05 Jul Pop. 0
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"Pop. 0"Written by
Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Nobody was surprised when Old Man Billings disappeared. He’d been wandering off for years, blind drunk, turning up sprawled across somebody’s back porch or curled up in the bed of somebody’s pick-up a few days later. The longest I’d ever heard of him being gone was a week. That time he’d come back into town wearing another man’s hat, with a one-way bus ticket from Binghamton in his pocket. He could never remember how he’d gotten either. Everyone was pretty forgiving of his peculiarities. They said he’d taken some shrapnel in the head in Italy back in the day, and he’d never been right since. Anyway, he’s been gone for a lot longer than a week this time. A lot longer.
When the baby disappeared, that was a lot worse. A newborn, Al and Connie Mitchell’s first. He was only about a week old, home fresh from the hospital. It was like the Lindbergh kidnapping all over again. Only this time, there was no ladder up to his room, no ransom request, and no arrest. It was horrible. State cops came in, gave Al this really hard time, like he did it—killed and hid his own kid. The cops dug up their yard, questioned all the neighbors. The FBI showed up too, if you can believe it, all the way out here, but nothing was found by way of evidence. No fingerprints, no blood stains, nothing.
Kim and Mike had been going steady all year. Mike had a brand new Trans Am, cherry red, with the black firebird design on the hood. It was a real beauty, and he’d put in some long hours at his dad’s store to earn it. Anyway, what he liked most about it was that he could drive Kim anywhere she wanted to go. Across the state line for booze, mostly. Though I had heard they’d driven all the way to the Falls in one night, just to see the sunrise, for their first month’s anniversary. That’s the kind of stuff they did. Crazy romantics. Everybody took it for granted that they would get married when they graduated. They did find the car, eventually. Way out in Hickcock’s pasture, over by Millville. Nobody could understand that. It wasn’t on the way to either of their houses, and just about as far from the main road as you could get. The paper wrote it up in very technical language, but you knew what they meant. “Signs of a struggle,” “evidence of physical injury”—in layman’s terms, it was kind of a mess inside, and there was blood. Maybe Mike’s. Maybe Kim’s. Maybe both.
People were beginning to get a little freaked out. It didn’t seem like you were safe anywhere, whether you were a hobo wanderer like Billings, or safe in your bed in your own house with your parents and grandparents downstairs, like the Mitchell baby, or out in your car on a date, like poor Mike and Kim. Was it murder? Was it kidnappings? Was it the work of a lone maniac, or a cult, or were these disappearances completely unrelated? Nobody, not even the Feds, seemed to have an explanation. So all anybody could do was stick together, never going out alone, and parents keeping a real close eye on their kids. Stuff you’d normally do in the summer-time, like go for a bike ride, or walk down to the pool, or just hang out with your friends at the bandstand on a hot night, all that kind of thing stopped on a dime. Even things people tried to do to stay normal, like go to little league practice, ended when Mrs. Havens and the boys disappeared. She’d gone to walk her son Tommy and his friend Duane back from the softball field, and though people saw them leave, they never made it home.
In the absence of anything else to do to help, the local Baptists decided to hold a prayer vigil up at the lake, to pray for the return of our town’s lost sheep, or something like that. Pastor Stigile drove the church van, and his wife Carol came too, as well as the Allans and their two kids, and Mrs. Foster, who can’t drive herself anywhere anymore. They started out very early. The van was later found pretty far out of town, but nowhere near the lake. It was sitting at a slant, nose tipped into the ditch, by the side of the road. There was no trace of the Baptists, not even a handbag.
I happened to be walking uptown a few days after the van was found. I guess I shouldn’t have been out alone, considering, but a walk up Main Street, in the middle of the day, with traffic going by and all, didn’t seem like much of a risk. One thing that was a little troubling, though. My house is just outside the town limits, where the sign is. Glenwood, pop. 1,485. It’s an old sign that’s seen it’s share of buckshot, but as I came to it I noticed vandals had gotten it again, though with spray paint instead of shotguns, this time. In red, someone had crossed out the population number and scrawled a huge “0” over the whole face of the sign, voicing, perhaps, all our fears. Glenwood, population: zero.
