The snow crunched beneath his boots as he walked. He had stood here by this swing set in blistering sun and wind driven rains needled with ice -- and in snow like tonight, December 24th. The swings moved slightly in the night breeze as if ghost children played on them.
What a thought! He cursed himself silently.
"Where are you, Peri?" he said. "Where are you? Little girls are supposed to be safe at home eating gingerbread cookies and listening for sleigh bells on Christmas Eve."
He looked over at the row of apartments across the street from the park, to one apartment in particular. More than anything else John Merrick wished that he had the right to knock on that door and say "Merry Christmas!" More than anything except. . . .
He thought of being in that living room untangling lights and hanging decorations on the tree, lifting a little girl up to place the star at the top. He imagined that he could smell the scents of pine and gingerbread.
As if his thought was author to the act the door of that apartment opened. For a moment a woman stood framed in the doorway. John Merrick felt his heart clutch.
"Don't come out here, Demi, don't. There's nothing for you out here. I've got nothing for you."
The woman stepped outside and walked towards him. He thought about walking back to his car, as if he hadn't seen her, but that was the coward's way.
"John," she admonished him softly, as if she could read his thoughts. She put her arm through his and drew him back to the apartment. He hesitated at the threshold as if he would bolt if he could, but the woman held his arm firmly. At least he remembered to wipe his boots before coming in.
The smells were just as he had imagined -- pine and gingerbread. The tree was already trimmed and stood like a beacon in the window. He knew that it had not been decorated with anything like joy and with precious little hope. He knew, too, that tomorrow the tree would come down and the gingerbread cookies would go into the trash. Demi put up a Christmas tree in case this was the year of the miracle -- the year her daughter Peri was returned to her. He knew, as well, that instead of gingerbread men there would be elephants -- just as there had been every year for the past four years and would be until Demi held her daughter in her arms again or until. . . .
Until they found the body. That's what he had told Demi four years ago --to keep on hoping until they found the body. No matter what anyone else told her about moving on -- giving up -- he told her to hold on to that hope as long as she could.
The conventional wisdom said that if an abducted child is not found within the first 24 hours, it was not likely that it ever would be -- found alive that is. Yet there had been cases of months and even years passing and finally . . . cases that rocked conventional wisdom.
The knowledge of what could be happening to Peri if she was still alive chilled Merrick even more than the winter cold. That knowledge drove itself into his sleep, tearing it apart, leaving the nights in jagged pieces.
Some of the dreams seemed to start with cause for hope. Peri's captors, shadowy figures, had released her in the woods. The little girl was barefoot, cold and frightened. In the dreams he could see her; he called to her, but she couldn't see him. He couldn't get to her. She died of exposure and starvation -- alone and afraid and always seven years old, no matter how much time had passed. When he finally got to the place where her body lay in the snow there would be no footprints where she had walked -- because she had already been dead when he first saw her. More often than not he'd wake up in an icy sweat, heart pounding like a jackhammer.
There was worse, too -- nightmares of the little girl that flung him out of bed to retch into the toilet. He would never, could never tell anyone about those dreams.
He had dreams of baby elephants being slaughtered and did not need a psychiatrist to interpret that imagery for him. He did not have to ask to know that Demi had dreams about he daughter that were just as horrifying. No doubt she had other dreams as well -- dreams of ordinary, happy days. Waking from those, into the nightmare of the past four years would be worse than anything he went through. They did not talk about these things.
Demi pressed a cup of coffee on him. "You went into the woods?"
He nodded. "I don't have any news," he said, ashamed at having to tell her this on Christmas Eve -- again.
"I know. I'm grateful that you came, John."
Grateful! She had no cause to be grateful to him! He had failed her, failed her daughter, failed them every day for four years.
The two did not talk more, simply sat together on the couch. They had sat together on this couch every Christmas Eve for the past four years. That first time the house had been swarming with police; reporters had been trying to get a statement; neighbors had been underfoot trying to be helpful. Detective John Merrick had thought Demi was drugged -- she had moved and spoken as if she was stuffed with cotton. It hadn't taken much for him to assume her guilt in the disappearance of her daughter. Look first to the people closest to the victim.
The mother hadn't even known what her daughter was wearing that day. He had to get that piece of information from the babysitter. He had wanted to shake Demi, she seemed such a dullard.
"Is there anything you can tell us about your daughter, any little thing at all?" he had asked sarcastically.
At that moment one of his officers had asked Detective Merrick for further instructions.
"Take a team and search the woods," Merrick had said to the man who confirmed that Peri was not in any of the apartments in this row of complexes.
"Peri isn't allowed to go into the woods without me."
If parents only knew all the things their kids did that they were not "allowed" to do. Do people forget what it was like to be kids once they become parents?
Wanting to needle her he said to Demi "Is there some reason you don't want us to look for Peri in the woods? Some place you think it's more likely she would be?"
If she did have something to do with her daughter's disappearance and the woods was involved the mother might try to stall any search of that area.
"No," she had shaken her head.
