Jennifer is a number nerd, backyard beekeeper, and writer based in Canada. Her stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash Fiction Online, Word Riot, and elsewhere. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.
Flowers in the Road
I’ve walked a lot of blacktop since leaving home almost five years ago. Worked my way across the country on one paving crew or another—driving trucks, swinging signs, making memories. Nothing’s better than a piece of road running beside you. The way it feels underneath your feet, the way it curves and twists, the way its yellow line doubles, dots, then disappears. It’s one of the only things that never leaves you, always sticking by your side.
Summer’s fully baked into the ground when I hook up with the crew on Highway 16. They’re a haggard bunch working some five kilometres outside of Smithers, British Columbia, covered in sun-drenched skin, some of them sucking on mouthfuls of chew. They’ve been working together a long time, from one end of this highway to the other and back again. I get brought on to turn a sign, filling one of only two token women positions. I’d rather be running the reclaimer, but seniority doesn’t build up when you’re always transferring from job to job. Besides, I’m lucky to get on with any crew mid-August.
The heat of the afternoon has us all run dry, and everyone’s chirping at each other, throwing shit downhill like it’s meant to fall. By the time our foreman, Billy, calls it a day, I’m pissed at exactly everybody, so I grab a bottle of water from the cooler in the back of the cone truck and start walking toward the motel we requisitioned three days ago.
Billy drives by in his pickup, says, “Tina, baby, you want a lift?” grinning like he wants his dick tugged, but I flip him off and look straight ahead. There’s no way he’s happening. I went through a bad streak of guys like him before leaving home.
Halfway to the motel, I come across a teenage girl standing next to a patch of indigo flowers, looking like the harebells my grandma grew in her garden. She’s got a scar the size of a palm print on her face, the mass skimming her eyes, shadowing the edge of her lips. She bends down and pulls on the stems, hobbles toward me wearing only one shoe, clutching the mitt-full of flowers. It’s a strange sight against the torn-up road and washed out flora. Hell, it’s a strange sight anywhere, and I don’t like seeing any child out walking around on their own all lost and aimless. Reminds me of Missy, my little niece who just up and vanished on my watch.
“Mama always told me not to hitchhike,” the girl says, stopping a few feet in front of me. A couple of twigs stick out of her hair like she’s just bust through the bushes, the corners of her mouth dry and cracked, a bleached streak in her bangs.
“Your mama’s a smart lady,” I say. “Are you . . . do you need a lift somewhere?”
“Have you seen Layla?” she asks, looking over her shoulder.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Is she walking, too?”
The girl frowns, disoriented. “She was hitchhiking to a friend’s house.”
“Well, I’ve been on this stretch of road since first thing this morning and you’re the first person I’ve seen walking.” I pause, then pull out my cell phone. “Do you want to try calling her?”
She shakes her head, looking at my phone like she’s never seen such a thing. “I don’t know her number.”
“All right, well, like I said, I haven’t seen anyone—”
“She was wearing a purple tank and cut-offs. She has long, black hair.”
“Look, why don’t I see about getting you a lift somewhere. Your mama and daddy must be really worried, and I—”
“I need to find Layla. Make sure nothing happened to her, too.”
“I’m sorry, like I said, I don’t know who Layla—”
“You should have these,” she says, holding out the harebells.
I take them, not sure what to make of all this but damn sure it’s high time for the six-pack of beer chilling in the bar fridge back in my room.
“Why don’t you come back to the motel with me,” I say. “Maybe the manager knows who Layla is.”
“I have to keep going,” she says. “You be careful.”
When I look back to ask her what I need to be careful about, she’s already gone, disappeared into the bushes or something. I press on, keeping the flowers because they remind me of my grandma, and I’m feeling like having a little family nearby right now.
The curtains are closed in my room, the AC cranking out a cool breeze. My duffel’s sitting half-packed on the floor where I left it, my small stack of paperbacks lined up on the desk stuffed in the corner and holding the only lamp in the place. I stick the flowers in a glass of old water on the side table, lie on the bed and kick off my steel-toed boots. The air wicks the sweat off my skin, and before long I don’t feel like I’m overheating anymore. I’m thinking about my family though, thinking about how they turned on me after Missy went missing. How I deserved to have them turn on me.
I crack my first beer and walk across the room, opening one of the curtains so I can watch the rest of the crew lazing around the pool below. Part of me wants to go down and join them, but I always feel like they’re judging me and my history. That they think I’m bad news, too.
I down another beer before heading out for some food. The family restaurant on the corner serves up a mean bowl of chili, and an even better margarita. I sit out on the patio underneath a Budweiser umbrella, and watch the cars wind along the highway while I eat. A couple of families sit around me, red-faced and sweaty. Makes me miss my other nieces and nephews—all nine of them who’re spread out across the country. Sometimes I happen through one of their cities, pave a couple of their roads, but I never go visit. I’m still Tina who can’t be trusted as far as they’re concerned, despite the fact that it’s been almost six years since Missy wandered off while I was napping. Some things families never forgive and they never forget. Which is why I go wherever the roads will take me. As far and as fast.
The sun slips behind Hudson Bay Mountain on my walk home. I stay on the gravel shoulder, push my sunglasses on top of my head, and try to enjoy the dusky sky that stretches out in front of me. The familiar crunch of the pebbles underneath my feet calms me. I don’t think I’ll ever stay somewhere long enough to settle down again. I’ll just follow the roads, and hope they lead me toward Missy or away from the incredible weight of guilt that’s still squashing me down.
I walk past our worksite on my way back, pass a bunch of yellow crownbeard lying in the pile of rubble we dug up during the day. They look vibrant and fragile against the rocks, so I pull them out of the dirt and brush them off as best I can. Decide to stick them in the glass with the harebells, maybe spruce up my room a bit. They’re a little wilted, but look like they’ll come back easy enough. Nothing that a little water can’t fix.
“When’d you become a flower child?” Billy yells from his seat around the pool when I get back to the motel.
“Nothing wrong with something pretty,” I say, making my way toward the staircase.
“You can say that again,” he says, whistling after me.
I read a few pages of Lives of Girls and Women before turning off the AC and cracking a window. Wakeup calls are set for five so we can be getting ready on the road by six. The sound of cars rushing by on the road lulls me to sleep.
A ringing phone jars me out of a dreamless sleep, and I lift and replace the receiver without listening to the cheery person on the other end. I made that mistake once before and wanted to hunt down whoever it was that sounded so chipper. Pushing my hair out of my eyes, I sit up, try to shake the bits of beer still hanging onto my brain. It isn’t a hangover, but it’s close to one.
“Morning,” comes a voice from the foot of my bed.
Jumping to my feet, I knock over the glass sitting on my side table going for the lamp. Figure it’s the only thing close enough to defend myself with.
A girl with bedraggled black hair stands watching me. I blink the sleep from my eyes and see the girl can’t be any more than thirteen, her face all drawn in like she’s been hungry for a long time. A scar runs across her throat, all jagged and red.
“How the hell did you get inside my room?” I demand, looking around to see if she’s alone. My deadbolt is still locked, my window only cracked. Who knows how long she’s been in here, watching me sleep.
She takes a step forward, but I brandish the lamp like I’m going to smash her in the face with it, so she stays put.
“Get out of here!” I yell, my eyes stuck on her horrific scar, making me wonder what’s with all the girls in this town.
“Please pick up the flowers,” she says, gesturing to the wet mess on the floor by my feet.
I ignore her request. “What are you doing in my room? Get the hell out.”
She bites her lip, her eyes widening. “Please, the flowers.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” I sputter, putting down the lamp. “Why are you so worried about the goddamn flowers?”
The girl drops to her knees and picks them up, her hands shaking as she carefully places the stems in the glass. She smells like charcoal and gasoline.
“Can you put some water in it?” she asks, holding the glass out toward me.
“Can you tell me what you’re doing in my room?”
There’s a lost look about her, a look that makes me think she might be messed up like me. It’s the only thing that keeps me from throwing her out on her ass right away.
She extends the glass a little further.
A bottle of water is sitting on top of the bar fridge, so I use it to fill the glass and put it back on my side table. It occurs to me that the only flowers in the glass are the crownbeard. The harebells are gone. I look around the floor, but can’t see them anywhere, and I’m sure as hell not getting down on my knees to look under the bed until I figure out what’s going on here.
“I’m Layla,” the girl says.
“How on earth did you—”
“Freda found me in the forest.”
“Listen, this is so messed up. What are you’re doing here?”
I grab a t-shirt out of my duffel and pull it over my head, trying to get my thoughts together.
“Who’s Freda?” I ask.
“For the last time, what are you doing—? Wait a minute, what does Freda look like?”
Someone pounds on my door, making me jump. “Truck leaves in fifteen,” yells a voice.
Layla fidgets with the hem of her shirt, her collarbones jutting out of its scoop neck. “She’s taller than I am. Has hair all the way down to her waist with a blonde streak in her bangs. There’s a scar like a hand on her face.”
Goddamn, she could be talking about the girl I saw yesterday afternoon on the side of the road.
“I think I saw her yesterday, heading out of the forest.”
Layla nods. “She likes it in there because it’s cool.”
“I’ll bet it is,” I say, thinking about the day I have ahead of me, sweating my tits off in the sun again. I want to keep talking to this girl, to try and sort this out, but I can’t be late for work. Billy would have my ass, for sure. And I don’t want that to happen in any form.
“I have to get to work, but I’ll keep an eye out for her, okay?”
“Okay,” Layla says, moving toward my door. “Be careful.”
“Always,” I say, watching her go. “Next time knock if you want to talk, all right?”
She nods and smiles a grin that stretches across her face.
Billy’s waiting for the elevator out in the hallway, flipping a pack of smokes between his fingers.
“She’s a little young for you, isn’t she?” he asks.
“Screw you,” I say, following a trail of indigo-coloured petals toward the stairwell. They look exactly like harebells.
I can’t get Layla or Freda out of my mind all morning. I look for the two of them in every car that stops, scan the edge of the forest when there’s a lull in traffic to see if they materialize. Waking up to Layla was the weirdest thing that’s happened to me in a long time, and I’m bothered by the way she can’t find Freda. Bothered by the way Freda couldn’t find Layla yesterday, too. It’s bringing back the sick pit in my stomach, the pit that grew bigger by the day until I left my hometown. Kept a constant grip on my nerves.
The lunch truck arrives right on schedule at noon. I buy an egg salad sandwich and a package of teriyaki beef jerky, then tell Billy I have an errand to run in town. He starts to give me a hard time, but I make some comment about needing supplies for my lady business and he turns even redder under that sunburn of his and tosses me the keys to one of the pickups, mumbling something about not taking too long.
The police station is about ten minutes away, just like everything else in Smithers. A couple of cruisers are parked in the lot out front alongside a couple of hatchbacks with their windows rolled down. There’s an overwhelming smell of fried chicken and burnt coffee inside, like nobody’s been taught how to make lunch or properly brew a pot. A couple of deadish plants line the windowsills.
“Can I help you?” asks a tall man standing behind the counter, flipping through a file. His name tag says Wilson.
“I don’t know,” I say, not sure where to start now that I’m here. “I think someone might be missing.”
“Who might that be?” he asks.
“A girl named Freda.”
Wilson pushes his file aside.
“I’m working with the road crew on Highway 16,” I continue, unnerved by his intense gaze. “I met a girl on the side of the road yesterday afternoon who I think is Freda.”
“Why do you think she’s missing?” he asks.
“Well, I don’t know that she is. But her friend Layla seems to think so. She’s really worried about her.” Worried enough to break into my room to tell me about it for whatever reason.
Wilson frowns at me. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. But it’s Tina. Tina Finlayson.”
“Hold on for just a second, Tina. I’ll be right back.”
Wilson walks through a door at the back of the room, leaving me alone and a little freaked out about what I’m doing here in the first place. I haven’t been near a police station since leaving the prairies, all those times I went in to answer more questions and to look at more pictures. It’s the worst kind of defeat, having to keep saying, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘I’m not sure’, while your brother’s staring at you with angry eyes. I’m totally inclined to run out the way I came in. And fast. But it’s recalling the look on Layla’s face that keeps me standing, waiting for Wilson to return.
Which he does. Eventually.
He’s with another officer, an older woman with a binder tucked underneath her arm, a pencil propped behind her ear, and bags below her eyes that rival mine.
“This is Inspector Cartwright,” Wilson says. “She’s going to ask you a few questions.”
“Okay, but I have to get back to work soon,” I say, taking a deep breath and reminding myself that I’m not the one who’s in trouble this time.
Inspector Cartwright ushers me into a room down the hall and closes the door behind us. She asks if I’d like something to drink, which I politely decline because standing in the middle of the road all day, having to piss, is like dying a slow death. It’s a fine balance.
“Sergeant Wilson said you have a friend who’s missing,” she says, placing the binder on the desk between us.
“She’s not my friend,” I say. “Just a friend of a friend.”
“Named Freda—is that right?”
I nod, watch her flip through a binder of pictures until she stops at one and swivels it around so it’s facing me. A picture of the girl I saw standing on the side of the road is staring back at me, all right. Her scar isn’t there, but everything else is the same.
“Yup, that’s her,” I say.
Cartwright puts a sticky note on the top of the page, then shuffles through a little farther, stopping at a second picture.
“And this is Layla? The girl who told you Freda was missing?”
“Yup, sure is.”
Inspector Cartwright leans back in her chair and stares at me. I can tell from all my past run-ins with the law, that the look on her face isn’t a good one. She’s trying to sort something out, trying to figure out what I’m all about. But I’m not about anything anymore. I just chase the road.
“Is there a problem?” I ask.
“When were you hired on with this road crew?” she asks.
“About a week ago.”
“Where did you work before that?”
“Did a stint on the Deerfoot in Alberta.”
She jots something down in her notebook.
“Have you worked on Highway 16 before?”
I shake my head.
“Heard anything about it?”
I shake my head again. “What’s this all about?”
“These two girls you claim to have talked to—Freda George and Layla John. They’ve been missing for forty years.”
Her words are like a punch in my gut, and I swear I can feel the blood drain out of my face. Hell, I can feel it drain out of my whole body.
“What did you say?”
“Missing and presumed dead,” she says, raising a brow.
Cartwright pushes the binder closer toward me, her eyes practically boring holes right through me.
“How old were they when they went missing?” I ask.
“Freda was fifteen and Layla was twelve.”
My armpits prick with sweat, and the egg salad sandwich I scarfed down on the way here starts to flip flop around in my stomach.
“And it’s not just the two of them. Dozens of girls have gone missing around here over the last forty years. I’d like you to talk to a sketch artist. Try to update their profiles with a portrait of what they look like now. Can you take me to the stretch of road you saw Freda on yesterday?”
I nod, but my mind’s going a million miles a minute—because Freda and Layla haven’t aged at all. They still look exactly like they do in their Missing Person pictures, filed away in Cartwright’s binder.
Billy balks at the site of the police cruiser following me back through the work site, busies himself driving the reclaimer while I show Cartwright where I saw Freda. Billy’s dug up a fair bit of road by the time she leaves, handing me her card and asking me to drop in tomorrow to sit with the sketch artist. She looks totally jazzed that she’s got a new lead, and I wonder how long her case has been cold. I don’t have the heart to tell her something strange is going on with the girls. Besides, I don’t want her thinking I’m crazy. Not until I figure out what the hell’s going on.
