Jenny’s little sister Alicia went missing on Tuesday after school in 1984, but no one realized until bedtime. No one realized she was dead until late Wednesday afternoon when Mr. Berg found her body. It was an innocent time.
Alicia was eight, with a Jack-o-Lantern grin, tangled golden hair, and loved to play outside for hours. She wasn’t home in time for supper again. Jenny was ten years old and angry because Alicia had taken her new white shoes again. They were Keds, and Jenny had saved up her allowance to get them.
“Alicia wore my new Keds to school again today, Mom! She’s getting them all dirty!”
“Where is your sister, Jenny?” asked her Mom. “Did she stay at Stacey’s for supper?”
“I dunno. Maybe,” Jenny said through a mouthful of Kraft Dinner with cut-up wieners and peas. When Dad worked the afternoon shift at the mine, they ate easy stuff. Dad wouldn’t be home until bedtime.
At bedtime, Mom dialled Stacey’s house. She perched on the telephone bench and twirled the coiled cord of the handset around her forearm.
“Hi Val, it’s Beth. Is my kid there?” Mom asked. “No? You really haven’t seen her since after school? Do you know where she went?… Okay, I’ll go take a look there. Thanks!”
“No sign of her?” Dad asked.
“Alicia told Val she was going over to put a penny on the tracks. She loves playing up there. I’ve told her to be careful.”
“Maybe she’s camping in the clubhouse,” Jenny said.
“What clubhouse?” asked Mom.
“The one the boys built up by the tracks.”
“Let’s go take a look. Jenny, you can come to help us,” Dad said.
They went on foot, taking their old dog, Basil the Beagle. Alicia wasn’t in the clubhouse, but Jenny did find a stack of dog-eared Penthouse magazines with disgusting pictures. She was trying to figure out what was happening in the pictures when her Mom peeked into the clubhouse.
“Oh my God! Don’t touch those!” said Mom. “How did those kids get such horrible stuff? You are not allowed to come here again!”
After an hour of calling and searching, it was getting dark. Mom turned her ankle on the rocky railbed, and Dad half-carried her back to the road, then walked back to get the K-car. Mom was crying. Dad sent Jenny home with Basil, saying she could walk from there, brush her teeth, and go to bed. He wanted to drive around with Mom to check the playgrounds and other friends’ houses. Jenny was sleeping when they came home. Still no sign of Alicia.
Jenny walked to school the next day alone, past the garbage cans set out at the end of each driveway. Dad took the car to work at noon, and Mom phoned the school, hopeful. Kids did this sometimes, staying at a friend’s house and going to school the next day. But Alicia wasn’t at school.
Walking home after school, Jenny startled some ravens tearing at a white plastic garbage bag in the ditch at the end of the road. They flapped away in a rush of feathers and noise, leaving behind a jumble of food scraps, Pilsner cans, and Styrofoam meat trays, and underneath those, old rags and a bleach bottle, and a shoe. Once-white Keds just like hers, stained with dark red-brown blotches. She scrambled into the ditch and grabbed it. Digging around, she found the other. She checked under the tongue of the left shoe, and there it was: “Jenny,” written in black marker. All she thought was that Alicia would be in so much trouble. Maybe the stains would come out. Mom would know.
She kept walking, past reddish suds pooling around the storm drain. Mr. Straub was washing his truck and drinking a beer. “Whatsha got there?” he slurred. “Somebody’s shoes? Let’s see.”
“They’re mine. I found them in the ditch over there. My little sister likes to play jokes on me.”
“Is that so. Well, you’ll have the last laugh. Hand me that can of Pilsner.” He moved closer to her, and he smelled terrible.
“I have to go home now,” she said, backing away. He tried to grab her arm. His breath stank like the air from the Legion Hall exhaust fan.
“Wait,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride home. We’ll look for your sister together.” His coyote eyes were bloodshot and unblinking. He opened the truck’s passenger door.
Just then, Mr. Berg from across the street approached and moved between them. “That’s enough, Straub. Leave her alone. You’re drunk.”
Straub pushed Berg away and lunged at Jenny again, but in his drunken state, he only fell to the gravel. Then, Mr. Berg and Jenny saw the body inside the truck. Tangled golden hair, clotted with blood. No shoes on the blood-stained, dirty feet. Jenny couldn’t move – she could only stare and scream. Mr. Berg moved in front of her and punched Straub, and the men wrestled and hit each other in a desperate rush of fists, feet, and arms. Straub got away, stumbling down and across the main road into the forest. Mr. Berg didn’t go after him. He turned to Jenny, his daughter’s friend, and hugged her.
“Jenny…we have to go call your parents. Mrs. Berg will help us. I’m so sorry, my dear.” Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“But he’s getting away!” Jenny wailed. “Alicia!”
“He won’t get far. He’s too drunk. Now, are you hurt? Let’s go see Mrs. Berg.”
By then, they could hear the police sirens.
Mrs. Berg had been watching out her front windows and was running across the road to them. “I called the police! I saw him hit you, Dan. I saw him try to grab Jenny! Are you hurt? What is in the truck?” She looked inside and screamed.
Mr. Berg pulled her away into a hug. “Don’t look! Calm yourself, Valerie. Take Jenny inside and look after her. She’s seen something no kid should ever see. You call Beth and tell her to get Jerry home from work right away. I’ll stay out here and talk to the police. We’ll get Straub. He’ll pay for this.”
Jenny never wore Keds again. The stains would never come out.