Jerry and Keira dine in silence. Their son has left for dinner with friends, and Jerry’s smartphone monitors his every movement with the in-plan tracking service from their provider. The device is tilted against an unlit candleholder on the dining room table – Jerry watches a dot, color-coded for “Virgil” according to the legend, move South through the North Las Vegas streets. They’re going to the McDonald’s on Bonanza, about a mile away.
“Yeah, sure,” Jerry had said wearily when Virgil asked if he could go, after providing the details (who was driving – “Ryan’s mom” – who would be there – “Ryan and Chris and Billy from school” – how long they’d be gone – “I don’t know, dinner-ish time?”). It was good for him to be around friends, and the empty house left his parents time to process their own emotions. Win-win.
Except all Jerry could do was watch the screen of his smartphone, scrutinizing the luminous display for any sign of trouble. And all Keira could do was watch her husband, scrutinizing his illuminated countenance for any sign of worry.
They had developed something of an unspoken agreement for avoiding eye contact during meals: Keira would look down at her plate to take a bite, and Jerry would look at her. Then, when Jerry looked down to take a bite from his own plate, Keira would hear the scraping of utensil against dish and look at him. Virgil had sat across from Della, and so was able to look straight ahead through phantom blinders – focusing on the kitchen island one moment, the stove the next, the clock on the wall after that, then the refrigerator, and back to the island – anything but the empty chair right in front of him.
Jerry and Keira did not avoid eye contact because they blamed each other for the death of their firstborn – quite the opposite, in fact. They each felt singularly responsible, and neither could bear to look the other in the eye. It was only in bed, in the dark, that they would honestly turn to each other for comfort: the day’s long labor done, they drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms.
The killing irony was this: if Della could have seen the desperate rift her absence had torn through the family, she would have instantly repented of every insipid, entitled thought about “specialness” she’d ever had. Doubly so, had she also heard the sobs and speeches at her funeral, seen the tear-streaked faces at her vigil. She had left a Della-shaped hole in the lives of her friends and family, and the only reason she couldn’t see its size and importance was because she had gotten used to living in it every day of her life.
Virgil’s phone turns East from North Pecos Road onto Bonanza, and there they are at McDonald’s. Good. Jerry breathes a sigh of relief as Keira watches; she then looks down to cut a tender bite of grilled salmon steak that she could swear tastes exactly like hot buttered cardboard. Right on cue, Jerry looks up and says, “They’re at McDonald’s, safe and sound.” Keira nods as she chews, swallows.
“Good,” she says, raising her head as Jerry sections off some rice pilaf with his fork. “Thanks for the update.”
“Jesus,” Jerry says, composing himself. Keira swallows hard. Jerry answers on speakerphone: “How’s it going, champ?”
“Hi, Dad. Uhh, we just got to McDonald’s.”
“Yeah, and Ryan said on the way here that they just got Bad Ass the movie on Blu-ray. Everyone’s gonna watch it at his place afterward. Can I go, too?”
“Let me talk with Mom.”
“OK,” Virgil says, and then muffled, “Hold on, he’s thinking.”
“What do you think,” Jerry asks, looking up at Keira after putting himself on mute. They make eye contact for the first time that evening.
“I dunno,” Keira says with an absent shrug. “It’s what, Friday? School’s out. He could use a distraction. And he called to ask, so we should reward that when we can afford to, right?”
“Yeah,” Jerry says with a nod. “Good call. Thanks.” He takes himself off mute. “Hey, Virge?”
“I’ll need to talk to Ryan’s mom, OK? But the answer is yes. Be home by midnight, OK?”
“All right, now put Mrs. Cunningham on the phone, OK?”
“Yeah,” Virgil says, then muffled again, “Hey, my dad wants to talk to you.”
“Hi, Jerry,” Theresa says over the phone.
“Hey, Theresa. I just wanted to confirm all the details with you. You’re having an impromptu movie night?”
“Yeah,” she says, “Some new release. Danny Trejo, kicking all the butts. Ryan saw something, it’s… well, standard teenager crap.”
“Sure, sure,” Jerry says, “Can you have Virgil home by midnight or so?”
“Oh, yeah, sure thing.”
“Right on,” Jerry says. “We’ll be up, so just give a call if anything comes up, OK?”
“That’s a ten-four,” Theresa confirms.
“All right. And hey, thanks for doing this.”
“Hey, it’s really no problem. You and Keira take care, now.”
“Yeah, you too.” Jerry hangs up, takes a deep breath. Keira sighs.
They finish their meal in silence. As they clean up the dishes together, the doorbell rings.
“I got it,” Jerry says, setting the dish he was drying into the rack and heading for the front door. He opens it to see a pair of suits standing on his front step.
“Evening. Are you Jerry Swain,” the white guy asks.
“I am,” Jerry replies.
“We’re not interrupting anything, are we,” the black guy asks.
“Um, no. But you have me at a disadvantage,” Jerry says.
