Miss Orange Blossom County

In spite of broad daylight, we stayed indoors. In spite of July, backyards were off-limits, and we spent our days baking Shrinky Dinks, not canvassing the town for church ladies to moon. Our thrills were small: dropping ice cubes down each other's backs, cookie dough for breakfast, Marco Polo through the house. The normal controls on indoor monkeyshines were relaxed.

In spite of Crystal Buckle being a tattletale, we carpooled to her house, where our mothers had negotiated the use of her indoor pool.

In spite of being forbidden to ride them, we sat on our bikes inside garages, running our hands through the streamers. We held races with the kickstands down.

In spite of news reports that the kidnapper had a type — blond and teenaged — our fathers checked window locks, slept on floors with flashlights, checked again.

In spite of tightly rationed television, we learned words like forensic, sketch artist, interrogation. We tied each other to chairs and sent cereal box ransom letters.

In spite of asking, asking, asking — what indignities had the girls suffered, was he coming for us — we were handed board games and shooed away from the windows. We felt our parents closing in on us.

In spite of attention to little pitchers, the story came together that he had gone and snatched Miss Orange Blossom County herself, who'd worn holly hair sprigs and a red tinsel dress in the Christmas parade, tossing handfuls of peppermints like shrapnel into the crowd. She was pretty, and we loved her, and this made her loss too much to bear.

We knew certain things. She was last seen in a navy-striped bathing suit with a beach towel around her waist, her hair stiff with sun and chlorine from the country club pool; her freshest memory up to that moment, Donald Shealy cannonballing off the high dive and losing his trunks in the water. She would have laughed at the humanity of this as she turned into the driveway and stopped at the mailbox, a miniature of the split-level ranch she lived in. From where she sat, her foot on the brake of the yellow Datsun, she could see the teardrop of light over the kitchen sink, which was always on, and knew that bean snapping or money talking might be going on under it.

(When we were teenagers ourselves, we would dare each other to drive in and stop there, and we'd see what she saw. The bravest would pull the mailbox's front door open with its brass knob and

report on what was inside. We did this with a kind of solemnity, unlike when we would ring Wagner Hickernut's doorbell and run, as he was crazy as a shithouse rat and deserved it.)

At some point, her foot came off the brake, and the car did a half-moon into the bushes. The dropped bills, seed catalogs, church newsletter formed a ragged fan shape next to the driveway. The Smiths album in her tape deck was still playing loud when the lady cop switched off the engine.

In just two weeks school was going to start, ratcheting worry upward as risky bus stops and practice fields sprang out of the earth. Our education became a liability. A month into the school year, he took a girl in another part of the state, almost Georgia, and we stopped having that dream where he put us in the trunk of his car. He wasn't outside our windows. He had lost interest in us.

Those charged with our safety, with the good of the community — the Parent Teacher Association and the highly visible sheriff, who was up for re-election — feared a doubling-back as he fled to Florida, where all criminals go to get caught. The newspaper ran editorials by a teacher at the state university who believed the man was obsessed with the girls, or thought he was Jesus, or just hated women — one of those. People who kidnapped beauty queens had issues with their mothers.

Long into the fall, grown-ups passed the story among themselves when they thought we couldn't hear. As our powers of deduction matured, we ran with shoplifted scraps of the tale until it passed, unrecognizable, into legend. He cut off their toes, he dyed their hair, he tattooed their names on his arm with a Bic pen and a sewing needle. None of this happened, we knew.

Only this one detail survived the hot force of our gossip — that their meeting at the mailbox was some kind of accident, that every other day she'd rocketed on down the driveway, like it wasn't no thing, leaving the mail for someone else to pick up. The day before, her mother had questioned her about it, wanting to know what the trouble would be. It wouldn't kill you, she said, every now and then.

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