I passed the car dealership further up the road, and I saw something moving in the back lot, out of the corner of my eye. I spun my head around to get a better look, thinking maybe it was the lone killer out to get me, but I saw it was just Bill Marshall, the insurance agent. He was in a brown suit and snap brim hat, and I noticed he had his camera around his neck and was making notes on a little pad.
I walked through the cars for sale at the front of the lot, and cars waiting for repairs or waiting to be picked up for repairs. In back, where Bill was, were a few junkers; cars that had been totaled in accidents, soon to be hauled to the scrap yard out on Porter Road. Bill Marshall is about forty, with light hair and eyes, and a thick sort of build. He was standing, I noticed, in front of a van, it’s round headlights staring back at him mutely. It was white on the top and blue on the sides, and it said “First Baptist Church” in white paint across the panels. Around it were saw horses that read “POLICE–DO NOT PASS” on their cross bars.
I said hello and he said hello, and he got his camera out and took a picture of the front of the van. The photo slid out of the Polaroid with a mechanical “whrr,” and he took it out the rest of the way and flapped it in the air, to dry it. There was a strong smell of chemicals.
He was squinting at the van, not puzzled, exactly—almost like he was smiling, but also like he was thinking. He’s a hard guy to get a read on. He smiles when he’s being serious and frowns when he’s telling you a joke. A real character.
“So what do you think about this, Rudy?” he asked me, nodding toward the van.
I shrugged. “What do the cops say?”
He squinted a little harder at the van, blowing on the picture now.
“I’m asking you,” he said. “Look at the vehicle, give me your opinion.”
I looked. It was the same, half-rusted out VW van I’d seen around town since I was a kid. A fixture at church socials and revival meetings. Pastor Stigile would load it up with parishioners on Easter Sunday and head for the hills for sunrise service. We were Presbyterians, so I’d never been inside the van, so I couldn’t say if anything on the inside was different. But it didn’t take a genius to see what the problem was.
The windshield was gone, broken out, and most of the other windows were too. Even though there was no sign of damage to the body of the van itself. I said as much to Bill.
He nodded gravely. He’d gone around to the side of it, and was taking another picture. Click, whrr.
“Take a look at this,” he said, waving me past the police barriers. Stepping around them, I peered inside the van through the torn remains of the safety glass. I looked for a long minute, then I moved forward, looking in the front, then to the rear, to check out the back window, too.
“It’s been cleaned,” I said. “There’s hardly any glass at all in there.”
Bill should his head slowly and puckered his lips, slowly wagging the photograph.
“Take another look. Tell me what you see.”
I looked. This time I looked all around, not just at the seats and the floor, but at the insides of the doors, and the window frames.
“There’s … shoe prints on the walls—dirty sneaker prints, and marks from the Reverend’s galoshes he always wears. There’s black marks from those all around the dashboard, and up where the rear-view mirror used to be, but it’s been broken off.”
Bill nodded again, blowing on his new picture. Then his teeth showed in what was either a wistful smile or a disdainful grimace.
“All the glass was found outside the vehicle. All over the road, and in the grass. That’s what the police report says.”
He was looking at me now, and watched my face change as I allowed what must have been the truth to penetrate.
Echoing my own thoughts, Bill said: “Now what do you suppose made those Baptists kick out the windows of that thing?”
It was an unsettling conversation. I had been on my way up to the Tastee-Freez to get an ice cream cone, but talking to Bill changed my mind. I thought about what he’d said all the way back home. What WOULD make them kick the windows out? And, maybe just as importantly, HOW could they? As Bill had gone on to say, “Old Lady Foster, two young kids–the tennis shoes–two middle-aged women and turkey-legs Pastor Stigile? Have you ever tried to kick the windows out of a vehicle, Rudy?” I admitted I hadn’t ever. He explained that it wasn’t easy, that he dealt with vehicles being stolen for joy-rides all the time. The kids that stole them would inevitably try to kick out the windows, just for fun, he said. And that those young, healthy, probably hopped-up teenagers could hardly ever manage it.
After the Baptists, things calmed down a little. There were no more disappearances, anyway, and people started to talk about the future, specifically, about the coming school year. The talk turned into an all-out debate that ended up down at the Grange Hall, with the whole town turning out to discuss it. It seemed the school board wanted to go ahead as though everything were normal, and but a majority of the parents wanted to wait to open the schools, to be sure their kids would be safe. It got pretty heated, with people yelling threats to pull their kids out of school for good, and the school board members yelling back that any kid kept home without an a medical excuse would be getting a visit from the County. You can see we were all in pretty bad shape; people around here aren’t really known for strong opinions or getting upset.
