Home > The Weight of Silence(10)

The Weight of Silence(10)
Heather Gudenkauf

Toni's door opens even before I can knock and she is there before me, still so beautiful, dressed in her typical summer outfit--a sleeveless T-shirt, denim shorts, and bare feet. She is brown from the sun, her many hours in her garden or from being outside with her children, I suppose.

"You didn't find them," Antonia states. It is not a question.

"No," I say, shaking my head, and we both step over the threshold into her home. She leads us inside, not to the living room as before but to the kitchen, where a pitcher of iced tea sits on the counter, along with three ice-filled glasses.

"It's too hot for coffee," she explains and begins to pour the tea. "Please sit," she invites, and we do.

"Have you any idea where else they could be?" Martin asks pleadingly.

"Ben's still out looking in the woods. He knows where Calli would go," Toni says. There is a curious lack of concern in her tone. Incredibly, she doesn't appear to think anything is actually amiss.

"Does Calli explore the woods often, Toni?" I ask her, carefully choosing my words.

"It's like a second home to her. Just like it was for us, Lou," she says, our eyes locking and a lifetime of memories pass between us. "She never goes far and she always comes back. Safe and sound," she adds, I think, for Martin's benefit.

"We don't allow Petra in the woods without an adult. It's too dangerous. She wouldn't know her way around," Martin says, not quite accusing.

I'm still thinking of the way Toni has called me "Lou," something she hasn't done for years. She resumed calling me Louis the day she became engaged to Griff. It was as if the more formal use of my name acted like a buffer, as if I hadn't already known the most intimate parts of her.

"Ben will be here soon, Martin," Antonia says soothingly. "If the girls are out there--" she indicates the forest with her thin, strong arms "--Ben will bring them home. I cannot imagine where else they may have gone."

"Maybe we should go out and look there, too," suggests Martin. "A search party. I mean, how far could two little girls have gone? We could get a group together, we would cover more ground. If more people were looking, we would have a better chance of finding them."

"Martin," I say, "we have no evidence that that is where the girls went. I would hate to focus all of our resources in one area and possibly miss another avenue to investigate. The woods cover over fourteen thousand acres and most of it isn't maintained. Hopefully, if they're out there, they have stayed on the trails. We've got a deputy out there now." I indicate the other police car that is now parked on the Clarks' lane. "I do think, however, we need to let the public know we have two misplaced little girls."

"Misplaced!" Martin bellows, his face darkening with anger. "I did not misplace my daughter. We put her to bed at eight-thirty last night and when I awoke this morning she was not in her bed. She was in her pajamas, for God's sake. When are you going to acknowledge the fact that someone may have taken her from her bedroom? When are you--"

"Martin, Martin, I didn't mean to suggest that you or Toni did anything wrong here," I say, trying to calm him. "There is no reason to believe they were taken, no signs of forced entry. Her tennis shoes are gone, Martin. Do you think an intruder would stop to make Petra put on her shoes before they left? That doesn't make sense."

Martin sighs. "I'm sorry. I just cannot imagine where they could have gone. If they have not been...been abducted and they are not at their usual playing spots, the forest just seems to be the logical place for them to go, especially if Calli is so comfortable there."

Antonia nods. "I bet Ben will be here shortly with the two of them, their tails between their legs at the worry they have caused."

A thought occurs to me. "Toni, is there a pair of Calli's shoes missing?"

"I don't know." Toni sits up a little straighter, her glass of tea perspiring in her hand. "I'll go check."

Toni rises and climbs the stairs to Calli's room. Martin sips his tea, sets his glass down, then, unsure of what to do with his hands, picks up the glass again.

Martin and I sit in an uncomfortable silence for a moment and then he speaks.

"I have never understood how Petra and Calli became such good friends. They have nothing in common, really. The girl does not even talk. What in the world could two seven-year-olds do for fun if only one of them speaks?" He looks at me with exasperation. "Petra would say, 'Could Calli and I have a sandwich? Just peanut butter for Calli, she doesn't like jelly.' I mean, how would she know that when Calli did not speak? I just do not understand it," he says, shaking his head.

"Kindred spirits," a soft voice comes from the stairwell. Toni steps into the kitchen carrying a pair of tattered tennis shoes in one hand and an equally worn pair of flip-flops in the other. "They are kindred spirits," she repeats to our questioning looks. "They know what the other needs. Petra can read Calli like a book, what game she wants to play, if her feelings are hurt, anything. And Calli is the same. She knows that Petra is afraid of thunderstorms and will take her to her bedroom and play the music so loud that it covers the sound of the thunder. Or if Petra is feeling blue, Calli can get her giggling. Calli makes the best faces--she can get all of us laughing. They are best friends. I don't know how to explain how it works, but it does for them. And I'm glad of it. Petra doesn't care that Calli can't talk and Calli doesn't care that Petra is afraid of thunder and still sucks her thumb sometimes." Toni pauses and holds up the shoes. "Her shoes are still here. We're going shopping for school shoes next week. Her cowboy boots are still in the garage, I saw them earlier. Calli doesn't have her shoes on. She wouldn't go into the woods without her shoes."

Toni's chin begins to wobble and for the first time since her girl has gone missing, she looks scared. I put my hand on her arm, and she does not pull away.

BEN

I have been to all the places where we play. First Willow Wallow, where we would swing from the branches of the weeping willows, pretending to be monkeys. I looked underneath each of the seven willows, thinking that I would find you and Petra there, hiding. I went down to Lone Tree Bridge, one skinny fallen tree over Willow Creek. We would take turns walking across, to see who could cross the quickest. I always won. You weren't there, either. I walked up and down Spring Peeper Pond Trail, sure that I'd find you two looking for tree frogs. But I was wrong on that count, too. I don't want to come home without you.

I begin to think that maybe Dad did take you with him fishing. That would be just like him, to all of a sudden want to do the dad thing and spend time with you. He could ignore us for weeks, then look at us all interested-like and take us to do something real fun. One time he decided to take me fishing down at the creek. We went in the evening, just him and me. We didn't have any night crawlers so we swiped some Velveeta cheese from the fridge and used that. We sat for hours on the shore, just where the creek is widest. We didn't even talk much, just slapped at mosquitoes and pulled in bullheads and sunfish, laughing because they were so small. We had a bet on who could catch the smallest fish, five bucks, and I won. I caught a sunfish the size of a guppy. We ate peanuts, threw the shells into the water and drank soda. When the sun started to go down we could hear the crickets chirping and Dad said that we could figure out just how warm it was out by the number of chirps that a cricket made. I said, "No way!" and he said, "Yes way!" And he told me how. That was the best day. So I'm thinking he thought you and him should do some bonding and took you fishing with Roger, but didn't think to tell anyone. But then again, I don't think he would take two little girls fishing with him. Who knows, he's tough to figure out sometimes.

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