“Ah,” the white guy says. “Sorry. I’m Special Agent Black. This is my partner, Special Agent White.” OK, Black is white, White is black, Jerry thinks to himself. “We wanted to discuss, ahem, the matter of your daughter’s death with you. If that’s all right.” Jerry’s spine goes rigid.
“Do you – is there some new information about the case?”
“That depends,” says White. “We may have a few connections to make, but they depend on your answers to a couple questions.”
“Could we continue this inside,” asks Black.
“Um, sure,” says Jerry, stepping aside and gesturing for the agents to enter. “Right this way,” he says, closing the front door and making his way back to the kitchen. “Honey? We have, um, company. Of a sort.” Keira stops washing dishes and steps out of the kitchen, drying her hands with a dishtowel.
“And you are,” she asks as she joins the men.
“Special Agent Black,” says Black.
“Special Agent White,” says White.
“Of,” Keira trails off, suggestively waving a hand.
“Homeland Security, ma’am,” says Black. “Would you like to see our badges?” The agents reach for their jackets.
“Sure, if you don’t mind,” Keira says. “I mean, I’ve never seen one before. Not for Homeland Security, anyway.” The agents smile, open up small leather wallets bearing a shiny badge and an ID card each, and extend them toward her. She looks down briefly, sees the prominent “DHS” on the cards, and quickly commits the badge numbers to memory. “Fancy,” she says with a nod. “Thanks. You can never be too careful, y’know.”
“Of course, ma’am,” White says with a smile. They stow their badges. “May we have a seat?”
“Yeah, sure,” says Jerry.
“What is this about,” asks Keira, as they all sit down at the dining room table. Each agent unlatches a briefcase in front of him.
“It’s about your daughter, Della,” says Black. “As my partner told your husband out front, we may have some new leads. But it all depends on how you answer a few questions.”
“All right,” Jerry says, leaning forward on his elbows, “So what are these questions?” Keira looks on with interest from her seat, hands folded in her lap. With one finger, she begins to trace the badge numbers on her opposite palm, reinforcing them in her memory.
“Well,” Agent Black begins, “According to our file, Della appeared to die of exposure while wandering out in the desert.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“How long have you folks lived here in Nevada?”
“About five years,” Jerry says, looking briefly at Keira. She nods at him.
“So, since mid-2007, right?” Black looks at Keira. She nods back. “And Della disappeared the night of the twenty-second, yes? Almost three weeks ago?”
“That’s right,” Keira says, nodding at Agent Black once more.
“Now, had Della been involved in any outdoor activities? Could she have been reasonably expected to know the dangers of exposure to the elements in Nevada during the summer?”
“Well, yeah,” Jerry says. “I mean, we lived here for five years. They exercise the kids outside at school. Della would go running four days a week. This is exactly what bothered us about it – it wasn’t just ‘sudden,’ it made no damn sense.”
“I see,” Black says, perusing a folder and making some notes. “And did she show any strange behavior before her disappearance?”
“Yeah,” Keira says. “She went for a long walk that day, got a terrible burn. She should’ve known better.”
“Right,” Black continues. “And you, Mrs. Swain, were the last to see her that day, correct? After you picked her up?” Keira nods. “About what time was that?”
“We’ve been over this with the police,” Jerry says. “I’m not sure why you’re asking the same questions. Shouldn’t that be in the file?”
“The police files,” White interjects, “Aren’t always the greatest. Sometimes it’s best to double-check, yourself. You might find a detail that was overlooked.”
“Look,” Black continues, “I know this is tough. And I’m sorry we’ve got to tread over old ground. But I promise you, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it would help the investigation.”
“No, I get it,” Jerry says. “It’s just – I mean, what on Earth could freakin’ Homeland Security want to know about this?”
The agents look at each other. Black tips his head. White nods. Black shuts his folder and lowers the top of his briefcase, steepling his fingers over it and placing his elbows on either side.
“All right,” he says. “There’s no easy way to say this. And there’s no good way for you to take it.” He breathes deep. “But we have reason to believe that the body that was found on 15 that day… might not have been your daughter.”
Keira’s eyes go wide. Jerry’s mouth hangs open.
“Are you saying that Della’s still alive,” Keira asks.
“No,” White says flatly. “We don’t know that. We just have reason to suspect that her death may have been faked to cover for something else.”
“What… else,” Jerry asks, horror creeping over his face. “And why the fucking DHS?! Is this some national fucking conspiracy or something?”
“Couldn’t tell you that,” says Black.
“You mean to say,” Jerry says with tense deliberateness. “That my daughter,” swallow, “Could be caught in some nationwide death-faking who-the-fuck-knows-what.” Deep breath. “And you wouldn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t say ‘wouldn’t’,” Black says, defensively raising his hands. “I said ‘couldn’t’. It’s, ahem, above our pay grade.”
“Information is highly stratified, these days,” says White. “It’s the paradox of the Information Age: it’s so easy to transmit, and that makes it so much more important to guard, sometimes.”
