“This is the last place we saw her.”
Debra Taylor choked back a sob, but the emotions overflowed from her eyes. She dabbed at her cheeks with the balled Kleenex in her right hand, the tissue black with mascara and damp from tears.
“She went in that door and disappeared,” Debra continued, nodding at the rundown mobile home in front of them. “I’ll never forget the way she looked back at me with that hateful glare in her eyes. What did we do to deserve this? We’ve been nothing but good to her. Nothing but good. And she left us for that awful life. I would have never let her go if I thought it would be the last time we’d see her.”
The sobbing resumed and this time she could not suppress it. She turned to her husband, Elroy, and sunk her head against his chest. Her shoulders shook with grief. He wrapped his arm around her and continued telling the story where she left off.
“That good-for-nothing boyfriend of hers,” said Elroy. “He’s the one that turned her on to the pills. Our little girl was the nicest sixteen-year-old kid around till she got mixed up with him and his crowd. It was like night and day when she started on the drugs. We lost her.”
Cal Tyson listened as he scanned the trailer park for clues. What was he looking for? Signs of a struggle? A witness maybe?
“This is her boyfriend’s trailer?” Cal asked. He thumbed at the mobile home twenty feet away. “The place you dropped her off on the night of her disappearance?”
“Oh, we didn’t drop her off. We followed her here,” Elroy answered. “I can’t get around so good anymore on account of this busted up leg, so I had to drive.” Elroy motioned down at his left leg which hung useless below him. He stood firmly on the right leg, supporting himself on a wooden cane with a black rubber cap on the bottom.
“Right. She was on foot then?”
“She was. As you know, we just live on the other side of the park. No more than a mile from here. She lit out after the argument and said she was going to Eddie’s place.” He shook his head and stared at the ground as he spoke. “Well, of course, we knew what that meant. She was going to get high. I wasn’t about to stand by and let her do it. Not as long as I have a breath left in me. We ain’t giving up on our little girl.”
Cal nodded and waited for the man to continue.
“I got my cane and headed for the Buick. Debra was right behind me getting into the passenger side.” Elroy patted his wife’s shoulder and rubbed it to soothe her. “Willa was walking fast, but we caught up to her in the car. Her mother was hollering out the window for her to come back while I drove. But she was a brick wall. She wasn’t having any of it. Just kept on walking without even looking back at us.”
The girl’s mother continued to cry quietly against her husband’s chest. She spoke with a muffled voice through the tears. “I tried to convince her,” said Debra. “We should have taken her away from here. We wanted to, but where would we go? Hazard’s the biggest city around here and it’s an hour away. We can’t get too far from the mines or Elroy can’t work. Oh, I wanted to take her out of here so bad, but we couldn’t. If I had known…”
“That’s right. We could only do so much, honey,” Elroy comforted her. Then he continued talking to Cal. “Ever since my knee went out, I have to take what work I can get. Twenty years in the mines and I lost everything in one day when I lost my knee. At least they let me help out in the office now, but the salary I make doesn’t compare. We used to be living good, but not anymore. Not anymore.”
Elroy stared into the distance as he spoke. His voice trailed off, and his eyes focused somewhere far away into the hills of Eastern Kentucky.
Cal figured Elroy to be no more than fifty-five years old, but his eyes carried a look of exhaustion that could only come from a lifetime of struggle and disappointment.
“Can you tell me any more about the boyfriend?” Cal asked. “How old is he? Does he have any family around here?”
“Let’s see. He was nineteen when they met. Three years older than her. They’ve been off and on for about three years now. So that makes him about twenty-one, twenty-two,” Elroy answered. “As for family, I remember Willa saying he had an uncle out in the hills somewhere, but I can’t say where. That’s all I ever heard about Eddie’s family. He was an outsider and a troublemaker around here. The trailer park hasn’t been the same since he moved in and brought the rough element with him.”
“Rough element?” Cal asked.
