SHORT STORY | Missing Persons

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MISSING PERSONS

By Mayumi Cruz

The knock on the door was almost imperceptible. But then, my ears had been trained to be on alert twenty-four hours a day.

“Hello there, young man. I was wondering if you could help me.” I heard the cheerful voice even before his smiling, square-shaped face appeared at the door. 

A sob caught in my throat. I wished I can freeze that image and tuck it in my mind forever. I wished I had this man’s positivity. I badly, desperately needed it at this moment.

These days, it seemed all I do was cry myself to sleep. My eyes were swollen and puffed. My head felt like a hammer was constantly banging on it. Surely, I must have looked like a tired, old owl who’d had no sleep for a long time. 

In contrast, the sweet, kind man who was entering the room didn’t look like seventy-three. Maybe it was his cheery disposition, the way his eyes were always twinkling with mirth. Once upon my life, I had been like that. These days, though, it was getting harder and harder to smile.  

“I’m all ears,” I replied. I was rewarded with a wide grin, reminiscent of a playful, handsome youth who had the world in his hands. 

He sat down on the chair beside me without waiting for an invitation. His fingers intertwined on his lap, he solemnly told me, “I would like to report a crime.”

“What?” Flabbergasted was an understatement. A crime was certainly not something I needed, after everything already going on at the present. “What do you mean?”

“Well, see here,” he muttered, pursing his lips. His eyebrows knitted. “Someone took my family.”

“Say again?”

He spoke, more urgently now, “My family’s missing. I want you to help me find them. Isn’t that what you’re here for?”

Realization dawned on me. My cheeks burned. I was instantly filled with shame. Of course, the depression eating up on me cannot be an excuse to ignore a complaint such as this. I still had to entertain grievances even as I was dealing with my own. 

It was my job. It was my responsibility.

I exhaled and turned my full attention to him. “Yes, that’s what I’m here for. How can I help you?”

He squinted at me. “Shouldn’t you be writing everything I’m going to tell you? How else will you be able to file a missing persons report, Officer?”

“Yes, of course.” Automatically, I picked up the pad and pen lying on the bed. “I have to get your name, sir.”

“Guillermo Torres.”

“Very good, sir. Age?”

“Forty-two.”

He certainly didn’t look that age, but I nodded anyway. “Occupation?”

“Musician and businessman. I own a music-themed café.” He beamed with pride.

“Very good, sir. Home address?”

“Block 40 Lot 5 Maningas Village, Manila.”

“And what brings you here, sir?”

“My wife and two kids are missing.”

“Names?”

“My wife’s name is Martha. Our two children are named after us.”

“Ages?”

“Thirty-nine, sixteen and fourteen.”

“When and where did you last see them?”

“Yesterday morning. I left them in the kitchen when I went to work.”

“Don’t you think they may just have went to the mall?”

“Don’t you think I didn’t wait until midnight for them to come home?”

“So, until now, they’re not there?”

“I wouldn’t be coming here if they are, would I?”

“Fair enough. There was no note, no message whatsoever?”

“No.” Shoulders slumped, he shook his head slowly. “There was not.”

“Did you look for them, sir?”

“Absolutely. I called my in-laws, asking if Martha and the kids went to them. They didn’t even know they were gone.”

“And then, what did you do?”

“I went to the kids’ school. I talked to their teachers and classmates. Nobody saw my kids.”

“That’s. . . certainly alarming, sir.”

He combed his fingers through his hair wearily. “I also knocked on our neighbors’ doors, hoping to find them there. But they weren’t there, either. Finally, I went here.” 

I felt his pain and I briefly squeezed my eyes shut to focus on the conversation. “Thank you for your trust, sir. Was there something unusual that happened before your family went missing?”

“Well, I remember seeing a man.”

My head snapped up. “A man?”

“Yes. As I was coming into the dining room, I saw a man standing outside the glass doors, staring at us.”

“Were you able to take a good look at the man, sir?”