In the end, the board made the compromise that school would start in September, but that they would stagger the openings. Open the grade school first, then, if everything worked out, and there was no trouble, they’d open the middle school, then the high school. The FBI officials, who were also at the meeting, promised to search all the schools top to bottom, and station armed guards inside, for the first few days, at least.
That’s probably not an accurate number. Nobody’s really sure how many people were in the building at the time. And it doesn’t account for all the parents that ended up inside, or police or FBI that may have gone in afterwards. All anybody knows for certain is that there were 320 kids, 11 teachers, 4 school administrators, 2 janitors, and 6 FBI guards and policemen that were inside the grade school by 8:15 that Monday morning.
Everything started out okay. The more cautious parents brought their kids in themselves, but the school buses dropped the rest off like clockwork. As usual on the first day of kindergarten, Mrs. Dewey let parents stay a little while, and got the kids singing songs to distract them, so the parents could sneak out without the kids getting too upset. She’d been teaching kindergarten since my mom and dad went there, and I remember her doing the same thing when I was in her class.
No one even knew there was anything wrong until parents showed up about lunch time to pick up the kindergartners, who only have a half day. The parents could hear the dismissal bell ringing inside the school, but when no one came out, they started going in. And then, when those parents didn’t come back out, all hell broke loose. The remaining parents called the cops, and more emergency personnel showed up and flooded into the building, but no one came out. Calls made inside were not answered; it was a dead line. The FBI showed up and locked the whole area down, and now no one is allowed onto school grounds until they can figure out what to do.
That’s been the situation for three days now. State officials have come in from Harrisburg, news people from as far away as California. They have cameras all around the school, as close as the Feds will let them get, anyway. There’s helicopters roaring overhead, so close they make the house shake. My mom jumps when she hears it, and makes some remark about her good china getting cracked in the cupboard from the vibrations. She’s not really worried about the dishes. She’s just nervous and distracted. She sighs a lot, and pretends to read her magazines, when she’s not furiously cleaning something or cooking something, to keep her hands and mind occupied.
Dad won’t let me watch TV or listen to the radio. It would upset Mom too much. She knew everybody that disappeared. That’s not too much of a surprise, I guess, in a place like this, where everybody knows everybody, and is probably related, to boot. Mom had known Old Man Billings all her life; she’d hosted Connie Mitchell’s baby shower. She’d babysat both Mike and Kim when they were little. And Mrs. Havens? They were best friends.
Without being able to watch TV, and not being allowed to go over to any of my friend’s houses, I don’t have a lot of choices. I try shooting a few baskets, but it’s hot and pretty boring to do by myself. I read a few of my comic books, without much enthusiasm. New comics are hard to get here, and I’ve read the ones I’ve got like a million times.
Finally, Dad takes pity on me. He calls Mom’s friend Betty Wetzel to come over and keep her company, since her husband, Lou, is out of town (he’s a truck driver) this week, and he knows she’d jump at the chance to not have to be alone. He and I walk uptown when she gets here. I think he’s just as glad to get out of the house as I am.
We’re on our way to the donut shop, and see a bunch of people in front of the hardware store. There’s a Zenith set up in the window. The people gathered around make room for us. We can’t hear anything, of course, through the window glass, but there’s a blonde news lady talking earnestly into a microphone, the wind blowing her silk scarf, explaining again, no doubt, about the tragedy unfolding in our little farm town. It’s pretty strange to see my old grade school, there, behind her, on TV.
I look back at my dad for a second. He’s wearing that expression I’ve seen on his face all summer. Worry, pulling and dragging at his face, glinting in his eyes, behind his thick glasses. He glances at me, but can’t even summon a brief, reassuring smile. I look back at the TV. The blonde lady is gone. Now there’s just the school in the background, the wind gusting through the trees, and a few emergency vehicles in view. A long, unbroken shot.
I turn back to my dad, to ask if he saw that too? But he’s not there. Nobody’s there. The street, the cars, the buildings, everything, just like before, but no people. I
Credit To – J.Faunch
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