Curbside garbage pickup was every Wednesday for those who lived on South Pinedale Avenue in Banderville.
It was also the day Cara Husky had to babysit her little sister for half a day while their mother worked a twelve hour shift as a nurse at Banderville Memorial Hospital. Cara was glad her mom last month had cut back to part time work hours.
But that still meant two twelve hour shifts, one during daytime on Wednesday and the other on Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays, when Dad had to assume the role of babysitter. On this Wednesday morning, Cara wished that summer vacation would hurry up and end so she could return to a routine of high school while an aunt or grandparent took over Wednesday babysitting of Hope.
Not that Cara minded watching Hope.
But she often wished three year olds came with a switch to shut off or at least power down what seemed to be an infinite supply of energy. All that morning Hope had toddled around both floors of the dwelling, reaching into cabinets, drawers, and bookcases until the house appeared as if a flood had washed through its interior and removed pots, pans, books, CDs, DVDs, clothing, and other items from their storage places and left them strewn about the floor after the waters had receded.
It had taken two snacks, three children’s TV programs, and five stories before Cara could coax Hope into her room and sing her to sleep for a nap with lullabies. With her little sister tucked away in bed, Cara cleared a path from the bedroom she shared with Hope to the kitchen. There, a pile of dirty breakfast dishes and utensils greeted her.
“Ugh. Why does Dad have to always have his bacon fried to a crisp?” Cara wondered out loud as she rubbed a scouring pad on the bits of meat and fat that seemed to have become one with a greasy cast iron skillet. Scrubbing it and the stainless steel pan in which half a dozen eggs had been fried in canola oil distracted Cara enough that she did not hear Hope awake and saunter toward the front door of their split level home. Because of the summer heat, Cara had left the solid core wooden front door open, with only a screen door keeping away flies looking for an entrance to a supply of food and buzzing mosquitos hungry for human flesh and blood.
But the screen door was ajar enough for tiny hands to open it as Hope pushed on its aluminum frame.
Once outside, Hope lifted her arms toward the fluffy gray and white cumulus clouds that hid the sun. Then she walked across the lawn to a favorite ball and kicked and rolled it until it became wedged underneath a row of bushes that divided her front yard from a neighbor’s. As she crawled under the green shrubs to retrieve her toy, Hope heard a familiar sound, one of her favorite ones, a gigantic green and white garbage truck bouncing and lurching toward the curb thirty feet from her. Its hissing air brakes widened her hazel eyes.
Every week it performed the same trick, its magical illusion amazing Hope without fail. Down toward Earth would descend a huge metallic claw to clutch the 60-gallon plastic container full of stinky trash, anything that could not be recycled into new plastic or metallic containers or paper products or converted into reusable mulch. Up, up, up, the claw always lifted the container, no matter how full or heavy it might be, before upending it, shaking it, and making its contents somehow disappear.
Hope was certain of the before and after condition of the garbage can because more than once she had climbed onto an overturned bucket next to where it sat on days other than Wednesdays and peered down into it to survey its contents. Every Thursday, it was either empty or contained only a trifling of trash, the only confirmation necessary to assure her the truck’s performance had once again succeeded.
Sometimes the magic truck was in a hurry and the plastic bin would fall on its side as it was returned from its journey toward the sky back to planet Earth. Even from her bedroom window, Hope had seen that it had been empty as it rested sideways on the sidewalk. Often, Hope had tried to convince her parents and siblings to watch the weekly magic show with her, but they had all ignored her pointing finger.
Only her eleven year old brother seemed to care enough to share her excitement. In response to her pointing and shouts of “look, look, look!” he had lifted her into a freshly emptied can and given her a ride inside of it to the side of their house. But Cara had screamed at him until Hope came to his defense by beginning to wail, her preferred tactic to distract her older brother and sister whenever they fought.
* * *
After finishing the dishes, Cara flipped on the television set and found a movie she thought adequate for her sophisticated tastes, maybe one that would prove good enough for her to review on her reviewer page at Amazon’s website.
Tired from a date the night before and not getting home until midnight, her father’s imposed curfew, Cara drifted off to sleep While Cara dreamed about what August and being a sophomore might bring her way, Hope watched her favorite Wednesday late morning or early afternoon entertainment.
After squeezing the overflowing trash can, the iron claw hoisted it skyward. But three quarters of the way up, the mechanism jammed. Hope’s mouth opened as the truck’s cursing operator exited his right side driver’s seat. Because he held a tire iron and his face resembled her daddy’s whenever he grasped such a tool, Hope scooted backward until her head touched the hedge.
