Among the Missing and the Dead
by AMBER KRIEGER
   The anchors are talking about whether Hillary Clinton should wear a certain shade of blue, but I keep the volume up so I don't have to hear the baby next door. Her howls come through in the pauses, and her mom yelling, Enough enough enough enough. Apartments. At least I'm on the top floor.
   The NBC logo's permanently burned in to the bottom right corner of this TV. Sometimes it makes it hard to read the ticker. I have to be patient, wait for the words to roll over to the left side of the screen. A young family on vacation, a fourteen-year-old girl from a one-parent home, a disoriented diabetic without her meds. This week's missing. I know they're gone, but I can't leave the TV. I watch the ticker. Thirty stories today. You have to watch carefully or you might miss something. A change in wording that tells you there was a new lead or that a body's finally, thankfully, been found.

   It's Tuesday when she comes over. Just a girl, maybe twenty, twenty-one, with stick-straight blond hair and blue eyeliner on the inside of her lower lids that gives her eyes a watery look.
   "I'm so fumin' mad!" She doesn't look at me, just paces on the walkway in front of my door, sucking hard on a cigarette. She's got the pack, long and gold, in her hand, with a yellow lighter.
   She says, "Fuck. Where's Edna?"
   I start to say I just moved in but she cuts me off.
   "Never mind. I need your help." She looks back at the closed door to her apartment. Inside, the baby's screeching. Short, high-pitched squawks like a jay. "Can you just go in there and watch my baby while I go around the block?"
   "Excuse me?" I don't even have a shirt on.
   "Listen." She opens my screen door for me. "I just need you to go in there and not ask any questions, okay?"

   Her apartment looks just like mine, one crappy room with a big window out to the street and a little kitchenette in the corner. Except she's got these nice blue curtains up, with tiny white flowers, simple like she made them herself, and a couch and chair and end tables with magazines tucked under them and photographs in frames on their glass tops. The baby's in a playpen by the window. She stops screaming for a sec right when I open the door and then starts up again, like an alarm. I have to punch in the right code or the rent-a-cop'll be here in five. Her face is all red and she's got a bib on smeared with something green and red and I go up close to make sure it's not blood. She's not a bad looking kid, with big blond curls and a round face with the biggest fattest tear drops running down it. She looks up at me when I come close, like she thinks I'm going to pick her up or something. It's just spaghetti sauce on her bib.
   The TV's small and on mute so I have to go right up to it to see it's on a national news station and the ticker says things like Clinton Says She'll Run, Car Bomb Kills Nineteen in Baghdad, and Abortion Under Attack. The photos are mostly wedding pictures, the girl in an elaborate headpiece and a young man with military hair and a notch in his chin. I should've taken some pictures from the house. Our wedding was simple, just a few friends in Theresa's parents' backyard. My favorite is one where we were caught off guard. Theresa, without a tiara, with her hand on my elbow, leaning in to whisper in my ear. You can't see in the picture but she's barefoot and on her tiptoes to get so close. I wonder if Theresa still looks at those pictures or if she's packed them away in a box somewhere or burned them in a pyre with my old T-shirts and the card I gave her on Valentine's Day, the week before she kicked me out.
   The screen door rattles and the girl rushes in. "It's okay, Sadie sweetie. It's okay. Momma's back. Everything's okay." She lifts the baby out of her playpen and kisses her all over her face and head but it doesn't help. The kid's cries just get louder, big whooping coughs like her mom's squeezing them out of her. I sneak out the door and turn up my TV, but I can still hear her long into the afternoon.

