Timmy O'Neill was the first, but the O'Neill family was hardly a peaceful or pleasant one, and the police tsked and put him down for a runaway. John Burton Saks was gone next, along with the family Mercedes (discovered late the following Tuesday by a pair of swamp children who waded through the gasoline shallows to sit in the car's empty leather seats). The police saw no connection in the disappearances; it is doubtful that the possibility crossed a single official mind at that early date. Burton Saks, you see, had a history of trouble brought about by avarice and a boyish sociopathic manner, which might have inspired, so the police thought, visions of revenge. But wouldn't there have been some deeper evidence of foul play than a half-empty package of cigarettes, an expensive foreign brand his family swore he never would have intentionally abandoned?
"Drunk," a detective said, "or worse."
Toby Richler was a different story. Mild, cooperative, a fund-raiser. On a Monday after Little League practice, he sent the others home and went to drop off equipment at the Rec after giving soft-faced Casey Wright a long and private ride home. The call came in at eleven o'clock—no Toby. Scarcely two days later it was Rob Szechwan, the testy hardware man, training for the local 8K run, vanished off the reservoir road.
So who are your suspects? One thinks first of unyielding force. Burly men with guns. Then of unknown habit, commonalities between the missing. Family histories are prized apart and probed. "Could it be terrorists?" the police ask. "Rule nothing out," they tell each other. Mulroon's wife urges him to sleep at the station after hours. He can't bring himself to, but does sheepishly initiate a carpool—at first just for men who leave work when it's dark. Then, when the guy at the gym is carried off in broad daylight with no witnesses, the van starts operating full time. The side effects of men grouping are amazing. The streets of town resound with a pure and willing emptiness. Women and children, after a period of shying away, reclaim them. Before long it is not uncommon to see a lone child, say a ten-year-old girl, sprawled on the grass of the courthouse lawn, watching the stars with a calm radiance that must be rapture.
Jenny O'Neill, for the first time in her life, is tasting peace. Sure, she misses her dad. The dad who twirled her in a swooping arc out over the rec pool, the dad who called her Tootsie, and whose hand upon her head made her warm with pleasure. But let's be honest. Jenny, young though she is, has been missing that dad for years. In contrast she is celebrating the blessed removal of that other man who, tired of the scramble of work and his ever-needy family, screamed at her mother and her and even especially her tiny brother, Jamie of the Frequent Earache. The man who broke her mother's favorite plate and yelled at Jenny for crying, so that he had to twist her arm and shake her until she'd lost her breath and fainted. The freedom that has come with her father's absence is excruciatingly delightful. "Go play, Jenny," her mother tells her with a smile. "It's all right." Her mother herself has lost years. She dresses in light tanks and shorts and takes long runs in the blue-washed moonlight.
On a hillside to the north of town, an ancient convent carries on its daily routines as if time does not exist. Season follows season in a predictable march for which the sisters, if they consider the flush of time at all, feel a satisfied gratitude. Inside the crumbling, mice-ridden walls, floors are shined, linen is bleached, and prayers are said in response to the bundle of pleas that arrive daily in the mail, folded around checks. A contingent of nuns sorts the letters and replies to them in short typewritten notes: Our prayers are with your Thomas and his new wife during this difficult time. We include your dear aunt, Germaine, in our prayers. May God hear our prayers for her speedy recovery. These particular nuns, it is felt, hold a special position, raised on their toes and pressed against the unseen ear of God. Nonetheless, the honor of their proximity to Him has done little to swell their ranks. The last novices arrived some twenty years ago during a heat wave that was still blamed for the tragedy.
A young sister, Babiana, who'd toyed with both the Carmelites and the Little Sisters of the Poor before committing to this contemplative order, was out wandering in the evening, searching for a bit of breeze. The avenue in those days was well maintained, the grottos unchipped and filled with flowers. But Babiana chose a trail between tall grasses, under the green lace of budding ash trees. It was her spot, a private getaway where her thoughts seemed to rush and bubble with the winter-released stream. The man who'd met her at the shore was from the town. A hard worker, you could guess, pushed to the brink, gone weak in the head from the oppressive heat. He came out from behind the bushes with a harsh noise that made her spring from her seat on the rock. She promised him anything, even salvation, if he would let her be. But he could not, and later, much later, after a long twilight-to-dawn search, they found her weighted to the bosom of the river, a victim of her own hand. Poor crazy nun.
There are rumors around the mill, the station, the café, that a militant band of feminists is responsible. Even the Sisters are suspect. Yet in the café the waitresses pooh-pooh the men's farfetched conjectures. Big Janice Krause, who works the morning counter shift, slops coffee into stained white mugs and makes disparaging remarks about the speakers' masculinity. Remarks that are taken up by the other waitresses and even the far corner table of courthouse secretaries. Remarks that hit home. For all the bravado, impotence is going around. More than once the water source of town is mentioned, and testing is promised as soon as enough men are willing to make the trip out to the lonely reservoir. At a town meeting even those men who have in the past voiced the smallest of grievances find themselves reluctant to speak. Wives pat down startled hands, stroke hairy forearms rigid with tension. Finally, Mrs. Luke Weber, the mayor's wife, directs the group's attention to the back of the room where refreshments are laid out and several council members are already standing, cups grown cold in their hands, expressions of anxiety molded around their cookie-filled cheeks.
And who is responsible? All the criminal texts and television murder mysteries would lead one to ask what is sometimes termed "The Question of the Will." To whose great gain have come quiet nights and still woods where even a fragile leaf of a girl can linger unmolested? Jenny learns her prayers at Sunday School from that little wren, Marta Richler, wife of the missing Little League coach. "Please, God," she prays dutifully, "let them be found safe and unharmed." Then she adds a prayer all of her own making, a prayer that is repeated silently in almost every household in the town.