The sanitary engineer climbed a ladder made of three-quarter inch rebar welded to the side of his truck until his face was level with the lid of the garbage bin. Then he banged on the metal chain that lifted and lowered the twenty-five to thirty dozen cans his truck lifted every shift.
“You better work now,” he said as his feet touched the concrete and he shook the tire iron at the part of his truck that always seemed to require the most care. He climbed back into the truck’s cab and pushed the control that moved the chain. When he heard the kind of groaning sound mechanical things make when their human operators expect the impossible, he leaped back onto the sidewalk and looked heavenward. “Come on, God. Why do I always have to get stuck with the truck that is so messed up that it can’t even finish a single shift?”
He rolled the bin containing yard waste underneath the one that dangled above hm. Next, he grabbed a ten-foot long one-inch thick piece of oak from behind the driver’s seat. Standing as close to the cans as possible, he thrust his long pointer to press a control in the cab that released the metal claw.
As the freed can dropped two feet toward the top of the plastic bin under it, the driver leapt next to them and squeezed the falling can in a bear hug as the one under it tottered from side to side. He stopped the lower can’s movement by letting it bump against his hip until it stood motionless. Then he lowered the one he held to the ground.
His orange coveralls and face drenched with sweat, the driver walked to the rear of his truck and pulled a two-liter plastic bottle of root beer from his protective clothing’s largest pocket. In between gulps, he dialed his cell phone. As he waved traffic around his vehicle and explained the breakdown to his dispatcher, Hope walked to the truck and touched the bottom rung of the ladder that looked no longer than the ones she loved to climb at the playgrounds her family took her to visit.
Her leg and arm muscles were firm from the hours spent climbing monkey bars and ladders to their tallest slides. Soon, her feet rested on the next to last steel rung of the ladder. This allowed her to bend at the waist, her pelvis resting on the top step.
Hope was surprised by the stinky assortment of fresh garbage that assaulted her eyes and nose because she had assumed the garbage she had so often seen tumble from the cans somehow disappeared. After all, her big brother had said that the trucks ate the garbage to give them fuel to rumble around town and out to the dump, where they spit out anything that gave them indigestion and went “potty” if need be.
A sad looking doll, dumped from her next door neighbor’s can, seemed to be reaching up to Hope, so she stretched toward it. Her motion propelled her into a somersault, landing her atop 138 houses’ worth of weekly trash.
Having convinced his dispatcher that, “I can’t pick up another can because the chain’s jammed beyond me being able to fix it,” the driver threw his empty soda bottle high into the air and yelled, “three points, he wins the game,” as it disappeared into the truck’s storage compartment. He whistled as he headed toward the dump to jettison his not quite full truck. After that, it would be back to the maintenance shop to pick up another truck to finish his route.
“Looks like a little bit of overtime,” he sang. “OT for me, how sweet can that be?”
His song and the rumbling diesel engine next to him drowned out Hope’s alternating wails and sobs, which began when the truck lurched forward into gear. She wondered if the truck had already decided which of the three scenarios detailed by her brother would happen to her: consumed along with the garbage all around her to power the monstrous truck, burped out by the truck at the dump, or worst of all, becoming part of what came out of the truck when it went potty.
* * *
Ten minutes later, the increased volume of the television as a commercial break played woke up Cara.
She stumbled to the bathroom. After splashing three cupped handfuls of water on her face, she went to check on Hope. Seeing only a rumpled blanket where she had tucked Hope in, Cara began calling her name, starting with one call in a normal voice every ten seconds. After a search of her home’s every room, Cara’s voice rose in volume and her calm, evenly spaced interrogative calls escalated from “Hope?…Hope?…Hope?…” to demanding shrieks of “Hope! Hope! Hope!”
On her second sweep of the house, Cara noticed the front screen door was ajar. She dashed through the front entryway with enough force to pull the top hinge of the screen door from its aluminum alloy frame. As Cara’s feet touched the concrete steps leading from the front porch to the yard, scenarios flashed through her mind, all of them starring Hope as innocent victim because of a neglectful sibling: frightened and lost, kidnapped, run over by a car, molested, murdered. The images flashing through Cara’s mind stoked the two emotions controlling her – fear and guilt.
When quick searches of front and back yards showed no sign of her little sister, Cara did what many of her age had grown up doing: she pulled out her phone from her jeans pocket and sent a tweet:
Help. My three year old sister Hope is lost. I think she is still in the neighborhood. Help me. And don’t tell my mom or she’ll kill me.