“Well…it’s funny, but…he kind of looks like…you.”

“Me, sir?” Despite myself, my brows went up and I was surprised to find my lips curving to form a smile.

“Yes.” Guillermo shrugged. “But I know it’s not you.”

“And why are you certain of that, sir?”

“Because the man was older. And the way he looked at Martha…”

“How did he look at your wife, sir?”

“Like he owns her.” The old man’s jaw hardened. “I cannot have that. Only I own my wife.”

“Of course, sir.”

“I wanted to tell that to the man but when he saw me, he turned away at once.”

“Where did he go?”

“I don’t know. He disappeared into thin air.”

“What did you do, then?”

“I asked Martha why was there a man inside my house early in the morning.”

“And what did she tell you, sir?” 

“She said I knew about it, but I didn’t. She insisted I knew that man. But I didn’t recognize him at all.”

“So, you were arguing yesterday morning, sir?”

“I was furious. Instead of telling the truth, she said things like, ‘lack’, and ‘loss’, and ‘tangles’, and ‘buildup’, and other things that don’t make any sense!”

I wanted to correct him. But of course, I held my tongue. It wasn’t lack. It was plaque. Or both, plaque and lack. And yes, loss. Tangles. Buildup. Brain. Terms that were foreign, and yet, had become too familiar to my ears these past four years. I had heard those words repeated over and over again, like a broken record spinning endlessly on a cranky, damaged turntable. Those silly words had the ability to rupture eardrums and grind the heart into a thousand bits and pieces.

“I can understand why you were angry, sir.” I tried to soothe the old man’s anger.

“Yesterday, she was…different. She was speaking in a language I can’t understand, instead of my sweet, unpretentious Martha.” 

“What about the children, sir?”

“The children were crying. She sent them to their rooms.” His lips quivered. “Do you think my wife and kids took off with that man, Officer?”

“Do you honestly believe your wife will do that to you, sir?”

After a brief silence, Guillermo shook his head. “No. She loves me and would not cheat on me. We may have had our differences, but our love had always prevailed. We’ve always been faithful to each other.”

I’d often wondered how some people can be so lucky and how some, like me, can be not that fortunate. In a world full of temptation and vanity, finding a faithful and supportive soulmate was nothing short of a miracle. Some women, including my estranged wife, conveniently forgot the ‘to have and to hold, in sickness or in health, till death do us part’ vows they’d spoken at the altar, as soon as life threw their way some things—or some people, even those who brought you up in this world—treating them like annoying burdens they could do without.

But enough of myself. I had to focus on the man whose grief over his family’s disappearance was now starting to show on his face. Gone was the cheeky smile and the twinkling eyes. In an instant, he was a different man from the one who entered the room a few minutes ago, bringing goose pimples on the surface of my arms.

Startled, I realized it was his eyes.

They were black as night, deep as a black hole, and frighteningly…empty. Or, perhaps, the most appropriate word was…hollow. Not unlike a rotting coconut shell without its sweet coconut juice and its delicious soft, ivory flesh. Devoid of contents, with only air revolving round and round in an endless, dizzying circle. Those pair of sunken, vacant pools stared right through me, seeing things only the old man can see, seeing through and beyond me.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. In all of my thirty-five years, there were only three things that scared me. One was a dirty, foot-long, charcoal-colored rat I found in my room when I was but eight years old, munching on my shoe, red eyes flashing at me for disturbing his eating time. Second was the ‘ghosts’ I encountered inside an unforgettable Horror Cave in high school, dripping blood and screaming curses at me when the train passed through them. And third was when I was an eye witness to a bank robbery, where a thief dropped wounded a few feet away from me, shot by a security guard.

I had either outgrown or conquered all those as I aged. The clear and present terror looking back at me now was nowhere near those. The mounting fear that clawed at my insides was a thousand times greater. I was scared out of my wits, and I knew it will never, ever go away. 