“What was that all about?” Billy asks, swinging out of the reclaimer and walking over to where I’m directing traffic, flipping my sign back and forth. It sure is mind-numbing work, but my mind’s working in overdrive now, and I can’t wait to get back to my motel room.
“Not much,” I say, taking off my hard hat and running a hand through my sweat-drenched hair.
“It must have been about something.”
I shrug, try to play it cool. “She was asking about a girl I saw out here yesterday. Said she might be missing or something.”
“One I saw out here yesterday.”
He frowns. “Is that who you were messing around with this morning?”
“An awful lot of girls seem to go missing around you, Finlayson.”
I bite my lip to stop from crying, having promised myself I was all cried out a couple of years ago. Instead, I ignore Billy and go back to watching traffic.
He takes a few steps closer, so he’s all up in my face, and says, “Invite me over next time. I’d love to get in on a little of that action.”
I rip my sunglasses off, stare into his bloodshot eyes, and say, “I could get you fired, you know?”
Billy laughs. “For what?”
“Harassment, you asshole.”
His face turns sour. “The hell you could,” he says before stomping back to the reclaimer.
I spend the rest of my shift thinking about where I’ll go to next. What road is calling my name. On the way back to the motel, I pull a few pink willowherbs from today’s debris on the side of the road, wonder why there are so many flowers growing in the old asphalt of this road.
Freda and Layla both sit on my bed. They’re cross-legged, looking at me when I walk through the door. I stand and stare back at them for a few seconds before grabbing one of the two beer left in my fridge. I crack it right away because I’m going to need a little booze to get through the conversation I’m about to have. There aren’t any flowers in the glass on my side table when I put the willowherbs inside. The crownbeard has disappeared, just like the harebells. Petals of each colour surround the two girls.
“Oh, good. You found Marina,” Layla says.
“Who?” I ask.
She gestures toward the willowherbs. “Magenta was Marina’s favourite colour.”
I look from Layla to Freda to the glass and back.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“My favourite colour was always yellow,” says Layla. “Just like the sun.”
Layla turns to Freda, who smiles. “Thank you for finding Layla. I was really worried about her.”
I take a long pull of beer, then another and another until the can’s almost empty.
“Who . . . what are you?” I finally get out.
“We’re the missing,” Layla says, braiding a piece of her hair.
“Are you . . . alive?”
Freda smiles. “In a way.”
“In what way?” I ask, finishing my drink and grabbing the last can.
“Well, we’re sort of wilted — you’re somehow bringing us back to life.”
I choke on my sip, coughing out a mouthful of beer. The only towels in the place are in the bathroom. I grab one of the big ones and stick it on the floor, stomping on it with my steel-toed boots to clean up the spill.
“There are more of us, you know,” Layla says once I’ve finished cleaning up. “Have you seen any green flowers? My sister’s favourite colour was green, but it’s such an unusual colour for a flower…”
I sink down on the bed beside them, trying to get a handle on what they’re telling me. I think back to the binder of pictures Inspector Cartwright flipped through today, wondering how many girls were in there. How many girls have gone missing.
“Where are you all missing from?” I ask.
“All up and down Highway 16 and around,” Freda says. “Mostly between Prince George and Prince Rupert.”
“Forty years of missing girls,” Layla says. “I was one of the first to go missing, you know.”
“Do you remember what happened? I could help—”
“Not at first, but more now. I still don’t remember anything past being taken though,” Freda says, fingering the scar on her face. “It’s probably for the best that way.”
She’s right, I know it. I wouldn’t want to remember the way I went out either, that’s for sure.
“How can I help you?”
Freda reaches out and grabs my hand. “We need you to find our bodies.”
I almost choke on my beer again. “You want me to what? How do you expect me to do that?”
Layla spins her long hair between her fingers. “We think our bodies must be close to our flowers.”
“I can’t . . . I don’t know how I’d go about doing that—”
“You just need to look for more of our flowers and dig up the ground around them,” says Freda.
Layla smiles at me like it’ll be the easiest thing in the world to do.
“Why do you want me to find your bodies?”
“Because we need closure. We can’t move on until our bodies have been given a proper burial.”
Her words prick tears in my eyes, and I blink them away. Missy might still be alive, growing up alongside the asshole who stole her from me — from her family. Or she might have been discarded beside some road as well, all disheveled and scarred. Either way, she’s never going to get a proper burial. What would her flower be?
My eyes meet Layla’s. “Why me?”
“Because we think you need closure, too.”
I don’t ask how she knows that, just head out to the liquor store for a bottle of rye once they’ve fallen asleep in my room. And maybe a deck of smokes.
I walk the lines on the road, end up at the work site, sit in the reclaimer with my bottle and wish I could turn the ignition over and tear up the rest of the road. Find all the girls, free all the girls. All the missing.
The fiery cherry of my cigarette lights up the cab, blowing out the darkness with its glare. The sound of boots strutting up on gravel perks up my ears, and I stick my cigarette out in a pop can on the dash. Nobody else should be around this time of night. I slip out of the cab, wondering if it’s another one of the missing, and walk straight into Billy.
“Thought I saw you walking this way,” he says. “What are you doing out here?”
I don’t like the way he’s looking at me, or the boozy smell on his breath. Or that mine smells the same way.
“Forgot something earlier.”
He takes a step closer. “Want to tell me what you forgot?”
I need to be getting back to my motel room. I don’t need to be here with Billy, especially not drunk Billy.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I’ll find it in the morning.”
“I don’t mind helping you look,” he says, reaching out and running a finger along my cheek.
His touch makes me nauseated, like I might just throw up all the booze I’ve been drinking tonight, and I take a step away, shake my head, and pull my sweatshirt closed around me.
“I don’t want your help.”
He follows me, says, “I don’t care what you want.”
I turn to run, to get the hell away from Billy before I can’t or before I do something I’m going to regret, something that’s going to land me in jail, and see Freda and Layla walking toward me. They’re carrying large sticks, and there’s another girl with them, one who’s leaving magenta-coloured petals in her wake.
She’s a fair bit older than the others, with a thick scar that runs around the circumference of her shaved head. And she looks pissed.
“She said she doesn’t want your help,” Marina says, glaring at Billy.
Billy teeters on his feet, looking from me to the girls and back.
“What’s this, some sort of pussy posse?” he slurs.
“You could say that,” Freda says.
“We’re the missing,” Layla says, her usual effervescent smile stretched across her face.
Billy bugs out, stumbling away from us, half-walking, half-running down the road toward the motel. I’ve never been so happy to see someone leave before, and I’ve had a lot of people leave on me.
“Thanks,” I say, turning toward the girls. “You saved my ass there.”
“It’s the least we could do,” says Freda.
Layla takes my hand on the way back to the motel, hers tiny inside mine. For a second, I’m back home, holding hands with one of my nieces or nephews, watching them take in the world, and I miss them. Really, really miss them.
“You’re not going to leave us, are you?” Layla asks, giving my hand a squeeze.
I smile down at her, not sure what to say because part of me really wants to leave and badly—get away from Billy, move onto somewhere new, somewhere fresh. Another road, another city. But there’s a purpose for me here, and I haven’t had a purpose short of twisting my sign back and forth and watching cars zip by in a long time.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “I’ll stick around for a little longer and help you. Find your bodies, if that’s what you need me to do.”
“Thank you,” Layla says, her eyes wide like the moon when she looks up at me.
Crickets click in the brush that runs alongside the road, the occasional owl screeches. A car drives by and honks at us, probably because we’re walking in the dark all spread out on the street like we don’t have a care in the world. I find a handful of scarlet catchfly flopped down on the side of the road and pull them out of the dirt, twiddling their roots between my fingers.
“Wonder who that is,” Freda says.
I cut work the next morning, tell Billy I’m taking the day and that he’d better not have anything to say about it otherwise I’ll slap harassment charges on him so fast he won’t know what’s hit him. Tell him I know where he sleeps at night, that we all know where he sleeps at night. I get up with the girls who’re squished side-by-side on the bed. The easy chair in the corner isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve had to sleep on either. On our way out, I stop by and tell the motel manager that I need a bigger room, that I have family staying with me now.
Traffic’s building up along the highway already, everyone off to their jobs around the city, or moving along someplace else. Making their way through the twists and the turns. Wilson’s manning the desk at the station again, his hair wet, smelling fresh like Irish Spring soap or something. He looks at the glass full of catchfly and arches his eyebrow.
“Those for me?” he asks.
“For Inspector Cartwright. Figured she needed something alive,” I say with a smile, gesturing to the dead plants along the windowsill.
He looks at the girls standing behind me. “Is she expecting all of you?”
I can see him taking in their worn-down appearance, their horrendous scars, the pools of petals they’re standing in.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “But I think she’ll be interested in hearing what they have to say.”
Minutes later, Cartwright ushers us down the hallway, telling Wilson to hold all her calls, clutching her binder in her hands like it’s her bible. Her eyes dart between the girl’s faces, and I can see her disbelief, see the dozens of questions zipping through her mind as we sit and start to talk.
“Brandie!” Layla squeals as a girl with short, brown hair, blooms out of the catchfly sitting in the middle of the conference room table, petals falling from her fingertips like blood.
“All right,” says Cartwright. “Why don’t you start at the beginning.”
It gives me great pleasure to tell Billy where he can shove his job when I get back from the station. Seems the police want me to help find the missing girls, and they’re willing to pay me as a consultant for the rest of the summer to do so.
The cops take the girls and I out looking for harebells, crownbeard, catchfly, and willowherb, snaking through the lodgepole pine and balsam fir lining the highway. Freda keeps Layla’s hand in hers, singing some sort of song as we walk, trying to keep her calm. It’d be an ominous feeling, to go out looking for your own body, I think, and I’m filled with anticipation the farther into the forest we walk.
We come across a tuft of harebells half a kilometer from where I met Freda for the first time. The girls fidget nervously as the cops dig six feet down, the sound of their shovels clanging as they hit the odd stone. Layla starts shaking the deeper they get, starts crying when they announce they’ve found nothing.
“What if we’re never found?” she asks on our way back to the motel.
“Don’t give up hope,” I say, realizing I haven’t given up on finding Missy. “Don’t ever give up hope.”
It takes us almost three weeks to find the first girl. It’s Marina, five feet under a cluster of willowherbs in a clearing just off the highway. Her skull is scarred, her bones askew. She howls at the sight, overcome with emotions I can only imagine resemble those I’ll feel when I find Missy. Almost immediately, she starts shedding her petals. They’re sloughing off her skin so fast, falling to the ground like raindrops, and then she’s gone.
Freda runs her fingers through Marina’s petals. “She’ll be at peace now.”
Weeks later, when the cops are finished processing and documenting the evidence, the girls work at cleaning Marina’s bones. They tell me her family moved out of the area decades ago, that Marina was never able to track them down — but that she deserves a proper burial all the same. They place the bones in a mortuary cabin on the banks of the Bulkley River, spreading her petals around the floor, their sweet scent filling up the space. I stick the bread and berries they asked me to bring along by the door on our way out, and sit on the rocks by the river, listening to them sing until night falls.
We manage to find five other bodies before winter hits, including Brandie and Freda.
“You’ll come back in the spring?” Layla asks as I pack up my motel room before heading to the airport.
“I promise,” I say. “Where you going to stay until I get back?”
“I think I might stay at the cabin up by the river. Feels safe to me.”
I nod. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
She gives me a hug, stuffs a handful of crownbeard petals inside my jacket pocket. “Give these to Missy when you find her, all right?”
My eyes well up with tears I still refuse to let go.
“I will,” I say.