Chapter 1 – Remnants from a Storm
In my heart I’ve always known Julie wasn’t coming back. The day I found out for sure, I was watching America’s Most Wanted on FOX TV, unprepared for my teenage granddaughters, Winston and Franklynn Pierce, to come bursting into my condo sobbing with swollen and bloodshot eyes. I jumped out of my La-Z-Boy ready for…I didn’t know what. Franklynn immediately wrapped her arms around my neck and began sobbing, “Oh, Grandpa, Grandpa, Grandpa.” Since Winston isn’t the huggy type, I made a conscious effort to pull her in between the two of us. Her body was trembling and hot tears spilled from her cheeks onto my cotton tee-shirt as Franklynn choked out, “Mommy’s dead.”
Her statement hit me like a sledgehammer in the chest and I squeezed the girls tighter.
“You remember that storm we had two weeks ago?” Winston said, trying desperately to control her voice.
I nodded my head against hers and vaguely recalled missing a workday due to weather.
“Blew over an old chokecherry tree at the peace officer’s memorial in Idlewild Park and scattered human bones across the lawn?”
“Yes,” I said, clearing my throat against what I figured was coming next. “It was front page news.”
“That was Mommy,” Franklynn said, and began sobbing harder.
I let go of the girls and collapsed on the davenport. They plunked down on opposite sides of me and continued weeping. I closed my eyes and shook my head; Julie’s bones in Idlewild Park? How did she end up buried there, in the middle of Reno?
“Just before we came over,” Franklynn said, as she found her voice, “Detective Zorn and some Asian-looking cop questioned Daddy. Said they’d identified Mommy’s remains, but couldn’t return them because they were evidence. Can you believe…?”
I wrapped my arms around my granddaughters. I’d like to question their father myself.
“…We can’t give her a proper burial until they finish their stupid investigation,” Winston said, finishing the sentence for her little sister. “Maybe not even then because they only found about half her bones.”
“Half her bones?” I asked, my voice squeaking like it had when I was a teenager myself.
Franklynn sobbed and hugged me tighter. “They never found her arms and legs.”
I swallowed hard, not wanting to believe what I was hearing.
Winston and Franklynn started sobbing again and all I could do to keep from sobbing myself was hug them close. “Where’s your father?” I asked. Although I was delighted they had come to me, it really was his place to console them.
“When the cops left he said he had to go to Vegas.”
“I thought he just got back.”
Winston sniffled and wiped her eyes. “Oh, Grandpa, what are we going to do?”
I squeezed her close and sighed. “I don’t know sweetheart. But you knew this day was coming. Your mother never would have left you…either of you…for any reason.” Your father, maybe, but not Julie. Shari, and I raised her better than that.
Voices from my fifty-five inch HDTV droned as the three of us huddled together on the davenport, each isolated in our own sad thoughts. I sniffled a few times as the girls cried themselves out, then pried myself free and clicked off the remote. “I think we all could use a cup of hot chocolate,” I said.
“Like mommy used to make?” Franklynn asked, still sounding teary.
Winston hopped up, wiping her eyes on her sleeves. “Is there any other kind?”
“Not as far as I’m concerned,” I said, stepping into my one-butt galley kitchen and pulling the double-boiler from a cupboard beneath the sink. Julie had always made it with half & half and real whipped cream. Way too rich for my stomach. But the girls loved it, and it always made them feel better when they were hurt or sad. I popped a couple Lactaid tablets and opened the icebox.
Winston scooted behind me and grabbed the carton of heavy whipping cream from the top shelf. She poured it into the Kitchen Aid mixing bowl sitting on the counter, pulled the speed lever forward, and dumped in a ton of sugar. I stirred Ghirardelli intense dark cocoa into the half & half warming on the stove. The humming mixer and bubbling chocolate soon filled my condo with a luscious aroma that made my mouth water and brought teary smiles to the girl’s faces.
I’m not sure where our daughter, Julie, came up with the names for the girls because my ex-wife Shari and I thought Winston was a terrible name for our granddaughter the first time we heard it, but by then it was too late. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long before the name fit her like the brass ferrule in a compression fitting, and getting used to Franklynn after that took no time at all. Most people think they were named after Winston Churchill and Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, but that simply is not the case. Julie just liked the names is all. Perhaps because her husband, George, had wanted boys, he agreed to the unusual handles much the same way my father had agreed to naming my sister Muffy, and me Chip.
The girls and I sat around the dining room table for a half hour or so sipping hot chocolate from their grandmother’s fine china teacups and reminiscing about her and their mother, two women now missing from their lives. They’d been in primary school when Julie went missing, Winston in third grade and Franklynn in first, yet both reading at a fifth grade level. Long gone are the days when I’ve been able to help them with their homework, except for the wood-shop class Franklynn is taking. I get a real kick helping her finish the projects she brings to my shop when the power and woodworking tools at school are broken or missing.
It’s amazing how much Franklynn reminds me of Shari with her cute little turned-up nose, teak-brown eyes, and baby-fine, honey-maple hair. Watching her grow is like experiencing a forty year déjà vu. In the family album, black and white photographs of my ex-wife look dated, but the images of the gangly teenager tilting her head to the side and grinning are identical to that of the girl sitting across the table from me. It’s not difficult to imagine how she’ll look as a young woman and it makes my gut churn like a concrete mixer.
A month after Julie disappeared, Shari began having a glass of wine or two a day, and it didn’t seem all that long before the garbage bags began clinking with the empty bottles as I carried them out every night. I thought her going to bed early and sleeping late was just a way to cope with Julie’s disappearance, but when she graduated to vodka and began talking of divorce, I spent everything we’d saved during our thirty-nine year marriage trying to dry her out. Losing a child is a scab on your heart and it just keeps getting pulled off…and you bleed again and again and again, and you don’t know how much you can keep going, but somehow you do.
Then, two years ago, she returned from completing the program at the Betty Ford Center inebriated. She was with Harold Nelson, another drunk, who laughingly referred to the rehab facility as “Camp Betty” and obviously came from money. He had the nerve to tell me, in words more slurred than not, that he and Shari were soul mates and I should grant her the divorce because he was giving her all the things I no longer could. I was furious at the betrayal. But eventually, and with much reluctance, I gave Shari what she thought she wanted and she moved to Palm Springs to share Harold’s whiskey-sodden life. I can only pray that Franklynn didn’t inherit her grandmother’s destructive, habit forming genes.
Winston, on the other hand, has lustrous Burmese rosewood colored hair, smoky gray eyes, and thousands of cinnamon freckles that she obviously inherited from her dad, but doesn’t seem to mind as she rarely wears makeup. Not that it would do any good even if she did, considering how much time she spends in the sun playing fast-pitch softball. Winston plays center field primarily because she’s the only girl on the team who can throw a ball to home plate from the outfield wall. When she was three, I taught her to chunk rocks overhand like a boy into the Truckee River and in no time at all she was chunking them clean over it. She’s also their fastest sprinter.
Since the girls’ father had once again shirked his duty, I sent them off to bed and cleaned up the kitchen trying to figure who would kill my little girl and bury half her body in Idlewild Park. My stomach ached from the hot chocolate and anxiety about my daughter’s dismemberment. I hope to God that her murderer didn’t cut her up before killing her. I don’t want to go there but can’t get the thought out of my mind.
Even though it’s been nine years since Julie went missing, the hot tears I was holding back spilled out of my eyes and burned down my cheeks. Half her bones; how could I ever tell Shari?