Her tweet landed on 117 phones. Within three minutes it had been forwarded to another 538 phones. Ten minutes later, the message sat in the memories of 2,639 phones. Twenty-six volunteers descended on the Husky’s home. Their frantic knocks on doors within a two-block radius produced nothing, not even a report of a sighting of Hope.
Hearing the negative results, Matthew Hennessy took charge as GIC, Geek in Charge.
First, he posted on his Facebook page:
Missing: Hope Husky, age three. Last seen on the 1800 block of South Pinedale Avenue in Banderville. If you have any information, call….
Not sure whether his army of 1,351 Facebook friends, most living outside of Banderville, would prove adequate for the task, Matthew next posted on What’s Happening in Banderville?, a page where local residents chatted, complained, cursed, gossiped, and sometimes raged about politics, religion or life in general.
Matthew smiled as he watched the genesis of what he thought would be a case of one of his posts going viral. The first comments to it hit Facebook within seconds and did not cease until weeks later. Within two minutes, nineteen others had shared the post to their Facebook pages. The first comments were dramatic and short:
OMG. I hope u find her.
I started searching over here on the south side of town.
Have u found her yet?
Let me know if the searchers need any sandwiches.
On the way there with my dog Roscoe, best damn tracker in the state.
Have you called 911 yet?
The last comment sent Matthew to Cara to ask her the same question.
* * *
It had been a routine shift for LVN Tonya Husky, caring for older patients with pneumonia or the flu strain that never seemed to fully exit those it invaded and patients of all ages who had endured the uncertainties of surgery, some minor, some major. At least the number born at Banderville Memorial Hospital that day outnumbered those who had died in its wards – so far. Tonya was returning to her ward from lunch in the cafeteria when her phone rang.
“This is Tonya.”
“Hi, Tonya. I just heard the news. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Because I’m almost seven hours into my shift I’m not too good at recognizing voices right about now, Tonya thought. It would help quite a bit to tell me who you are. “Who is this?” she asked, in a voice she hoped carried enough irritation to keep this intrusion as short as possible.
“Oh, hi Racheal. What do you want to help me out with?” She hoped her friend had heard how Tonya had been drafted to serve as chairwoman of her church’s craft fair. As she listened to the answer Tonya’s expression went from bored to concerned to hysterical. “Oh, my God! My baby? I have to get home.”
She dropped her cell phone and ignored its bounce and slide across the tile floor. Sprinting to the nurses’ station, Tonya slowed to a trot as she passed it. “My daughter’s missing. I have to get home right away.”
The charge nurse for the ward stood and tried to utter a reassurance, but her words bounced off the door to the stairway as it slammed shut behind Tonya. She descended three flights of empty stairs in forty-two seconds and bumped into three staff and two patients as she bolted across the first floor for the hospital’s main entrance. Commuting to or from her worksite took fifteen minutes most days.
Tonya made this trip home in eight minutes.
* * *
Tonya Husky’s body shook as she grabbed her oldest child and rocked her back and forth. Her voice trembled even more. “What happened? Where is Hope? Why didn’t you…” She stopped when she saw Cara’s eyes grow wide and her head bob about.
Cara’s fears and worry for the last hour gave way to tears. “I’m sorry, Mom. I fell asleep just for a little while after Hope laid down for her nap. When I woke up…” Cara pointed at the house, the front yard, and then toward the back yard to try and communicate the extent of her hasty search. Unable to any longer take her mother’s fingernails digging into her bare upper arms, Cara tried to wiggle free from her grasp. As Cara collapsed onto her knees, she dragged Tonya’s vise-like grip downward until the pairs’ faces were inches apart.
“But…but…” Tonya stammered, not sure which level of scolding her daughter deserved or if it could even penetrate what she considered the hardest head of their five-member family. A loud cough spun Tonya’s head upward.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. I’m Officer Jorgenson. I need to ask you a few questions Can we go inside and maybe you can have something cold to drink to help you calm down. I know you’re pretty upset because I chased you for the last five blocks here to your house and you didn’t slow down even after I put on my lights.”
“Are you going to give me a ticket at a time like this?” Tonya let go of Cara and wobbled as she stood.
The officer sighed. “No. You must be the mother of the one that the dispatcher radioed us about. I just need to help you find your missing daughter, okay?” The cop started to walk to the front porch. “Maybe you should come inside, too,” he nodded at Cara after he saw a van from a local television station pull up to the curb. “It’s getting a little bit crazy out here.”