With fright combined with the terrible dread that had been eating up on me these past few days, it was a wonder I could still function. Yet I summoned all the strength remaining in me as I asked him, “Do you have a picture of your wife and kids, sir?”

“What’s that for?” 

“It’s for identifying them, sir.”

He threw me a disbelieving look. “Why would I need pictures when I know their faces by heart?” 

I sighed. “Right. In that case, can you describe them, sir?”

The old man double-blinked. The question clearly threw him off guard. A deep crease appeared on his forehead and his lips were slightly opened, as if the words were halted mid-air. 

He whispered after some time. “Describe them?”

“Yes, sir. Their physical appearance. How do they look? Any distinguishing features?”

A light switched on from behind Guillermo’s irises. It was so subtle, almost undetectable by the naked eye. But it was there. I glimpsed it, and I was awed and overjoyed by it. It illuminated his otherwise ebony eyes, giving it a splattering of white and off-white speckles, sparkling, twinkling—like stars in a sky full of dark clouds. When moments ago, they were frightening, now his eyes became dreamy all of a sudden, wearing a faraway, nostalgic look.

And when he spoke, his voice was not hoarse as before. It was gentle like the ocean breeze descending on the creamy, powdery sand on the shore. It was achingly sweet like a lover’s whisper—the feeling of love interlaced with the wonder of being in love.

  “Martha, my Martha…cannot be described by words alone. You have to see her, feel her, be with her…to describe her. To realize her beauty. It is not her flawless face with her big, bright eyes or full lips. No, it was not her almost perfect features that make her beautiful. It’s the fire that burns behind those eyes. The strength that vibrates from within her very core. The passion that breathes inside her soul. The essence of her. . . that’s her beauty.”

Zero gravity, if one were to consult scientists, was described as a state of weightlessness, the feeling of floating on air like a wayward leaf, drifting to nowhere. In the long silence which ensued between us, it was more than that. Everything and everyone became non-existent. The outside noises and sounds faded into nothingness. There was only the inanimate moment of shared and mutual discernment.

A door opened and closed, breaking the moment. It was gone in a flash. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath the entire time. Guillermo wiggled his head, as if willing himself to wake up. 

Clearing my throat, I asked, “What about your children, sir? How would you describe them?”

At the mention of his children, he grinned. “Oh, my son looks a lot like me. He’s something of a genius. He excelled in school. I’m so proud of him.”

I had never seen someone prouder of his son than Guillermo at this moment. I bit my lips to prevent the tears from falling. I wouldn’t be surprised if many a son would wish him to be their father.

I found myself grinning too, as I mused, “I’m glad you are, sir. And what about your daughter?”

If anything, his grin grew wider. “Segunda is a pretty little thing, and she knows it. She can wrap me around her fingers and make me do anything she wished for.”

“I bet she can, sir.” I beamed, as did the newcomer in the room. But I immediately became wary when Guillermo’s face dropped. The dreamy look was instantly gone. In its place, an indescribable grief made the old man look like he was experiencing an excruciating pain.

“I miss them. I miss my family,” he muttered, his voice breaking.

The desperate longing in the old man’s voice was so profound that the lump of emotion in my throat swelled, bringing fresh tears to my eyes. I rubbed my eyes with my knuckles.

I concurred in a low voice, “I’m sure they miss you too, sir.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, sir. From what I gathered, you have a happy family.” 

Guillermo nodded thoughtfully. “We have a sort of a ‘theme song,’ you know.”

“Really, sir?”

Smiling, the old man’s eyes closed, relishing the memories he was reliving in his mind. His wrinkled, scrawny fingers lightly tapped his lap, playing the long-lost melody of a song he knew so well. “I wrote the song. In the beginning, it was only for Martha. She’d always request me to sing it to her every night. I softly crooned it to her ears as I held her in his arms, making her drift off to sleep. It became her lullaby.”

There was a shuffle of feet behind him, but he took no notice. He was completely absorbed in the past. “When our children were born, it became their lullaby, too. I would sing it to them while holding their tiny fingers, marveling at the beautiful creations borne out of our union. Later, when the children grew up, we would sing it together, belting it out anywhere, anytime we feel like it: in the mall, in the swimming pool, in the car, in the streets. The song stuck to us like a pesky, adorable glue that bound our family and filled our home with much happiness and laughter.”

Suddenly, bitter tears found their way down the old man’s cheeks. “I thought Martha was happy with me. I thought my children adored me. It turned out they didn’t. Because one day, they were gone. I came home and they weren’t there. The house was empty. The cabinets were devoid of clothes. They even took the car. They left me. Just like that.”

The need to refute his statements was so strong, I grabbed his arm and shook it. “Sir, I don’t think they left you.” 

It was as if Guillermo didn’t hear me. “I’m scared, Officer. What if I don’t see them again? What if they don’t come back? What if I’ve lost them forever?”

My voice firm, I assured him, “We never lose the ones we love, sir. They stay in our hearts forever. That’s the power of love.”

Guillermo inclined his head, indignation etched across his face. “You’re not taking me seriously, are you?”

“I am, sir. I am taking you seriously.” I struggled to maintain the even tone of my voice at another sudden change in his temperament.

“It doesn’t look like it.”

I gritted my teeth, my patience teetering. But I kept myself under control. “Sir, I assure you, I am taking your complaint seriously.”

Guillermo stood up brusquely, knocking down his chair. “You aren’t! You’re laughing at me!” His eyes were blazing, his nostrils flaring. His unreasonable anger was surfacing.

“No, sir, please calm down,” I said, even as I signalled with my hand. 

Out of the blue, a beautiful voice floated in the air, singing a haunting melody. I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. Hearing it, Guillermo blinked, like he’d just come out of a trance. His eyes sparkled with curious interest as he gazed at the pretty young woman who appeared behind him.

In my mind, you dwell

In my heart, you’re there.

Never away, never far,

Always and forever.

And if my mind should wander

My heart, my love, will not

You’ll always be my darling

We’ll always have this song to sing.

His face softened, matching his voice when he addressed the girl. “You have such an extraordinary voice, young lady. And that is a very beautiful song.”

“Thank you. I’m glad you think so, sir.”

“Where did you learn that song?”

“My father wrote and composed it for my mother, sir.”

“Your father must love your mother very much.”

The girl’s eyes misted, but with a smile she replied, “Indeed, sir. They’re inseparable.”

A soft whimper was heard from the direction of the bed. The power of music, particularly the song that was just sang, had always baffled me. Like a time machine, it can transport someone to happier, joyful times and bask in their glory.  It had the ability to convey a whole set of emotions which otherwise cannot be uttered by a limited vocabulary caused by a heavy, sorrowful heart. The song can also ease a troubled mind and pacify agitated, anxious nerves. 

What kind of sorcery, or magic, or mystery did that song have, that it transforms and renews old, weary souls? 

Guillermo frowned, “Who is that? Is there anyone else here?” He turned away, not waiting for my reply. I didn’t get up from my seat, I merely pushed back my chair to allow him more space beside the bed. That was how I saw the way his eyes sparked with recognition. Again, I wished I can freeze the moment and hold it close to my heart forever.

“Martha?” Guillermo softly murmured, his hand stretching out to touch his wife.

The figure that was lying on the bed could no longer speak. She had to be fed, cleaned and changed regularly, which my sister and I took turns in doing. Last week, we’d been informed that stage seven was the final stage. It was the stage nearing death. In stage seven, we were told that patients lose the ability to respond to their environment or communicate. 

But like I said, the song must have held a special kind of magic. Not only did it make the woman open her eyes, fully aware of the man before her. She also broke into the sweetest, most gentle smile—an unspoken, yet loving response to her husband.

“Martha…I found you. I found you,” Guillermo breathed. His happiness was overflowing. He leaned forward, wrapping his arms around her thin, emaciated back, careful not to hurt her. He pressed his forehead against hers, and with trembling lips—reminding me of an adolescent’s awkward first kiss—he placed a chaste kiss on her dry mouth. 

It was a heartbreaking sight to behold.

A few steps away from us, the girl—the singer—was openly crying. I was holding back my tears, manning up as expected of me. But the dam broke when Guillermo stood up once again, and faced me and my sister.

“There you are, children. Don’t I get a hug… Junior? Segunda?”

I rushed into his outstretched arms, as did my sister. Like a child, I sobbed unashamedly on his shoulders. How I’ve missed the warmth of his embrace! Ever since Alzheimer’s took first my mother, then my father, away from us, we had been living each day with a thousand thorns constantly embedded in our hearts. It was unbearably hard to see them each day, becoming less and less of what we knew them to be—from being strong to weak, from being able to becoming incapable, from being independent to being helpless. Each day we were subjected to the same but all-too diverse forms of torture, tormenting us from the inside.

It was not the changes of mood, or angry outbursts or the crying sprees or the degrading incontinence that hurt the most. It was the cessation of light, humorous, meaningful conversations. It was the disappearance of the roars of laughter and the sweetest smiles. It was the absence of warm hugs, loving kisses, and gentle pats on the shoulders. It was the silence of the songs that once filled our happy home.

I clung tightly to my father as I had done so when I was a child afraid of the deafening sound of thunder during a storm. Again, I wished for a magic all my own: if I can just freeze this moment in time and stay like this forever. 

But I was not a sorcerer. I was just a child of parents whose disease had deprived me of their touch and their cognizance. After being forgotten by them for almost four years, this short, precious moment of recognition and fond caress was like a splash of torrential rain in a barren, dry land. 

I’d take it any time. After all, beggars can’t be choosers.

His eyes twinkling, Papa grinned at us, one hand clasping my shoulder, the other hand around my weeping sister. “Your mother and I would like to go to sleep now. Don’t forget to brush your teeth before going to bed, kids.” 

He then proceeded to lie beside Mama on the queen-sized bed, pulling the blanket over them. My sister, Martha the Second, or Segunda as she was fondly called, dimmed the lights but left the bedside lamp on. Hand in hand, we walked to the door. 

Before I was able to close it, however, Guillermo spoke again.

“Please remember to file the missing persons report, Officer.”

My sister and I exchanged painful looks. “Yes, sir,” I replied.  

***

Most people were shocked at learning that the following morning, we found our parents in bed together—hands clasped, their faces peaceful with a sweet smile on their lips, serene together in death. But we, their children, were not the least bit surprised. As long as we can remember, they had always been inseparable. Together, they had triumphed over life’s myriad troubles and trials. How could they be separated by death? It simply wasn’t logical.

At the wake, well-meaning relatives and friends offered words of love and comfort. My best friend, Ray, was honest enough to admit that he was relieved for me. “I know how much pain you endured day by day. It wasn’t easy to watch your parents slip away before your very eyes.”

His wife, Alice, agreed. “How did you do it? It must have been frustrating to be talking and living with them, who suddenly became strangers.”

I smiled thinly. “We just did. We cared for them. We didn’t force them to remember. We let them lead us into their own world. We entered into their mindset. We accepted that they have changed instead of trying to bring them back.”

“Still, it must have been hard when they didn’t even know who you were?” Alice gently asked.

Nodding thoughtfully, I was brought back to the time when Papa complained that his family was missing. I realized his mind may not have known that he was already talking to his own son. But the feeling that he had a wife and two children, and the emotional desire to find us, were too deep-seated in him. Somehow, he knew he was missing the most important people in his life, even as his memory failed him.

For me, it was more than enough to last a lifetime.

I replied, “It didn’t matter that they didn’t know us. What mattered was, we knew who they were.”

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