by Steve Carr
Surrounded by tall prairie grass, the rusted remains of the piper cub baked in the afternoon sun. The plane’s right wing lay half-buried in the dirt a few feet from the fuselage. The tail section was missing as was the left wheel. The plane tilted to the left and the tip of the left wing rested on the ground. The chrome yellow paint that had once covered its fabric and steel had been worn away by the extreme seasonal weather on the plains. The seat and stick remained in the cockpit but the gauges on the dashboard were smashed. The windshield was cracked in several places and covered with dirt. Although covered in rust, the plane’s propeller was intact. Bird droppings covered the wing and the exposed part of the fuselage. The skeletal remains of a deer lay in the shadows under the fuselage.
Connie’s two children played on a bare patch of ground five yards away from the plane. As a result of a lightning strike, the dirt was black and the grass that surrounded the edge of the patch was burnt. Thomas, age six, jabbed at the ground with a twig, trying to divert the direction a line of ants were taking. His sister, Marie, age four, sat in the dirt and rocked her doll in her arms while watching a garter snake winding its way through the blackened grass stalks along the edge of the patch. Connie had her back to them as she stood near the plane drawing a sketch of it. Drawn to the short, melodic chirping of a meadowlark she looked up from her sketchpad and saw that the bird was perched on the broken trunk of a small tree. When it flew off she watched it until it disappeared in the hazy distance. She turned to look at her children, and not seeing them, thought they had wandered off into the grass. She called their names several times as she walked to the bare patch of ground. Their feet and hand prints were in the dirt. She dropped her sketch pad and pencil and frantically searched the area all around the patch, making increasingly wider circles while screaming out their names.
She searched for them until the purple and pink colors of the Badlands formations became more pronounced in the shifting colors of the twilight sky, and then nearing exhaustion, she staggered through the grass to the gravel road where her car was parked. There she discovered her keys weren’t in her skirt pocket where she had put them. Bordering on hysteria she scanned the area of prairie she had just walked through and thought that finding her lost keys would take too long, so she began running down the road toward the highway that led into the Badlands. Thirty minutes later she stumbled onto the pavement and fell to her knees.
The man who stopped his car and quickly got out asked, “Are you okay?”
“Help, my children are gone,” Connie said hoarsely. Then she passed out.
The room was almost perfectly square with a two-way mirror along one wall. There was a door but no windows. The room was painted battleship gray, including the floor. Connie sat in a metal chair in front of a metal table, hugging herself, fending off the chill in the air. Recessed lighting in the ceiling bathed the room in a harsh white light. A large fly buzzed around her head. The door opened and Detective Bryce and Detective Kline entered, both attired in dark blue business suits. Detective Bryce’s skirt was tight and as she walked to the table she tugged on the material. She carried a manila file folder that she tossed on the table, and then she sat down across from Connie, while Detective Kline leaned against a wall and nonchalantly crossed his arms.
“Do you want to tell me the story again?” Detective Bryce asked, a steely look in her eyes.
Connie swatted at the fly. “I’ve told it to you and everyone else a hundred times already. One moment my children were there and the next moment they were gone.”
Detective Bryce snapped the fingers of her right hand. “Poof. Gone. Just like that?”
Connie sighed as a shudder coursed through her body. “Yes, like that,” she stammered. “Why aren’t you out looking for them?”
Detective Kline uncrossed his arms and looked at his fingernails. “We cut the grass a half mile in every direction around that plane, had dogs and hundreds of volunteers scour the area for miles around it, used helicopters and drones, and not a sign of your kids anywhere. Where else do you suggest we look?”
Tears streamed down Connie’s face. “I don’t know what else I can suggest. You also tore up my home and yard looking for them. You’ve treated me like a monster who would kill her own children.”
“Are you sure you don’t have something to tell us about what happened when your children disappeared?” Detective Bryce asked, her voice cold, her eyes locked on Connie’s.
“I took them with me so that I could sketch that plane. That’s all there is to tell you,” Connie replied angrily. “They’re my children. I loved them.”
“Loved?” Detective Bryce said.
Around the piper cub short stalks of prairie grass poked through a thin layer of snow. A steady wintry breeze had kept the snow from collecting on the outsides of the plane, but the seat and dashboard were wet. Scat and clumps of brown fur on the cockpit’s floor were the only signs that anything living had been near the plane for several months.
Connie stood on the spot where she had last seen her children. The hair that curled out from her knitted cap was tousled by the wind. She patted her gloved hands trying to keep them warm. Hearing their squawks, she looked up to see a skien of geese flying in V formation across the cloudy sky. When the birds were out of sight, leaving a deafening silence in their wake, she turned her attention back to Evelyn who was standing by the plane with the palms of her hands on the side of the fuselage. Connie stomped her booted feet on the ground, wondering if her toes were frostbitten.
Evelyn turned, hesitated for a moment, and then walked to where Connie was standing. “You know nothing about the history of the plane and how it ended up here?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Connie answered. “Before my husband died he said he and his friends used to play here when they were kids, but no one in town knows how it got here.”
Evelyn tightened the wool scarf wound around her neck. “The pilot was a woman,” she said.
Connie glanced at the plane. “Does that tell you anything about what has happened to my children?”
Evelyn shifted her gaze to the haze that surrounded the Badlands formations. “No. I get no trace of your children being anywhere near here,” she said. “Why did you bring them out here?”
“I felt this urgent need to bring them here,” Connie said. “Something was pulling me, maybe the memory of being here with my husband. We used to come here for picnics and I’d sketch the plane.”
“Did you do any sketches of your children while you were out here the day they disappeared?”
Connie closed her eyes for a moment, reliving that day, remembering. “No. I only sketched the plane.”
Evelyn glanced at the piper cub. “Some souls leave imprints behind for a very long time.” She then looked down at the ground where they were standing. “And some souls leave no imprints at all.”
Connie looked at the plane and watched a sparrow fly into the cockpit, settle on the seat for a moment, and then fly out and away. “What do I do now?”
“Keep searching, but remember there’s not an answer for everything.”
The spring air was filled with the aromas of rain-moistened earth and sprouting green prairie grass. With her sketch pad tucked under her arm, Connie trod across the soft earth to the front of the plane. She opened the sketch pad and took a pencil from her skirt pocket and began to sketch the plane. She worked fast, filling the page with several images of the plane. Then she walked to the side of the plane, turned the page, and started anew. She circled the plane, drawing it from every angle. Walking to the last place she had seen her children, she began to sketch them as she remembered them just before they disappeared. As if her hand was being guided by another hand, she drew the children with wings. She drew them rising in the air. She drew them flying away.
Steve Carr, a gay writer from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 570 short stories, new and reprints, published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of short stories published. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.