Home > The Weight of Silence(4)

The Weight of Silence(4)
Heather Gudenkauf

"What," Fielda shrilly aimed at me, "does a girl have to do in order to get your attention?" She banged the cup down in front of me, my glasses leaping on my nose in surprise, coffee sloshing all over the table.

Before I could splutter a response, she had retreated and then reappeared, this time with my muffin that she promptly tossed at me. It bounced off my chest, flaky crumbs of orange poppy seed clinging to my tie. Fielda ran from the cafe and her mother, a softer, more care-worn version of Fielda, sauntered up to me. Rolling her eyes heavenward, she sighed. "Go on out there and talk to her, Mr. Gregory. She's been pining over you for months. Either put her out of her misery or ask her to marry you. I need to get some sleep at night."

I did go out after Fielda and we were married a month later.

Lying there in our bed, the August morning already sweeping my skin with its prickly heat, I twist around, find Fielda's slack cheek in the darkness and kiss it. I slide out of bed and out of the room. I stop at Petra's door. It is slightly open and I can hear the whir of her fan. I gently push the door forward and step into her room, a place so full of little girl whimsy that it never fails to make me pause. The carefully arranged collections of pinecones, acorns, leaves, feathers and rocks all expertly excavated from our backyard at the edge of Willow Creek Woods. The baby dolls, stuffed dogs and bears all tucked lovingly under blankets fashioned from washcloths and arranged around her sleeping form. The little girl perfume, a combination of lavender-scented shampoo, green grass and perspiration that holds only the enzymes of the innocent, overwhelms me every time I cross this threshold. My eyes begin to adjust to the dark and I see that Petra is not in her bed. I am not alarmed; Petra often has bouts of insomnia and skulks downstairs to the living room to watch television.

I, too, go downstairs, but very quickly I know that Petra is not watching television. The house is quiet, no droning voices or canned laughter. I walk briskly through each room, switching on lights, the living room--no Petra. The dining room, the kitchen, the bathroom, my office--no Petra. Back through the kitchen down to the basement--no Petra. Rushing up the stairs to Fielda, I shake her awake.

"Petra's not in her bed," I gasp.

Fielda leaps from the bed and retraces the path I just followed, no Petra. I hurry out the back door and circle the house once, twice, three times. No Petra. Fielda and I meet back in the kitchen, and we look at one another helplessly. Fielda stifles a moan and dials the police.

We quickly pulled on clothes in order to make ourselves presentable to receive Deputy Sheriff Louis. Fielda continues to wander through each of the rooms, checking for Petra, looking through closets and under the stairs. "Maybe she went over to Calli's house," she says.

"At this time of the morning?" I ask. "What would possess her to do that? Maybe she was too hot and went outside to cool off and she lost track of time," I add. "Sit down, you're making me nervous. She is not in this house!" I say, louder than I should have. Fielda's face crumples and I go to her. "I'm sorry," I whisper, though her constant movement is making me nervous. "We'll go make coffee for when he arrives."

"Coffee? Coffee?" Fielda's voice is shrill and she is looking at me incredulously. "Let's just brew up some coffee so we can sit down and discuss how our daughter has disappeared. Disappeared right from her bedroom in the middle of the night! Would you like me to make him breakfast, too? Eggs over easy? Or maybe waffles. Martin, our child is missing. Missing!" Her tirade ends in whimpers and I pat her on the back. I am no consolation to her, I know.

There is a rap at the front door and we both look to see Deputy Sheriff Louis, tall and rangy, his blond hair falling into his serious blue eyes. We invite him into our home, this man almost half my age, closer to Fielda's own, and sit him on our sofa.

"When did you see Petra last?" he asks us. I reach for Fielda's hand and tell him all that we know.

ANTONIA

I am being lifted from my sleep by the low rumble of what I think at first is thunder and I smile, my eyes still closed. A rainstorm, cool, plump drops. I think that maybe I should wake Calli and Ben. They both would love to go stomp around in the rain, to rinse away this dry, hot summer, if just for a few moments. I reach my hand over to Griff's side of the bed, empty and cooler than mine. It's Thursday, the fishing trip. Griff went fishing with Roger, no thunder, a truck? I roll over to Griff's side, absorb the brief coolness of the sheets and try to sleep, but continuous pounding, a solid banging on the front door, is sending vibrations through the floorboards. I swing my legs out of bed, irritated. It's only six o'clock, for Christ's sake. I pull on the shorts that I had dropped on the floor the night before and run my fingers through my bed-mussed hair. As I make my way through the hallway I see that Ben's door is tightly shut, as it normally is. Ben's room is his private fortress; I don't even try to go in there anymore. The only people he invites in are his school friends and his sister, Calli. This is surprising to me. I grew up in a family of four brothers and they let me enter their domain only when I forced my way in.

My whole life has been circled by males; my brothers, my father, Louis and of course, Griff. Most of my friends in school were boys. My mother died when I was seventeen and even before that she hovered on the edge of our ring. I wish I had paid more attention to the way she did things. I have misty-edged memories of the way she sat, always in skirts, one leg crossed over the other, her brown hair pulled back in an elegant chignon. My mother could not get me into a dress, interested in makeup or sitting like a lady, but she insisted that I keep my hair long. I rebelled by putting my hair back in a ponytail and cramming a baseball hat on top of my head. I wish I had watched closely to the way she would carefully paint lipstick on her lips and spray just the right amount of perfume on her wrists. I remember her leaning in close to my father and whispering in his ear, making him smile, the way she could calm him with just a manicured hand on his arm. My own silent little girl is even more of a mystery to me, the way she likes her hair combed smooth after a bath, the joy she has in inspecting her nails after I have inexpertly painted them. Having a little girl has been like following an old treasure map with the important paths torn away. These days I sit and watch her carefully, studying her each movement and gesture. At least when she was speaking she could tell me what she wanted or needed; now I guess and falter and hope for the best. I go on as if there is nothing wrong with my Calli, as if she is a typical seven-year-old, that strangers do not discuss her in school offices, that neighbors don't whisper behind their hands about the odd Clark girl.

The door to Calli's room is open slightly, but the banging on the door is more insistent so I hurry down the steps, the warped wood creaking under my bare feet. I unlock the heavy oak front door to find Louis and Martin Gregory, Petra's father, standing before me. The last time Louis was in my home was three years earlier, though I remember little of it, as I was lying nearly unconscious on my sofa after falling down the flight of stairs.

"Hi," I say uncertainly, "what's going on?"

"Toni," begins Louis, "is Petra here?"

"No," I reply and look at Martin. His face falls for a moment and then he raises his chin.

"May we speak with Calli? Petra seems to be..." Martin hesitates. "We can't find Petra right now and thought that Calli could tell us where she might be."

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