[First published by Dead Beats Literary Blog, November 5, 2013]
A town could die from the inside out.
That was what Kira Manning thought as she gazed absently out from the wide front window of Manning Hardware in Willibee, Massachusetts. A single loss close to its heart can reverberate throughout a town, in the same manner that a malignant cancer flourishes throughout a body.
On the surface, things might look the same. Main Street beyond her window still held the same cars and passersby. Eddie Berenger, the town drunk, still ambled along with his big, dark green Army knapsack, ever laboring under the misconception that nobody knew it held a 12-pack. Anna Mirren walked smartly along with her arms full of choir notes for the Willibee First Baptist Church Adult Choir. And the prim Mrs. Bell still strolled like royalty along the sidewalk, her corgi keeping perfect pace with her like a diligent squire.
But that was the surface. Today, Willibee was a changed place. On a telephone pole just outside the store window, a poster broadcast a word in bold black letters:
Below that was a photograph. A handsome 11-year-old boy with closely cropped black hair smiled broadly out at passersby. That smile suggested a soul who had never seen a rainy day in his life. If the boy himself had been standing there on the sidewalk, the smile would have been contagious.
But he wasn’t there on the sidewalk. Little Tommy Drummond had been missing since May 9th, 2013. He had been playing with two friends at Falcon’s Wing (or just “The Wing,” to many locals), a twisting ravine among the piney hills along Willibee’s western edge. The Wing had been a favorite place for the town’s children – a steep, sharp rift, full of thick vines, with a sandy trail winding along the bottom. Lined by coniferous ridges, it was actually quite close to town, running alongside it. Yet it was tucked firmly under the forest’s endless canopy of pines.
Tommy had been playing with two friends – John Paulson and Troy Bristol – and they were the last two people to see him alive. And now, as the calendar crept into the waning days of a humid June, a growing consensus held that they would always be the last to have seen him.
Tommy Drummond never returned home that night. And the only sign of him the following day had been a single, bright red, left sneaker, sitting askew in the ravine’s vines.
Kira turned away from the window. She was a slender 32-year-old in a red flannel shirt, with a cascade of curly walnut hair tied back in a ponytail. She had much work to do. It was inventory day at Manning Hardware, and she preferred to run a tight ship. Besides, she was only one woman, and the store was hers alone. She liked to run a tight ship because life had taught her that she needed to do so. She’d been orphaned by a car accident when she was 14, and she was far too independent to have ever married. She was one of those uncommon people who truly treated industry as a virtue. And so she resumed counting the rows of squat green Kohlemen Lanterns on an overhead shelf.
Still, like so many others in Willibee, her thoughts returned to what the newspapers had dubbed “The Drummond Case.” Willibee was a logging community of about 2,000 souls, and the possibility of a kidnapping or murder had monopolized – no, fundamentally altered – the town consciousness. Nobody could forget the pageant of grief that was the local news coverage: Cynthia Drummond, the mother, weeping openly on television; the worn, frightened look of Sean Drummond, that father; the shell-shocked expressions of his two younger sisters.
And nobody could forget the singular nature of the case’s strangest clue. On May 11, two days after the disappearance, someone in the search party noticed a single word carved into one of the great, tall pines lining The Wing:
Police determined that it had been made with a pocket knife, and neither of Tommy Drummond’s playmates had placed it there. And nobody had a firm idea how it might relate to the boy’s disappearance. Nearly all opined, however, that it had something to do with it. The tree sat at a high pass that overlooked nearly all of Falcon’s Wing; whoever had put the message there could easily see where Tommy and the other boys had been playing. The FBI had been called in from the Boston Field Office (kidnapping is a federal crime), and their forensics experts had determined that it had been carved at about the same time the boys had been there.
Nero. What did that mean? Was it a name? If so, was it a name the abductor called himself, or was it an appellation given to him by others? A minority in the town held that it wasn’t a name at all, but a reference – “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Was that how the message was intended?
But while Rome burned, a chill settled over Willibee. The effect on the town was difficult to fully describe. Certain changes were predictable: people locked their doors at night, schools cancelled outdoor activities, parents admonished their children never to talk to strangers. And, of course, children no longer played along Falcon’s Wing.
The real effect of the disappearance, however, ran far deeper; the chill over Willibee permeated its very bones. A sense of danger can invade a place. It can occupy a town like an opposing army. It can change the nature of every single subsequent moment for the people living there. Willibee was a small town, and like many small towns, it was no stranger to provincialism. Residents there had once credited themselves for living lives that were simpler and safer than those who lived in big cities. The Drummond Case robbed them of that. The sense of safety was gone now, leaving a gap that was as painful as a roughly extracted tooth. And the most venomous aspect to all of this was a suspicion – that the crime had been committed by one of Willibee’s own. The small town was not a tourist destination, and had few visitors. Some of the lumberjacks were seasonal workers from elsewhere, but the police had investigated them with no real leads.
The possibility – the very notion – that “Nero” could be a local was not only terrifying, it also destroyed the town’s sense of identity. It was a different place now – the old Willibee was dead, while this new and frightened community had fallen, trembling, in its place. With Tommy Drummond’s loss, the town had died from the inside out.
After a solid day’s work, Kira closed Manning Hardware just a little early at 4:50 PM. Skipping her usual cup of coffee at the Bumblebee Diner, she proceeded directly home. Her left turn on Willows Street took her past one of the immense and solid walls of pines that lined the town like ramparts. Not far away was Falcon’s Wing.
She too had played along The Wing as a girl, in those forever-ago days when she had parents. Her favorite game was hide and seek, and she had been good at it. She remembered how each tree seemed like a friend and a teammate, concealing her flight from her pursuers. She remembered how the fallen pine needles on the forest floor made her footfalls silent.
Now the trees felt like a presence once again. Here, in yet another humid June evening, they stood sentinel over the secret of Tommy Drummond’s fate.
A girlish, irrational thought crossed her mind – “Maybe the pine trees took him.” She could imagine them thinking, conspiring once again, but this time as confederates with whatever dark soul had stolen away with the lost boy.
Shivering a little, Kira continued home.
(c) Eric Robert Nolan, 2013
Photo credit: By Pit1233 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons