“gone” by Chad Williamson
Read our interview with Chad Williamson
Agnes is on the front porch, listening to the creak of the ancient boards, walking to the edge and staring down the street before the screen door snaps shut. She cups her hand to her mouth and calls, “Miranda!”
“Right here, Mama,” a small voice says behind her. Agnes spins and there stands Miranda. Miranda is six, small for her age, with large brown eyes and fresh splatters of mud across her face and clothing.
Agnes inhales deeply and wonders if it’s right to hate something about your own child. “Go inside and wash up,” she says. “Lunch is on the table.”
She blinks and Miranda’s gone inside and the kitchen faucet already running, without the screen door opening or closing.
An overwhelming exhaustion erupts from nowhere and washes over Agnes. She has lived in this little town her entire life, taught from youth that life is hard and wearying, that sleep is your only respite until death. She understands all too well what it means to feel the subtle pulsing ache throughout every fiber of muscle and ounce of bone, but this weariness is different, something that cuts deeper to invisible parts of her for which she has no names.
She knows it is borne out of the sudden appearance of Miranda, because her daughter is covered in mud, while everything else in town is dried and cracked and brown because there’s been no rain for over a week.
The first time Miranda disappears, she’s two. Agnes crouches next to the bath tub and Miranda splashes happily, smelling of soap, her fine dark hair splintered in a dozen different directions.
Agnes turns for a towel and her mind registers that there are no splashing sounds, Miranda’s endless babble silenced. She looks back and sees her daughter is gone.
When Miranda reappears 12 hours later, Agnes and Francis are gathered in the living room with Rev. Pipher, the Episcopalian minister, and members of Agnes’ knitting circle, quietly praying. Crying shatters the silence.
When everyone opens their eyes, they find Miranda sobbing in the middle of the room, her tears cutting clean streaks through the thick dirt clotted across her face and body.
There’s no explanation. The word “miracle” is thrown around. Francis clutches his daughter in arms thick with muscles from the mines. Agnes stands a few feet away and watches the child, reaching out to stroke her hair, almost expecting her to turn to smoke and disappear.
When she’s five, Miranda begins bringing things back with her. The first time, she’s gone two days and returns holding a wooden nutcracker shaped like a soldier. No explanation, nothing. She just drops it and runs off to play.
As she continues to disappear, she brings back other things. A child’s top. A woman’s broach. Cuff links. Photographs filled with the faces of strangers.
Agnes and Francis eventually fill a steamer trunk with these random things, little pieces of Miranda’s travels. At night, when Francis is at work and Miranda sleeps, Agnes goes into the trunk and sorts through everything. She finds the photographs most striking; hundreds and thousands of unfamiliar faces frozen in a joy Agnes finds as foreign as languages from other lands.
They worry, though for Francis, it’s worse by far. He loses sleep and misses work. He finds cold comfort in prayer. Methods to keep her home are tried, and fail. Tethering her to the bed leaves empty rope the next morning. Constant vigilance means she vanishes in the time it takes someone to blink.
Agnes knows Miranda will be back. Always. She thinks it is a matter in faith that her daughter will always return. She hopes it is faith that allows her to sleep soundly each night.
Francis was married once before; her name was Gloria, and their wedding picture sits on the mantle over the fireplace.
He was young in the photograph, the picture taken before Francis went off to war and returned and went into the mines and a daughter was born and they had the joy that time buys. They were all driving home from Dairy Queen, laughing and singing along to “Sh-Boom” (Francis was always been more of a Frankie Laine man, but the song made the girls laugh) when the car swerved into their lane. Francis saw it too late and cut the wheel but it was too much, and the Ford Custom went off the road into a ditch and everything went black.
When Francis wakes up three days later in the hospital, he is a widower, and childless.
Once Francis is released from the hospital and his wife and daughter are buried and he’s home again, everything connected to Gloria or the child goes into boxes and is pushed into corners in the attic. Everything but the wedding picture. That remains above the fireplace, where Francis stares at it every night, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and weeping the tears he never lets anyone else see.
Agnes is cooking cabbage when Francis comes home from work. Miranda, now seven, is suddenly behind her mother’s skirt, startling her. The child rushes to her father and he envelopes her small body in a hug, coating her in coal dust, telling her how she is the greatest girl in the world.
