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My mama disappeared that summer. Funny thing about memory, sometimes I don’t know the difference between my own true recollection and things I’ve been told. Maybe that’s due partly to hearing bits and pieces of this story over and over again my whole life, from the time that photo was taken to this day. And now look at me. Sitting here telling the same story all over again.
See, that trip was our last family vacation. Cindy (she’s the pretty one with the hat) had only been off to college for two months before she came back and announced her engagement. The wedding was set for October, and Grandpa Frank said we would take one last family vacation together before Cindy’s no account city boy married in.
He mapped out the drive and explained that the planning part was just as much fun as the doing part. He took out a big atlas of the United States and pointed out the route from Okemah to Hell Canyon. We’d stop in at the RV park in Hell Canyon and camp for the night, then wake up before daylight next day and drive on to the coast. Grandpa made the whirring sound of a car engine as he dragged his finger along Highway 66 from Okemah all the way out to California. Cindy rolled her eyes and looked away. But Shell’s eyes were filled with light and excitement. She laughed every time Grandpa’s finger stopped and took off again on the map.
Cindy always said Shell was Grandpa’s favorite, despite the fact that she was the only natural born trouble maker of the whole bunch. Grandma had a hard time making Shell behave. In fact, sometime shortly after Shell’s thirteenth birthday, Grandma just threw up her hands and said she was through trying. She had washed Shell’s mouth out with soap, thrashed her with cedar branches, grounded her for life, threatened her with boarding school and finally resorted to begging. But Shell never would give in. She’d take her lumps and keep right on with whatever scheme she’d cooked up in the first place.
Grandma would cry and say Shell was hell bent. But Grandpa didn’t believe that at all. He said she was just thirsty for life and tended to gulp it down quicker than most could tolerate.
When I was born, Shell was just sixteen. Grandma told everybody that I would be enough to quench Shell’s thirst for a real long time. Shell named me Frances, but no one ever called me that. On the day I was born Grandma said I was her little June bug and from then on I was Junie.
It was my second birthday when we all loaded into the camper truck and set out on the road for our last trip together. Shell picked out the traveling music. A steady beat shuffled us along the road while Hank Williams howled, “Then I hurried straight home and packed…And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack.”
We were road weary by the time the camper pulled into the RV park. Grandpa went to check us in at the front office. The park was a nice, clean facility and they even had a pool. Everyone had taken turns riding in the back of the camper except for Grandpa. The only decent breeze you got back there was if you stuck your face right up next to the window vent, so the pool looked mighty inviting.
Shell was the only one who didn’t want to go swimming. She had spotted an old creek bed running a ways back off the road. She wanted to get down there and hunt for fossils. Back home we had piles of white rocks riddled with little horseshoe and screw shaped fossils in our garden. Shell never went for a swim at the creek without bringing a few of them back.
Grandpa told her not to stay gone too long, since we’d be eating supper pretty quick. So she took off and left me there with Cindy and Grandma, splashing around in that nice blue pool. We have pictures of that too. Pictures of Cindy and Grandma passing me back and forth, my chunky baby arms bobbing on the water’s surface. We spent half an hour or so in the pool before Grandma said it was time to get out. Aunt Cindy saw to it that I got dressed while Grandma started supper.
Before too long Grandpa asked, “Shell back yet?”
In truth, everyone had been busy and kind of forgotten about her. Cindy was annoyed and said she’d go fetch Shell back from the creek. Cindy took off down the two lane black top. When she was put out she walked pretty funny. It was a fast clip that made her head go up and down. That’s one thing I remember for sure. The sight of Aunt Cindy’s arms swinging back and forth, fists clenched, head popping up and down, just like a chicken.
When we saw Shell and Cindy walking back together, we knew they were having a fuss. Cindy was barking at Shell and gesturing up at the sky with both hands. We could see that Shell was carrying something. Grandpa said he figured she had found her fossil.
When they reached camp, Cindy was still worked up and turned her attention to Grandma.
“Look what she did! Shell went and dug up a bone on the creek!” Cindy’s face was red and her arms were crossed against her chest. “Momma, I TOLD her to put it back but she wouldn’t listen. She wanted to keep digging!”
She turned and faced her sister again. “Shell, why do you always act just like a FREAK?”
“Settle down, settle down, girls.” Grandpa said. “What’d you find Shell? Bring it over here and let’s have a look.”
“Frank, I don’t approve her dragging up a bone of any kind, whether it came from a horse or Howdy Doody. We’re fixin to eat.” Grandma said flatly.
