One day Miss Cora came home to find everyone else had gone. At first she thought it was just her fiance. She knew he wasn’t there as soon as she opened the door. Not because of the stuff (a shirt, a half-eaten bag of chips) lying around – though this would prove to be additional evidence. No, Miss Cora had a most particular sense of smell and she immediately noticed the absence of Frank’s typical blend of aftershave, tobacco, detergent and a hard day’s sweat.
She wasn’t surprised. They had been engaged for over two years and in no hurry to move on. While postponing the not-so-inevitable, their relationship deteriorated to the kind of daily trouble you don’t bother with much. Being of a practical and serene nature, Miss Cora appreciated Frank had done them both a favor by leaving. What did put her off though was the mess. Ever since moving in with her, Frank had been awfully neat. They had agreed that in her house, her rules applied and he abided by them. Until now. The dishes were still on the counter. The bin with dirty clothes had been emptied out on the bathroom floor, as if he needed to find that special shirt, and quick.
Miss Cora decided to walk over to her neighbor, Mrs. Gideon. Officially to see if Frank had left a forwarding address, but mostly to avoid the bouts of self-pity she often endured when a relationship ended, no matter how much relief she felt at the man in question having disappeared from her life.
Apart from Oddball, Mrs. Gideon’s goofy dog, she found the porch empty. Luckily, they had exchanged keys, just in case, so she let herself in through the kitchen door. From the looks of it, Mrs. Gideon had been preparing for a barbeque. The kitchen was filled with every imaginable meat (steaks, sausages, hamburgers, chicken legs soaked in a garlicky marinade). But from Mrs. Gideon, neither sight nor sound.
Awkwardly, Cora made her way through the house. The few times she had been here, they had sat in the kitchen, chatting. Now she ventured into the private domain. Oddball followed her on foot, eying the meat with a look that could either be guilty or imploring. The living room was littered with framed pictures (children; an old man fishing; a young married couple posing in front of the Eiffel Tower in days of yore). “Mrs. Gideon?” Cora called, careful not to nudge any frames. “Mrs. Gideon?” No answer. She hesitated in front of the bedroom door, settling for a short, sharp knock. Again, nothing. Only Oddball let out a small whine.
Maybe she’s out, Cora thought, although she knew Mrs. Gideon’s many ailments kept her housebound. Back outside, Oddball still dogging her steps, she realized that for the first time ever she heard nothing. No kids yelling. No mothers prepping diner. No men calling out that honey, they were home. No cars, too. In fact, the only car in the area was hers, neatly parked on her driveway. Even the Chesterfields’ parking space was empty, and they had two cars, an antique one (Austin Martin) that was daddy’s little baby and her comfortable Japanese Subaru. Birds chirruped, with caution. That’s when Miss Cora decided she would call the police.
The phone seemed to ring infinitely until finally someone answered, but in a funny, twisted voice, like she was speaking to kid or a clown.
“I want to file a missing persons report,” she said.
“Yes, my whole neighborhood has gone missing.”
“Your whole neighborhood? Really? Have you checked each and every house?”
“Well, of course not, but I know…”
“You can only file a report of someone you know to be missing,” the voice said drily.
“I am a paralegal and I know my rights.” Actually, she had no idea, but experience had taught her that mentioning her profession opened a lot of doors – and closed quite a few others.
The voice sighed. “Very well. But it’s gonna be a lot of work. Let’s start with the one closest to you.”
“That’s Frank, my fiance.”
“And Frank has been your fiance for some time, right?”
“I said, has Frank been your fiance for some time, Ma’am?”
“We’re engaged for over 2 years. But what …”
“Over 2 years? You do know men need security?”
“Men? What are… Frank had commitment issues!”
“Case solved!” the voice declared in triumph. “The man ran for his freedom. Who can blame him?”
Miss Cora almost choked on outrage, but collected herself. There was no use antagonizing the voice. Yet.
“What about my neighbor, Mrs. Gideon?”
“Mrs. Gideon? Mrs. Gin, more likely. Married to the bottle!”
“Married to…. What?”
“She’s an alcoholic, Cora. Or haven’t you noticed the tremors and smells, the bloated face?”
Come to think of it, Miss Cora thought, that does explain a few things.
“She’s probably somewhere sleeping it off. So, the Chesterfields,” the voice went on, reading her mind. “That darling couple with their lovely British accent. You do know they’re not actually from England, don’t you? Oh dear, you didn’t? They’re frauds, Cora. And if they’re not around, then they’re two-timing it somewhere else. Who’s next? Mr. Pilgrim, from across the street? That sweet old man! But they don’t call him that in other parts of town, where he flashes girls in the park!”
“Enough!” Miss Cora cried. “How come you know all that?”
“How come you don’t?”
Miss Cora took another course of action. “Whatever their transgressions, they are missing. Coincidence or not, I’d like to report them missing. All of them.” She would give this voice enough work to last a lifetime.
“Okay, Ma’am. Please hold, while I get the necessary paperwork.” Miss Cora waited for one whole cheesy song, looped into eternity, and then hung up. When she called again, no one answered. Oddball, who had followed her into her house, gave her a long emphatic look, as if to say this wasn’t his idea either.
