. "Is that a revolver?"


"Is it a gun, wrapped in there?"

"It's a sandwich," he said. "My lunch."

The middle of the street was the clearest place; not everyone had shoveled through the sidewalks.

"Do you have dreams about sex?" she said.

"Yes, I do," he said. "Sometimes."

"Can I read them?"

Edward just kicked a shard of ice ahead of him, with his right foot, then his left.

"You're trying to take me somewhere," she said.

"Yes, I am. Obviously."

"Are you trying to have sex with me?"

"I don't think so." He kicked the ice into a snowdrift; it was lost.

"But you're not sure?" she said.

"Do those boots have steel toes?" he said.

"They're waterproof," Miranda said. "Aren't you cold?"

"I guess so."

They kept walking. In the silence, there was only the sound of their footsteps, and Miranda felt the space all around her, the fact that no one knew where she was. She'd always been told that she could do anything, and had understood that to be about achievements, and graduations, and success; now she felt some of the other side of what that meant--she could do anything, and this, today, was only one example.

She hurried to catch up with Edward, eager not to miss anything. She switched the bouquet to her left hand and pulled her cold right hand into the cuff of her coat. They walked on Sloan Street, across Princeton, and onto Sandalwood. Crossing Amherst, she memorized the names so she could find her way back to the station if something happened. She wanted something to happen. They passed a park where some kids were shouting, running around a collapsed snowman. The snowballs they threw at each other came apart into powder before they went anywhere. Miranda could still hear trains at the station, and highways, not so distant.

Edward stepped sideways. Without warning, he hid behind a tree, peering around it at a red brick house.

"What?" Miranda said.

"Yes," he said. "This is the one."

"From the dream? Why are you acting like that?"

Edward stepped out from behind the tree, not taking his eyes from the house. "It's the upstairs bedroom," he said. That's where I was. That's where it happened."

"And what happened?" Miranda said. "What was there?"

"I don't know that, yet," he said.

"Come on," Miranda said. She crossed the sidewalk, not looking back. By the time she rang the doorbell, he was standing next to her.

Minutes passed before a woman opened the door. She was a black woman, old, and didn't seem happy to be bothered. A flight of stairs rose behind her, into darkness.

"He'd like to come inside your house," Miranda said. "Just the bedroom, upstairs." She pointed above her head.

"Pardon me?" The woman looked quickly from Miranda's face to Edwards's, then back again.

"I had a dream about your house," Edward said. "I grew up in this neighborhood."

"My house?" The woman's hair was streaked with gray, pulled into a bun. Darker spots marked the skin of her face, freckles under her eyes. "You're too young," she said, "to have grown up in my house. I would've been here."

"No," Miranda said. "He only dreamed about it."

"I understand that it's a very peculiar request," Edward said. "Perhaps it's too much to ask."

"I don't see exactly what it is you want," the woman said. "And I sure can't see what I get from it."

"You can have these flowers," Miranda said.

"I just want to go into the room," Edward said, "to see if that helps me remember the dream. Five minutes, is all."

"The holidays," the woman said, "is when all the scams and con games happen. They warn us old folks about it, you know. But this one, you two, I can't figure what it is. That room is completely empty."

"All the same," Edward said.

"Five minutes," Miranda said. "That's all he needs."

"And my son lives next door," the woman said. "All I'd have to do is give a shout. I'll hear by the floorboards, too, if you walk anywhere else, try to steal anything."

"So you'll let me?" Edward said.

"For the flowers." Suddenly, the woman opened the door wide enough to reach out and take them, then stepped aside, to let Edward pass. "Not you," she said, her hand on Miranda's arm. "I'd rather you stay here."

The woman's grip was strong; when she let loose, the door closed, between them. Miranda watched Edward disappear up the stairs.

"Is that your brother, then?" The woman spoke through the thick, clear plastic of the storm door.

"I don't have a brother," Miranda said.

