January 7. Cold air that normally sticks around the North Pole has slipped its moorings, heading south, today in a polar vortex. Ice quakes are shaking the earth in the midwest. Milder here, but with the wind, 13 degrees still feels like negative one. All extreme weather–wind driving rain at an angle nearly parallel to the ground, thick fog that off-gassed from snow banks, or even a night blacker than any due to low clouds–makes me think about her. So, for sure I would connect the polar vortex to the missing girl, the one who cut through the playing fields of her high school on the way to a path through the woods still covered in mostly green leaves, 89 days ago. That was when she disappeared.
She was wearing yoga pants and a baggy sweater in the school security photo that offers the last picture of her. So, to me, how could she not be under-dressed during a polar vortex–at least in my imagining? Her cell phone was in one hand and the other hand was covered down to the fingertips by her sleeve. I do that sometimes, too, pull my cuff over my thumb and hold it there, like a street urchin, when I’m feeling nervous. (Was she nervous as she headed toward the door?) She was wearing boots that were black or brown, depending on which FBI Missing Person poster you read, and carrying a large, slouchy bag. In the security photo, the shoulder bag seems to be made of cloth, large enough to haul the mail around the neighborhood. She was about to step away from the first four weeks of her freshman year of high school and into something else.
The reason I know about this girl (who disappeared, by the way, three days before her fifteenth birthday) was that the week before another girl disappeared, a little closer to my home. I discovered the news of the other girl on Twitter, as I also discovered just twenty hours later, already gone, that they found her deep in the woods near a statue she liked as kid–a secret spot in the magical forest of her childhood, maybe, to her. She left a goodbye note to someone, left her keys in her car. So, when an almost identical child, just a couple years younger, disappeared a short while later, it seemed like an epidemic: missing girls in leggings, long dark hair and darker eyes who have an obligatory but slight smile in one or two selfies they leave behind on Facebook. Two girls with sad, wan smiles. I’m not saying that’s a reason to become obsessed with missing teenagers, I’m just setting up my way of thinking about the still-missing girl in bad weather, during scary dark nights, almost all the time when I am near the woods. My first thought was that girls sometimes walk into the forest to kill themselves–why is that? Whatever draws them there?
But suicidal thoughts don’t seem to be the case with the girl who’s been gone for 89 days as of today. From everything I’ve meticulously gathered in the past 89 days, on crime websites and chat rooms and all the news reports, is that she was probably going to meet someone–walking into the woods alone like that–she left her friends behind on the bus and even texted one of them a <3. A last heart–signifying everything or nothing?–just before she strolled off the path toward something else. These were two different girls, walking into trees that were starting to turn golden, leaving little notes behind like breadcrumbs, for different reasons–or so it seems.
I don’t think I’ve missed a single thing–not one of the series of daily press conferences with the attorney general and the FBI agents flanking the tearful mother in the first three weeks as October wound down, not the handwritten letters the mother posts on facebook talking directly to the girl or the pictures of the girl’s pugs wearing reindeer antlers as Christmas approached, not puzzling the news that the mother had received a letter from the girl a month after she disappeared. I know only what police have released about this missing girl–maybe more than the average person, but still not much. With just that to go on, you could say there are two choices, that either this girl is warm and safe from the polar vortex or that it no longer matters what the weather outside is. Or you could think what I am, now, as I watch the naked branches outside my window rock back and forth and back and forth: you could think about how there is a world of shadows in between these black and white choices–life and death. You could wonder about the exact moment–that split second when “walking away” becomes “missing endangered.” You could think whatever led up to that moment started a long time before 89 days ago, and the arctic pole moved south. Girls don’t go missing for nothing.