Miss Cora carefully weighed her options. Disaster could have struck (hurricanes; tidal waves; forest fires). Then again, the place would have been crawling with authorities (helicopters; emergency doctors; officials). They would haul her out of her house in no time. If she needed to leave. Also, the dog, the birds, they wouldn’t be here. Animals were clever like that. Always knew danger was coming. She looked at Oddball, paws wrapped around one of Frank’s old shoes, chewing contently, and decided the best thing was to stay put and tune into the news, just in case.
There were deeper, more hidden reasons why Miss Cora was so intent to stay in the house. Though she was the first of her family to live there, the house was packed to the rafters with heirlooms. Like the wedding china that had been passed down from generation to generation and that her mother had given to her, just in case. Or the clock (cuckoo, very ugly) her grandfather had won off some German sailor. Crammed in a corner, a piano some great-uncle or other had bought with his hard-earned savings. The absolute centerpiece was the uniform her great-great-grandfather had worn in the Civil War, after running hundreds of miles to freedom. All in all they told a story, and she couldn’t abandon that. Her mother would kill her.
For reasons she herself didn’t quite understand, Miss Cora felt she needed to put on the uniform. It was oversized, but not as much as she had expected. Actually, it was quite snug. Its smells (times past, remnants of gun powder, mothballs, fear) were strangely familiar, mingling with her own. The chafing of the fabric against her skin comforted her. It was good to know some things lasted. She even took out the rifle. Of course, there were no bullets and the rifle was so out of date she didn’t know the first thing about shooting it. She could only hope the sight of it would scare off any potential intruders. Oddball curled up against her, muzzle resting on paws. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” said Miss Cora, mainly to hear the sound of her own voice. “You and me keeping watch.” Oddball looked up at her lovingly, then fell asleep.
The quietness lasted well into the night. For a while she didn’t notice because she watched TV (the news, nothing of interest; Cold Case; Shopping Channel). Only when she turned it off, she found the usual sounds (a late-night cab, cats fighting) were absent. For the first few hours after sunset, she was wrapped in silence, stifled. Then, other sounds emerged, sounds she hadn’t expected to ever hear in the suburbs (an owl? wolves howling?). After that, she dozed off, only to be woken by a light shining in. At first she thought it must be a searchlight, a helicopter finally come to take her. But the only light out there was the moon, brighter than she’d ever seen it before. It drenched the street in an eerie blueish light. Miss Cora crept back into her chair. The last thing she remembered seeing before falling well into sleep, was Oddball’s silhouette drawn out against the full moon.
That morning there was glass tinkling and inarticulate crying. Miss Cora woke to find Oddball had drooled all over her great-great-grandfather’s shiny leather boots. Quickly, she threw on yesterday’s clothes, even though she normally wouldn’t be caught dead in the same outfit she had worn the day before. Once outside, the street looked as unremarkable as ever. The only sounds out of the ordinary came from Mrs. Gideon’s kitchen (steak sizzling).
“Oh, there you are, dear! Mommy’s missed you!” Mrs. Gideon put the finished steak on a pile of others and turned around to receive Oddball’s sloppy greeting.
“He spent the night with me,” Miss Cora said, feeling a little troubled, as if she was owning up to an affair. “What happened?”
“All this meat is left over,” said Mrs Gideon. “From the barbeque. I’m frying it, so it will keep.”
“But there was no barbeque. I was here, looking for you.”
“Well, I was planning,” Mrs. Gideon hesitated. “Looking for me? I was…” Mrs. Gideon looked blank, puzzled. “No barbeque? That explains… the meat. But… Maybe my migraine played up. I must have been out cold. Yes,” she decided with barely concealed relief. “It must have been my migraine.”
“Are you sure?” said Cora. “Cause I didn’t see you anywhere. I was worried,” she added, so she wouldn’t seem too nosy.
“Oh dear, mornings after are always so bad. I can’t really remember much of last night. It’s all a bit hazy.”
As she slunk out, Oddball quietly nuzzled her hand. “Good boy,” said Miss Cora and closed the door.
Out on the street again, everything looked so irrevocably normal, Miss Cora was almost sad to see it. There was only a hint of fall in the air. Mrs. Chesterfield was getting into her Subaru, giving a wave (a little flick of the wrist) as she sped past. Children walked up to a bus stop, books and bags in hand. And out on his lawn, Mr. Pilgrim shuffled towards his newspaper, his faded velvet robe flapping loosely around his body, and Miss Cora decided she’d better get to work.
Over the following days, Miss Cora paid courtesy calls to several of her neighbors, always finding an excuse to bring up that night. Mostly, she received empty looks or guessed-at answers. “Didn’t we go to that show?” Mr. Chesterfield asked his wife. “I thought that was your poker night?” she said. “We don’t know,” he told Cora. “Is it important? Was there a burglary?” Others pleaded, like Mrs. Gideon, amnesia, or a sick night. Eventually, Miss Cora decided asking further questions was useless. After all, everyone had returned, except for Frank. But in time, she would find another fiance and soon she hardly ever thought of him at all.