The woman just nodded, as if this cemented a suspicion she'd been harboring about Miranda and Edward. She stood across the doorway with the bright flowers in one hand, her other resting on the lock of the door.

Miranda's toes were cold. She wondered how long five minutes could last. Closing her eyes, she thought of Edward in the room upstairs; the window was ten feet above her head. She imagined him crouching down, crawling on a wooden floor. The room was bare, and dim; the wallpaper, torn in places, was all covered wagons. Edward had to use his flashlight to see. He was bent down as if he had caught a scent and was moving by smell.

"Why aren't you at school?"

Miranda opened her eyes. "Thanksgiving," she said.

"I don't like this." The woman's words fogged the window.

"But you like the flowers all right," Miranda said. She was enjoying the feeling of the woman being suspicious of her, the uneasiness that couldn't be hidden. She leaned sideways, and could see down a hallway, candlesticks on a table; she wondered what else the house held. She was not familiar with many black people, and knew they were different in the most unexpected ways. In the drugstore she had seen hair relaxers, and products for the bumps black men got from shaving.

"He better be finishing up," the woman said.

"Tell me," Miranda said. "Did anyone ever die in that room?"

"Pardon me? No. No one I ever heard of."

"Are you having a big Thanksgiving dinner?"

"That's none of your business," the woman said. Behind her, then, Edward appeared, descending the stairs. His feet, his legs, his body and arms, his hands rubbing together, his smiling face.

"I told you it was empty," the woman said, turning at the sound.

"Pretty much," Edward said. "I appreciate it. Not many people would understand."

"I didn't understand," the woman said. "I don't. And I wouldn't do it again."

"Thank you," Miranda said.

The heavy door swung closed, and then there was the click of the lock, the sound of the deadbolt sliding across. Miranda and Edward went down the stairs, the walk. At the edge of the street, they both turned to look up at the window of the second floor bedroom.

"Was it really empty?" she said.

"I remembered more," he said, "once I was up there. I lied before, even if I didn't mean to--you were in the dream."

"What was I doing?"

"I think it was the flowers, today," he said. "That's how I recognized you."

"I had them in the dream?"

A car passed, spraying them both with slush; they did not move out of the way.

"You didn't really do anything," Edward said. "Except that, when I was in the room, you appeared in the window, looking in, just floating there, watching me, with those flowers in your hand."

"Floating?" she said. "What was I watching you do?"

"Exactly what I was doing, just now. There weren't any lights in the room, so I had to use my flashlight. The room was bare, no furniture at all, and dusty, like no one had been in there for a long time."

"But you did find something," Miranda said.

"Once I was inside," he said, "I remembered more, and I kind of knew what I was looking for. Down along the baseboard, I saw what seemed like a crack or smudge; when I looked closer, though, I saw it was words. I bent down to read them, and that's when I felt you watching me through the window."

"What did it say?"

"I wrote it down," he said, opening his backpack, unlocking his journal. "Let me tell you exactly. Here, I'll copy it for you--you might want your own copy."

He took out a pen; Miranda waited for him to finish writing. Her neck ached from looking up, listening to him. She took the scrap of paper that he held out to her.

Miranda Covington, it said, you are a wicked young woman. Do not be ashamed--this is the right path for you, and it's only partially your choice. Embrace it.

Her fingers were numb, difficult to work. She folded the paper and put it in her pocket.

"That's that," Edward said, barely breaking the silence.

"That's not that," she said. "That's hardly any kind of dream. How did it end?"

"Well," he said. "I came down the stairs and walked outside and stood here, next to you, just like this."

"And then what did I do?"

"You rose up," he said. "You flew low, through the trees, over those houses, and I couldn't see you anymore."

"That's not going to happen," she said.

"No?" Edward smiled. His braces looked sharp and cruel.

"I can't fly," she said.

"You can," Edward said. "I'd rather believe that you can."

With that, he turned and began walking away from her, in the opposite direction from the train station. She stood there for a long time, waiting, watching him grow smaller and smaller. His head straight, his body rigid, he never once turned to look back at her.

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