“All the drugs and whatnot. We never had it around here before. This was a quiet place where people looked out for each other. The drugs have ruined all that. Now we’ve got people cruising through here at all hours. And the break-ins. I sleep with a loaded shotgun by the bed now. You can’t trust these pillheads. They’d just as soon stick a knife in you as talk to you.”
“I see. And Willa ran with that crew?”
“Not exactly. She mostly just went where Eddie went. Once she got started on the pills, she ended up with all the rest of the deadbeats. But even then she didn’t like a lot of those degenerates. She still had a brain and knew enough to keep away from the worst of the bunch. Course we did our best to steer her clear when we could.”
“Sure, I understand,” Cal assured them. He wondered how much Elroy and Debra really knew. More than likely Willa was in a lot deeper than she let on to her parents. And Cal knew when it comes to addicts, you can’t trust anything that comes out of their mouths. He decided to refocus the interrogation on the facts.
“Let’s talk about the night she disappeared. What day did you say it was?”
“It’ll be two weeks ago tomorrow. July 21st.”
“You haven’t heard from her since?”
“No, we haven’t and that’s unlike her. Even toward the end when things started getting real bad, she never went more than a day or two without talking to us,” said Elroy. “She might stay with Eddie for a night, but never more than that. I’m telling you, deep down she was a good girl. It was the drugs that scrambled up her mind. That and Eddie. He pulled her away from us.”
“Do you have any idea where she might have gone? Did she ever mention having friends in other cities? Any places she talked about visiting?”
Elroy and his wife thought for a minute.
Debra answered, “Years ago before she got on the pills she used to have big plans for herself. She wanted to get out of here and make something of her life. We encouraged it, of course. She was too good for the holler. She had a chance.”
Debra nearly began to cry again, but she collected herself and continued, “I used to dream when she was a kid that she might go to college someday. Sometimes we’d watch the Kentucky Wildcats play basketball on television and talk about what it would be like to live in a big city like Lexington.”
“Lexington, eh? Do you think there’s any chance she could be there?”
“It seems like a whole ‘nother world away to me,” the woman replied. “How would she get there? She’s never even left Pine Mountain as far as I know.”
Cal could see she was pondering the thought in her mind.
“But I guess if there was any city she’d visit, Lexington would probably be it,” said Debra. “It’s the only place I’ve ever heard her talk about. Do you think she’s there? Can you find her?”
“Ma’am, I don’t know, but I will certainly try,” Cal replied. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. First things first. I want to spend some time here. Get a lay of the land and interview some of your neighbors.”
The woman nodded and turned to look at her husband.
“We thank you for anything you can do, Mr. Tyson,” said Elroy. “You came highly recommended from Debra’s brother. Now you know, we’re people of little means and we can’t afford to—”
“I don’t want you to worry about that at all,” Cal cut him off. “Your brother-in-law is a friend of mine and I owe him one anyway.”
“Well, we sure appreciate it. What can we do to help?”
“For now, I will welcome the extra bedroom you’ve offered. And,” Cal added, “I wouldn’t turn down a home-cooked meal.”
“We can do that. The wife has a real gift in the kitchen,” said Elroy.
He squeezed his wife’s shoulder as he spoke. She looked up at him and mustered a smile.
“Good deal. I’m going to use this opportunity while Eddie is gone to do a little investigating. I’ll meet you back at the trailer in an hour or so.”
“Thank you, Mr. Tyson. We’ll have dinner on the table.”
“Much obliged. I’ll see you then.”
Elroy and his wife walked back to the Buick. Elroy opened the passenger door for his wife and shut it behind her. He pulled the back door open and laid his cane across the seat. He gripped the roof of the car and slowly shuffled to the front of the vehicle. He placed one hand on the headrest of the driver’s seat and the other on the open door and carefully lowered himself behind the wheel. The whole way down his face contorted in a tight grimace. Once he reached the seat, he exhaled and rested a second before pulling his left leg into the vehicle by lifting it with his hands. He started the car and backed out on the gravel road that led down the center lane of the trailer park.
The gravel popped and crackled as they drove away and left Cal standing alone by Eddie’s trailer in the growing dusk.
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