“Look,” Jerry says, squinting as he rubs at his temple. “I know you guys have a job to do. It’s just, after you say a thing like that – we were trying to get some kind of closure here, and now – now,” he trails off.
“Sir, believe me,” says Agent Black, “If we find something solid, you will be informed. If we find your daughter, we will bring her home to you. If we find out what happened to her, we will let you know. And if all this is a red herring, and we’re barking up the wrong tree on the absolute wrong coincidence, we will own up to that. But until we can find out which one of those things we need to tell you,” he opens his hands to Jerry, “We need your cooperation to continue our investigation. Or we can’t do shit. Pardon my French.”
“No, it’s – it’s OK,” Jerry says. “It’s OK,” he repeats with a nod.
“Now, Mrs. Swain,” Black says, reopening his briefcase, “The police report only states that you were contacted after Della’s homeroom teacher noticed she was missing. Can you tell me what time that was?”
“Umm, Homeroom’s after their first class,” Keira says, “So, some time around nine, I want to say.”
“All right, and what time were you called to pick her up?”
“It was –” and she has a flash – “Oh! Wait!” Keira takes her smartphone out of her pocket, silences it, and quickly dials the eight digits she’s been fastidiously keeping in her head despite the barrage of numbers in their conversation. Keeping it in her lap, she hits “Send,” then immediately hits “End,” and then goes into her call log – there it is, safe at the top. “OK, the last time the school called me,” she says, scrolling through her call log, “I’ve got three incoming calls from them: one at two minutes ‘til nine on Tuesday the twenty-second, and one at 9:30 when Mike brought her back, then another one ten minutes later when they called me to pick her up.”
“I see,” Black says, pen scrawling furiously. “And when did she leave the house in the morning?”
“Same time as always,” Keira says, “About a quarter to eight.”
“So, let me get this straight,” White says, “You mean to tell me that a kid who goes running every other day, who spends a class period outside every weekday, got burned bad enough to be sent home from about ninety minutes in the mid-morning sunshine?”
Keira and Jerry look at each other.
“We, uh,” Jerry stammers, “We hadn’t considered that.”
Agent Black taps his notes and says, “This is why we double-check.”
The agents continue for some time, going over the details of the Swains’ statements, checking for inconsistencies and filling in gaps with details. The last thing the agents ask for is some kind of DNA sample, anything at all that Della might have left behind, especially if her room hasn’t been cleared out yet.
“Sure, sure,” Keira says, weary with the hours of questions. “We didn’t touch her room, it –” she cuts off, looks away.
“I understand,” says Agent Black. “If you could show me where she keeps, maybe, her hair brush? It would really be the nail in – I’m sorry, it would tell us for sure whether the body that was recovered is actually Della. If so, then we can apologize for wasting your time tonight all the sooner. But if not, well, there’s no telling how valuable this information will be.”
Jerry nods, gets to his feet. “Yeah,” he says, “Follow me.” The agents clasp their briefcases and follow him through the house to Della’s room. Jerry opens the door and leads the agents in. “She had a vanity right here,” he says, “That’s her brush on the corner there.”
“Thanks,” Black says as he pulls a package with a pair of prophylactic gloves from his pocket. Also in the kit are a few small tubes with stoppers and labels. As he collects hair samples from the brush, Agent White looks around the room.
“Do you know if Della kept a diary,” he asks as Jerry watches Agent Black go to work.
“Um, no, I’m not sure,” Jerry says, turning to see White examining Della’s bookcase.
“Big reader, huh,” White asks.
“Yeah, she really liked books,” Jerry says proudly. “Read a ton. Loved the library.”
“OK,” Black says, stowing the samples in his briefcase and snapping it shut a final time. “I think we got all we need. Mr. Swain.” Handshakes all around. “Thank you very much for your cooperation. I know this was difficult for you. We’ll be in touch as soon as we get anything solid.”
“Good, good,” Jerry says as he escorts the agents back to the front door. They have a final exchange with Keira on their way out. The Swains watch from their front stoop as the agents head down the block to their black sedan and pull away.
Jerry and Keira head back inside and look at the clock: ten to midnight. They sit down on the couch, and moments later, headlights flash through their front picture window. The Cunningham van pulls up to the driveway, and twelve-year-old Virgil comes running up to the front door. He practically slams it behind himself in his excitement.
“Hey, hon,” Keira says, “How was the movie?”
“Oh, it was badass!” Virgil jumps in the air to hug his mother as she goes to him. “There was this Mexican guy, and he was on a bus, and this jerk just wouldn’t stop hassling him, and so he kicks his butt! And they put it on YouTube, and everyone called him ‘Bad Ass,’ and then there were these other guys, and they kicked his butt! But then he came back and kicked their butts even harder! It was awesome! And then we played Halo, and Ryan’s mom let us have some pizza, too! And there was a game with zombies in it, and the zombies exploded sometimes!”Virgil carries on, his elation contagious. Once he is safely in bed, his parents retreat to their own room, where they make love for the first time in weeks.