“Oh, we’ll wash our hands, Mary.” He said in reply. Grandma gave up and went back to peeling potatoes.
“Come on now, whatcha got there Shellie?” She walked over and gave him a thin curved bone. Nicks and grooves on the weathered surface hinted that maybe it had been gnawed on by an animal.
“Probably some stray dog wandering the road got hit by a car,” Cindy said over her shoulder.
“It isn’t a dog.” Shell said.
Grandpa had been turning the bone end over end in his hands. “How do you know that, Sis?”
“Well, I think that’s a clavicle. I mean, I’m pretty sure of it,” she continued, “We just studied over it in Anatomy. My textbook said only animals that walk upright have bones shaped in this particular way.”
The camp went silent while the rest of the family considered her statement. Shell was enrolled in the county’s Vo-Tech nursing program. Even Cindy had to admit that her younger sister was better versed on the subject.
“Oh, Dad, can’t you just stop encouraging her?”
He didn’t acknowledge Cindy’s question. “Well, after dinner I’ll walk down there with you and we’ll see what we can dig up, how about it?”
Shell brightened up considerably. “Ok. I’m just glad somebody believes me,” she said, shooting a sideways glance at her sister.
Grateful the argument had died down, Grandma fanned out a faded pink sheet over the concrete picnic table. Everyone forgot about the bones for a spell and laughed and talked over beans and fried potatoes.
After dinner, Grandpa walked to the back of the camper and returned with a gallon bucket.
“I guess you’re planning on coming back with a body in a bucket, Daddy?” Cindy sniffed.
“Maybe. We’ll see,” he said.
He and Shell walked back toward the creek. Their voices mixed together in the wind that blew through the canyon.
Aunt Cindy told me later that I threw the awfullest fit you ever saw when Shell left that second time. I fought so hard I even got loose of her for a second and took off after them. I only made it a few steps before she snatched me back up again. I wonder sometimes if maybe I sensed that something bad was on its way. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to let her go. Maybe.
The police took statements after she disappeared. When I was old enough I went back and read through all the reports I could find. Shell and Grandpa had filled up the entire gallon bucket with bones from that creek bed. They came back to camp at dusk, both convinced Shell had found a human skeleton. Everyone was disturbed but agreed that they would contact the authorities first thing next morning. Shell and Cindy went to sleep in the back of the camper and Grandma took me into the tent with her and Grandpa.
Cindy’s police statement said she woke up in the middle of the night just after 3:00 a.m. Said she heard a train whistle and a pack of coyotes screaming all at once. She was frightened by that awful sound so she sat up and looked out the window of the camper. She saw a faint glowing red light off in the distance but couldn’t say for sure whether it was a tail light. She watched until it faded away, then went to lie back down again. That’s when she realized Shell was gone. She yelled for Grandma and Grandpa and they came tripping over each other out of the tent, wild-eyed and confused. Once they understood that Shell was missing, Grandpa grabbed a flashlight and went through the entire RV camp rattling families from their sleep and shouting for Shell. He tore through that camp up one side and down the other. But she was gone.
The police arrived half an hour later but they weren’t too excited over a teenaged girl gone missing. They had a lot of questions about how our family got along and if Shell had any reason to run away. They even hinted she might’ve run off to escape her responsibility of raising me. That suggestion made Grandpa so mad he nearly went to jail himself. The only reason he didn’t was because Grandma started crying and begged him to get hold of himself.
When daylight came, Grandpa saw that the bones had vanished too, bucket and all. He told the police about finding the skeleton on the creek. They looked at him like he’d lost his marbles and sent a man down to comb over the creek bed. He came back after fifteen minutes and said he didn’t find a thing.
After a week of searching, Grandma said we had no other choice but to go back home. Grandpa drove us to Oklahoma, turned around and drove right back to Hell Canyon by himself. He was out there for a month before Grandma wrote him a letter saying he’d lose both his daughters if he didn’t come back to give Cindy away at the wedding.
He came back like she asked, but he never stopped hounding the Fallow County police until the day he died. Eight years after Shell disappeared the stress of it finally took him. God as my witness, people really can die of a broken heart. That’s one thing I hope you never have to see.
Strange how people in this little town still conspire on what really happened out there in the middle of the desert. My neighbors speak to each other in hushed tones that come to a sudden halt when they see me coming. They must wonder why I keep looking for her after all this time. But maybe none of them know what it’s like to lose their mama. Maybe it really isn’t fair to expect anyone to understand. That was the summer my mama disappeared. And I don’t guess I’ll ever stop hoping she finds her way back from Hell Canyon.