   A couple days later there's a tat tat tat on my screen and she's standing out there with the baby on her hip, smiling like sunshine, and holding a plate with pink saran wrap stretched over it.
   "Brownies." She holds up the plate a little and I open the door.
   "You didn't have to do that." I take the plate and set it on the counter in the kitchenette. When I turn around, she's in the apartment.
   "Sometimes, I just can't take it." She juts out her bottom lip and blows air up her face. Her bangs lift off her forehead in a clump and then settle back down again. "That's when I get out." She puts Sadie on the floor on her butt.
   I hope she's not looking for a babysitter. "It was no problem." She's got some kind of hospital tech outfit on and a nametag. "Wendy."
   She looks confused for a sec, then glances down at her chest and gets it.
   "Oh, yeah. That's me."
   "I'm Phillip." I go to hold out my hand but I get distracted. Sadie's flopped forward and is kind of hugging my ankle. Her mouth is wet against my bare skin.
   Wendy's not looking at me anyway. "That poor woman," she says. She's got her eyes on my TV. The old woman's face fills the screen. It's not a very good picture. She looks washed out except for a big brown splotch on her left cheek. One of her eyes is half shut.
   "I know." She's been missing for a week, maybe more. Last seen on a rural road with a library book tucked under her arm, in a shin-length blue jacket her son bought her ten years ago and didn't know she still wore. "I can't get her out of my mind."
   Wendy looks at me fast and squints her eyes like she's trying to tell something about me. She nods like she's decided and says, "I know what you mean," and swoops up the baby and is out the door. I watch them go down the staircase into the courtyard, rubbing my ankle on the back of my other calf until it's dry.

   I'm not the kind of guy I'd leave my kids with, if I had any. Not from the looks of me anyway. I did finally do a load of wash the other day, but it was too late for the grease spots on these sweatpants. And I've been keeping up with the hygiene for the most part, shaving every day and keeping my nails trimmed. But I can tell my apartment smells like I'm in here too much, and I can tell it's dark, and that the lack of photos and knickknacks says something more than bachelor. Plus, I'm an able-bodied male in my late thirties home every day, if that doesn't scream sex offender, I don't know what does.
   But Wendy doesn't seem to mind and thank god for that, because I've started to get used to having little fatty pants Sadie crawling around here, if you can call what she does crawling. More like monkeywalking with one knee on the ground and one foot to pull her forward fast. If I look away for even a second she's across the room sticking her hands in my tennis shoes or getting hold of one those bags the paper comes in. I've got so many stacked up there by the door I haven't even taken the paper out of.  Her favorite thing's to turn off my computer, and who can blame her, the way the button throbs all blue like that, like some kind of space ship control panel. Sadie goes right for it every time. This one's gonna be a pilot or an astronaut or a Trekkie, for sure.
   Wendy never leaves her here long enough for her to get in any real trouble, just quick trips to the store, or a smoke on the balcony, once a dip in the pool in our courtyard. She knocked on my door with Sadie on her hip and a gold-and-black bikini so low-cut I could see her C-section scar and when she turned around, the top of a heart tattooed on her ass. She has a pretty hot body, even if her breasts do kind of flop out to the sides. She went down the stairs, hopped into the pool and started swimming a powerful crawl stroke. The pool's about as big as my apartment, but still I couldn't believe she could swim across it like that, being a smoker and all. I picked up Sadie and we stood in my doorway watching Wendy glide back and forth, back and forth, her stick-straight hair skimming the surface, until Mrs. Hernandez opened her door across the way and crossed her big arms at me over her bosom like I was some kind of peeping Tom, not just a guy watching a girl in the pool. I'd just closed the door and chased Sadie around the room once when Wendy knocked again, dripped across my floor and took her baby home.

   After 9/11, everyone watched the tickers. We watched them together, me and Albert and Dad and some of the neighbors, standing around the den at Albert's house, just like Super Bowl Sunday, while our wives cried in the kitchen and the tips of carrots, strips of cucumber peel, and butts of cauliflower flew from under their knives off the big kitchen island and rolled under the fridge, as far away as the Internet station in the corner, where they wouldn't be found for months. We didn't talk about how we felt, just stood around together watching the tickers and, when the volume was down, pretending not to hear whoever was crying.
   Now it's just me and Wendy. We don't talk about real stuff either. I didn't tell her when Theresa canceled two appointments in a row with our marriage counselor, or how the divorce papers came with those bright pink post-it arrows, Sign Here!, at the bottom of every page. Making it all so easy.