* * *
When Art Pagan lifted the lid to what he called “the best compost bin known to man because it has wheels and didn’t cost me a cent,” the gasses created from grass clippings, weeds, leaves, coffee grounds, and the parts of fruit and vegetables his wife did not include in her cooking and baking knocked him backward, as if one of his friends had landed a punch to his jaw after both had had too much alcohol.
“Woeee, Jethro!” He imitated Uncle Jed, his favorite character from the situation comedy The Beverley Hillbillies. “That shore be some right powerful mulch. It’ll make Granny’s garden turn into the Garden of Eden for sure. All that’s left to do is give it one last shot in the arm.” Art popped open a twelve-ounce can of his favorite beer and poured the brew on top of the steaming, smelly mulch. “I read in one of them organic gardening magazines that baptizing mulch with beer gets it to cooking big time. I love the smell of rotting vegetation in the morning!”
Art slammed the lid to the eighty-gallon heavy duty gray plastic refuse bin that the city had provided to all its residents. Into it was supposed to go “all yard waste, but no pet litter, meat or dairy products, disposable diapers, or other toxic materials,” according to the instructions that had come with it.
Art checked the date he had painted onto the can’s lid and smiled. “It’s been cooking for four weeks now. Should be ready to spread around starting tomorrow.” The sound of his phone ringing in his den sent Art inside.
“Hey, Art. The radio just said they are really biting up at Lake Tuckahotha. Let’s go.”
Art’s plans of applying his freshly brewed batch of compost around his eleven fruit trees evaporated, replaced by visions of large, plump bass being reeled into his friend’s boat. “I’ll pick you up in ten minutes. We’ll take my camper and your boat. Let’s stay through Saturday. By then, the lake will be crawling with boats and the fish will all be hiding.”
“Quit jabbering and get on over here before our wives find out and try to talk us out of it like they always do.”
* * *
When a breeze blew past Art’s compost bin and through an open window, his wife Nancy’s nose twitched. She had agreed to tolerate his mulch making only if he had all of it out of the bin by tomorrow because she needed it in an empty condition so she could prune her rose bushes. But he had run off to go fishing instead.
“You snooze, you lose. You fish, you wish you hadn’t instead of doing your chores,” Nancy said as she wheeled the bin to the curb fifteen minutes before the truck picking up yard waste turned onto the Pagan’s block.
Some of the smoldering batch of table scraps and yard waste had reached 172 degrees after sitting in full sun inside the closed container for twelve hours a day for weeks. It landed atop a pile of gasoline soaked newspapers, used to clean up a mess from a neighbor’s garage and which then had been tossed into the yard waste bin because his trash can was full. An hour later, Art’s steaming mulch ignited the newspapers as the truck holding them turned onto a bumpy, rutted dirt lane that led to the county dump.
Its driver had heard tales of garbage trucks catching on fire, but the legends always took place in a large metropolis, where anything and everything was transferred from cans to the trucks, including dead bodies. Seeing his own truck burning terrified him.
“Help! Help! My truck’s on fire.” He waved his arms as he fled the flames, which had spread downward to the branches, bushes, and weeds killed by herbicides, until his truck’s container looked more like a volcano than a “sanitary receptacle,” the term a bureaucrat had coined.
* * *
The dump’s superintendent’s 911 call alerted six members of the nearest volunteer fire department, four of whom responded. By the time they arrived with their fire engine, an ancient model handed down by the U.S. Forest Service, the fire had consumed whatever was flammable inside the truck’s bed and a mixture of smoking ashes and embers remained.
It took five minutes for the fire crew to drench the residue and another five trying to convince the driver to dump his load “on the dirt road so we can make sure it’s completely out before we leave.” After reminding the driver of how Smoky Bear always ordered campers to drown their campfires, stir what remained, and soak them again in public service announcements starring him, the driver obeyed.
Satisfied after every drop of water from their 1,200 gallon tank had been applied to the gooey mess, firefighter Sondra Tighe coiled one of the hoses used to fight the blaze. The glint of the setting sun’s rays reflecting off of something about 150 yards away turned Sondra’s head.
Must be a piece of metal or glass, Sondra thought. A minute later, another reflection from the same direction seemed to be a little closer. And moving.
She ran to the truck and grabbed the binoculars that had been donated with the truck. What appeared to be a dirty, crying child filled the instrument’s field of vision.
“Angel, you my angel?” were the first words Sondra heard after sprinting to the tired, hungry Hope, whose silver colored hair clip had caught a descending sun’s final light for the day.
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