Then she bolted up. "The elephants!"
"We were going to scatter peanuts in the woods for the elephants -- because it is Christmas Eve. I was supposed to get home in time -- before it got dark. She still wouldn't have gone in by herself -- Peri would have waited for me." She sounded uncertain.
"Elephants?" he had repeated. Was this woman really a loon or just pretending to be?
"Peri knows the squirrels really take the nuts, but she likes to pretend that there are elephants. We need to look in the woods." She was struggling back into her coat as she spoke.
He'd stopped her. "They're already doing that. You can best help by answering my questions."
He'd asked and re-asked, phrasing the questions slightly differently each time, misquoting her, trying to trip her up, confuse her, get her to slip and tell the truth about what really happened to her child. He'd played both sides -- aggressive one minute, accusing her of not being co-operative and needing to get her story straight when she corrected any of his deliberate "mistakes." He'd switched to falsely sympathetic, telling her he knew she had it rough -- no husband in the picture, having to work overtime, no time for fun herself with a kid to take care of. . . . Get her to admit she thought her life stunk and it was one step away from getting her to admit. . . .
"My daughter isn't a burden, Detective." It was the first time she seemed to have a backbone. "I'd do anything to make her happy."
"Including going out after a days work and throwing peanuts out for some imaginary elephants?"
"It's Christmas," she'd replied in a voice reserved for reminding cynics that there is still cause for wonder in the world.
He'd learned that Demi -- Demeter -- was divorced, a nursing student, going back to school after her husband split. Besides going to school full time she worked full time as a nurses' aid. Full time and more. In the two weeks prior to the disappearance she had pulled eight double shifts. The day of the disappearance her car refused to start and Demi had taken the bus. Coming home from work there had been a minor collision and Demi, along with the other passengers had been delayed while the accident report was made and a replacement bus sent out.
What he had interpreted as the stupor of drugs or indifference or plain stupidity was exhaustion overlaid by shock.
The babysitter had let Peri go over to the park to play late in the afternoon, intending to go with her.
"I never would have left her out there alone -- especially not near five o'clock," the sitter had insisted.
The phone had rang though and in the few minutes it had taken the sitter to go back inside, answer the phone and tell the caller that no, she didn't want the carpets cleaned, Peri had vanished. When calling her brought no response the sitter had gone door to door, thinking Peri had gone inside one of those other apartments to get one of her friends to play with. Anxiety had turned to fear and the sitter had called the police.
Demi had arrived home to the sitter in tears and Detective John Merrick too ready to see her -- the mother who probably stopped off for a bit of Christmas cheer -- as a suspect.
She had never once roused herself to defend against his insinuations. She co-operated meekly with his "requests" for fingerprints and DNA and a polygraph; let them search her modest apartment, take anything they wanted. She had been unfailingly polite -- and grateful. Even in that he told himself he had cause for suspicion. He wasn't going to be deceived by a soft voice, or swayed by brown eyes, luminous with tears.
They'd tracked down the ex-husband, gone for two years. He'd checked out -- nowhere near, a solid alibi. Merrick had gotten the guy to come to the house -- to be there in case. . . . He'd really wanted to see if the ex's presence would rattle Demi, jar something out of her.
A few days after that first Christmas the ex had been the first to tell Demi to stop hoping for her daughter's safe return.
He'd said it to Demi in front of Merrick, looking to the detective for confirmation. "It's true that when a kid is kidnapped they're usually killed, isn't it, Detective?"
John Merrick had wanted to punch the guy. Instead he'd turned to Demi, physically blocking out the ex with his own body.
"Don't think like that. Don't listen to anyone who tells you to give up on your daughter. You keep hoping -- you keep hoping until they find a body!"
As soon as he had said that and saw how Demi paled he wished he'd phrased it differently. Recklessly he'd added "Peri will come home; you'll get your daughter back. I promise." He had whispered that last with a quiet ferocity for only Demi to hear. She had nodded her head,taking him at his word. She still did, four years later. In that moment John Merrick went from being her tacit accuser to her champion.
Anything that could be done John Merrick had done. House to house searches, interviews, hours spent going over the files of every possible predator. . . . No other children had been at the park at that hour; no one had looked out the window at the crucial moment; no one had remembered a strange car, an unfamiliar person. There hadn't been a boyfriend, a co-worker or classmate who'd seemed too interested, not a neighbor too eager to help. There were no dead ends for there were no leads.
Merrick had taken an unpaid leave of absence to work on the case -- after using up all his hoarded vacation and sick time. The leave had stretched out and he'd been given an ultimatum -- either come back and work on cases he had a chance of solving or take early retirement. He'd chosen the latter, giving up his benefits and a good part of his pension. He'd had to take the odd private investigative job -- consulting cases mostly. He'd give up his apartment and taken one much smaller. He didn't spend much time there anyway.
He'd made sure Peri's photo was on every bulletin board that would take it -- an age advanced photo along with the original school picture. He kept Peri on the news long after interest would normally have failed. He reminded the detectives on other forces as well as his old one that this was a case yet to be solved.