Miranda steps back and holds out a silver pocket watch in her tiny hands and says, “This is for you.”
He picks it up and watches it twist at the end of its thin chain. He wants to ask her where it came from, but he knows she won’t tell him, or she can’t. The smile on her face catches the breath in his chest, and Francis clasps the watch in his hands. “Thank you. I’ll carry it with me every day.”
Miranda goes to play. Francis straightens his body with difficulty, shakes his head and kisses his wife gently on the cheek before going to bathe and wash the day off of him.
Agnes sighs softly and stirs the cabbage.
No one understands how Miranda disappears, or where she goes. By the time she is able to speak, she still doesn’t say. Agnes and Francis each ask her a hundred times but she just smiles.
How long she’s gone is always different. Sometimes a few minutes. Sometimes days. She sits in the middle of the living room floor, reading Nancy Drew, while Agnes knits and Francis finishes the newspaper. There isn’t a noise, a pop or snap or bang, no flash of lightning or smell of smoke and sulfur, nothing that signifies anything. One second she’s there, and the next she’s gone.
They can’t hide the truth of Miranda. It is accepted as surely as the shift change whistle at the mine. Wonder fades into familiarity. The neighbors grow used to seeing Miranda on her bike and without warning the bike traveling riderless down the street until it collapses onto the sidewalk, its wheels spinning.
There are no reporters with TV news vans, or gawkers. Scientists never rush to study Miranda. There are no books written about the miraculous vanishing girl of the West Virginia hills. It is a small town; it knows how to keep its secrets, and how to keep Miranda safe. At least, as safe as she can be kept.
The Baptists come to pray over Miranda. The Episcopalians believe there is divinity in the child. The Pentecostals say she’s a sign of the end of days. The Lutherans often bring casseroles.
Agnes sits quietly in church the summer after her high school graduation, the service completed and everyone headed home to fried chicken dinners. She watches her mother chat with the ladies of the church auxiliary, planning the next potluck. Her brothers are grouped with the other boys of the church, playfully pushing and slugging at one another, showing who is the strongest to the young women of the church. Her father stands with other men, miners with pale, rough skin, looking uncomfortable in their once-a-week suits.
Her hands are folded neatly in her lap, resting atop her Bible. Most of the girls her age clutch young men whose last names they will take and whose children they will bear. She is different from her friends, though. She never seeks the comfort of awkward boys with bad skin and haphazard facial hair, nor to define her worth through an ability to have supper on the table when he comes home from work, or to produce children he will provide for but will never nurture or comfort.
Agnes doesn’t date. She is called names. Rumors are whispered, allegations made, nasty things written on bathroom walls. She doesn’t care. She dreams of things bigger than this nothing town. Of the world beyond these mountains. Of distant lands and new sensations and experiences every day. She smiles when she thinks of these things, and those around her narrow their eyes, wondering what her secret is.
Her father breaks from the crowd and walks toward her. A man follows close behind. He seems nervous, his dress shirt once white but moving toward gray, the knot of his tie as wide as a fist. Agnes notices his eyes. They are kind, and they show a man far less sure of himself than she’s come to expect.
He extends a rough hand toward her, a hand that signifies long hours of hard work, a hand that belongs to a man willing to work to make a life for her. His smile is soft and gentle, deepening the creases that cross his face.
“Hi,” he says. “My name’s Francis. I work with your dad in the mines.”
She accepts his hand. “I’m Agnes. Pleased to meet you.”
Agnes is 18. Francis is 39.
Sometimes, Agnes feels the spirits of Gloria and the dead child moving through the house. She sees shadows staring from corners, calling to her. In those times she sits motionless and waits for the sun to pass through the sky, the shadows to lengthen and fade to black, and those voices to grow silent.
One day, she goes into the attic and opens the boxes of Francis’ past life. There are teddy bears and picture books, a yellowed wedding dress and jewelry boxes, little coveralls and high-heeled shoes. She finds photo albums, page after page of Francis and Gloria slowly aging, a baby suddenly appearing and becoming a dark-haired girl who bears a striking resemblance to Miranda.