   It's been fourteen days now since the old woman disappeared. Way too long for anything good to have happened. The police consider her neighbor, a man about my age, a person of interest, but there's not much they can do without a body. They show the neighbor on the news every night, a horse-face guy with a comb-over. What could he want with a 74-year-old woman? It's too gross to think about, so I think about trying to find the body.
   I don't tell Wendy this. Instead, I say, "Sometimes I envy them."
   We're sitting on the couch in her apartment, watching the news. Sadie's rolling around on the floor by our feet.
   "What do you mean?" Wendy draws a section of her hair toward her face between two fingers. The skin on her hands looks like an old woman's, every wrinkle brought into relief by the dryness. The pink polish is chipping on her thumb and index finger.
   "I don't know. Too many mafia movies, I guess. But." Maybe this was too personal. Maybe I should tell her that I've started driving around the spot where the old woman was last seen, looking for where he could've stashed her body. "Sometimes I hope they've just found a way to disappear from their lives." 
   Wendy finds some split ends and trims them with a pair of red-handled scissors. She runs her fingers through her hair and draws another section up to her eyes. Sadie uses her mom's knees to pull herself up to standing. I tear a page out of a People magazine, ball it up and waggle it out in front of me. Sadie watches it hard. Two steps and it's hers. She reaches a foot sideways. Her knees wobble. Nothing but air between her mom and me. I waggle the paper. She shifts her weight, lets go. For a second she stands there looking at me, without holding on. She squeals and waves her arms. The news changes to Iraq. Wendy drops her hair. A suicide bomber at a market. Fifty-three casualties. I'm so sick of this damn war.
   "You think they faked their own deaths, too?" Wendy leans over and picks up Sadie by her pits and pulls her on her lap. Sadie squirms toward me but her mom holds her tight, doesn't let her go until after I leave for the night.

   I'll be getting out of this dump soon. Theresa's going to buy me out of the house, and I got a call from Bob the other day, they're opening my position back up, on a contract basis to start. I'll make even more than I did before.
   At the store this morning I found a rubber ball that glows blue when you squeeze it, the same blue as the button on my computer. Maybe I can find a way to give it to Sadie before I go. Wendy takes her to Mrs. Hernandez now and the old bat always shuts her door fast if she sees me looking. I don't think you should slam doors around a baby, but who am I to say? For now I put the ball in with the rest of the toys, the Pooh bear she used to carry around in her mouth like a kitty and that weird sun face with the crazy crinkly arms and bumpy plastic hands for teething.

   I'm on my way out to see a little house in Culver City when two guys in uniform pull up across the street. They get out of their car and look up at our building. They smooth their blue jackets with white-gloved hands. They look at each other. Their chests rise and fall under their medals. They walk toward our front door. I glare at them through my sunglasses. Neither one looks like the pictures I've seen of Sadie's daddy, but it's hard to tell with the haircuts, the uniforms, the sunglasses, the self-righteous set of their jaws.
   When I get back, I turn up the volume on the TV so I can't hear the crying next door. But it's so loud I can't ignore it. Big choking wails, like someone's squeezing the life out of her. High-pitched squawks that can't be stopped with food or kisses. Outside a smash. I open the window and lean over the sill. Chunks of plastic and shards of glass all over the concrete. What's left of Wendy's TV. There's a woman holding her arm like she got hit with something. Wendy's got her hands on the sill just like me, looking down on what she's done. I barely recognize her. The makeup's run down her cheeks and gone already and her hair's matted into a bird's nest by her ear. Strands of it are stuck to her skin and caught in the corner of her mouth. She tilts her face toward me, squints up her eyes, artillery fire through my brain.
   Behind her somewhere Sadie is quiet in her playpen. I close my window, turn up my TV, watch the ticker, every minute, but it never says a thing.



AMBER KRIEGER's short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the cream city review, Contrary Magazine, elimae, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.