When Demi, worn by work and worry and hounding from the press, had gotten the flu and missed so much work the hospital had an excuse to let her go Merrick had gone to her supervisor and convinced the hospital to give Demi her job back. An envelope with enough cash to make up the difference for the days of missed work appeared anonymously in Demi's mailbox. Merrick had claimed to know nothing about it.
He finished the coffee. "The tree looks nice." What do you say on Christmas Eve to the mother of the child you promised to bring home four years ago?"
"Peri likes the colored lights. I know a lot of people thing the clear lights look more elegant, but Peri likes the colored ones."
She spoke of her daughter in the present tense, Merrick noted. Still clinging to hope.
"So do I," he said. "The colored lights look. . . " he searched for a word. "Softer, more like I remember Christmas from when I was a boy."
He could have shot himself for that. . . talking about remembering Christmases past. Demi took his hand in hers, offering comfort and understanding when she should have been on the receiving end. He held her hand for a moment, then rose. He didn't have to say that he would keep on searching for her daughter or that he would be back to keep this Christmas vigil with her next year, or that, like Demi, he would go into the woods again and scatter peanuts for imaginary elephants. These things didn't need saying and what did need saying he couldn't say.
John wasn't sure at what point he fell in love with Demi. He'd never gotten personally involved with a case before. He'd know how that clouds judgement, how far from professionalism that can take a man. At one point he'd tried to tell himself that he'd fallen for Demi by default -- essentially she was the woman in his life. There hadn't been room for anyone else so she had filled the vacant spot. That's what he told himself. He knew it wasn't true, though.
He loved her and could never tell her. Even if there hadn't been the barrier of age (he had a dozen years on Demi) this waking nightmare would always be between them. He couldn't ask for happiness with her when she was walking in the borderlands between hope and despair -- a place where it was always winter and never Christmas. If the worst happened and Peri's body was someday found her mother would not want to be reminded of the man who had failed to keep his promise to bring her home. If -- miracle -- he somehow kept his recklessly made vow . . . well, he knew how easily gratitude could be confused with affection.
Walking back to the car he reached into his coat pocket for the keys. There was something in the pocket -- a package. He sat in the car and unwrapped the tiny box. Inside lay a tie-tac in the shape of an elephant. There was no card, no note.
Six months later he had just finished a consulting job and had a day to waste. He made his usual stops to put out the reminders about Peri, then picked up a newspaper. The bottom of the fold story was about the new baby elephant born at the local zoo. He still had a few hours before his plane left. Maybe he'd be inspired at the zoo, inspired with a new idea to help him find a little girl who loved elephants. As always he kept his eyes open. Peri would be eleven now. He scanned every little girl that passed by. It was a long shot, but sometimes abductors did take their victims out in public -- when they felt sure of their power.
He glanced at child after child, not being fooled by hair color or cut -- those things could be easily altered. Too old. . . too young. . . . He stood in front of the pachyderm exhibit, holding a striped paper bag full of peanuts. A small hand reached into the bag. The little girl looked no more than eight, nine at the most -- not Peri's age. The man with her jerked the child aside.
"What do you think you are doing?" Get your hands off my kid!"
Merrick started to explain and apologize, embarrassed.
"My name is Persephone," the little girl said, edging closer to John, looking from the tie tac to Merrick's face. "I like elephants, too."
He gasped and reached for the child. "Peri!"
"Our top story tonight is stranger than fiction with the kind of happy ending you won't soon forget. Four and a half years ago seven year old Persephone Ceres was abducted from a playground near her home on Christmas Eve. By a twist of fate the detective who initially headed the investigation into her disappearance and never gave up trying to find her was the little girl's rescuer. Former police detective John Merrick had been consulting on an unrelated case hundreds of miles from where Persephone -- little Peri -- was taken. Merrick had gone to a local zoo to pass the time before his flight home and saw the child.
Both Merrick and Demeter Ceres, the child's mother, declined to be interviewed at this time. However, doctors report that Persephone is suffering from malnutrition, but is expected to make a full recovery. The medical report on Merrick says that he is out of danger and resting comfortably following surgery after being wounded with a knife by the alleged abductor.
Observers report that in the confusion resulting from the attack on Merrick the crowd panicked and Merrick's attacker and alleged abductor of the child was trampled by zoo patrons. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
The phone rang in Merrick's room. Probably some reporter, looking for a story, he thought.
"I'll get that, " said the nurse protectively.
A moment later she handed the receiver to her patient. "I think you'll want to take this one, " she said, smiling through her starched professionalism.
"John," spoke a soft voice at the other end of the line, sounding the way Christmas lights look. "John, don't wait until Christmas to come home to us."
"I'll bring the peanuts," he said, feeling something that just might be hope and joy trumpeting inside himself.
Author's note: One excursion into creativity often sparks another. This story came to me while doing collage work. Just as collages often hide secrets in plain sight there are secrets hidden in this story
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