By the time the child is wearing a gingham dress and black patent shoes, Agnes takes the picture out and flips it over. A careful feminine hand had written “Miranda, age 5, 1951.”
Agnes replaces the photo in its album, makes everything the way it was before and hurries downstairs, slamming the attic door shut and dropping to her knees and breaking into waves of tears.
Years pass like water through fingers. Miranda grows, and still she vanishes without preamble. Sometimes Agnes looks across the dinner table, in those rare moments all three are there, and wonders who this person is. She has her father’s eyes, his soft smile, even his kindness.
Agnes searches for something, any piece or particle of herself in Miranda — a hint of laughter or a hobby, a habit or the way she holds her hands — and each time she pulls back, casts her eyes downward, and wonders what to make for supper tomorrow night.
Tomorrow is the last day of the year.
Today, Agnes sits in the living room with the rhythmic clicking of her knitting needles and Jim Ed Brown singing “Morning” on the radio. At last glance Miranda was in her room, reading. They have little to say to one another; Agnes’ friends declare it part of the age, a phase that Miranda will pass through. Agnes nods and pushes the conversation to something else.
It’s nearing noon and Agnes needs to start dinner soon. There’s chicken in the refrigerator, and potatoes and green beans canned from the summer in the pantry. It’s all a process she knows by rote now, and she wants to finish the blanket for Doris Peterson’s grandson.
Then she hears the explosion in the distance. Her needles clatter to the floor. For some reason, she rushes to Miranda’s room, but there is no one there.
Agnes returns home in the black dress she bought special at Murdoch’s Department Store. Thirty-eight men died four days ago. Thirty-eight new widows. It was not easy to find a black dress; they had all vanished from the racks, but Mr. Murdoch had a few in back, old stock, out of style but style wasn’t at issue.
Francis’ funeral is the fifth burial of the day. Her parents are long gone. Her brothers are both in the ground already, side-by-side when a roof caved in on the mine they worked at a few years ago. She realizes she has no other family but Miranda now, and Miranda has yet to reappear. Agnes isn’t sure if she cares.
The town has turned out to support its own, its freshly-minted widows. Once Francis is in the ground, everyone moves on to homes and churches and union halls to mourn. Everyone except Agnes, who says little to anyone, and instead simply returns home.
She moves through the house like a spirit, passing the table where Francis’ pipes sit, the chair he sat in every night, the coat that smells of coal dust and cologne hanging by the front door, passing by it all but touching nothing, noticing nothing.
She walks by Miranda’s room. The door is cracked and she pushes it open. It is empty, of course. She enters and feels the chill swallow her. She rarely enters Miranda’s room for this very reason.
The space feels less like a bedroom and more like a way station, a momentary stop before Miranda is off on her next great adventure. Agnes wishes she could find a way to talk to Miranda, ask her what she sees, what she does, what it’s like to not see the world through a black-and-white television and frame by the front room window.
She sees something gleaming softly atop the dresser. Francis’ silver pocket watch.
She holds it and remembers Francis tucking it into his jacket pocket the morning before going to work, the way he did every morning since Miranda gave it to him.
“Mama,” a gentle voice says to her.
Agnes turns to find Miranda in the doorway. Her face is smudged with coal dust. It covers her clothing, its scent fills the room. Miranda’s eyes flicker down toward the pocket watch. For a moment, Agnes sees herself in Miranda, in the sorrow and regret that fills her daughter’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Miranda says softly, almost as a prayer.
Agnes blinks, and then Miranda is gone.
About the Author
Chad Williamson is a writer living in Charleston, WV. A native of eastern Kentucky, Chad has a degree in journalism from Eastern Kentucky University and the majority of a masters in media studies from West Virginia State University. Chad works as a public information specialist for the West Virginia Department of Administration following a decade in journalism. He is the proud father of two (Hannah, 14, and Jamie, 11), and is currently trying to finish any of three or four different novels he’s working on at any point. “I’m a huge fan of genre – all genre,” Chad said. “I love how writers like Bradbury or Ellison worked subversively within genre, and how someone like Michael Chabon completely defies it while also reveling in it. I’m completely at home in fantasy, crime, science fiction, whatever takes my interest at that point.”
Read our interview with Chad Williamson