The girl was found in a shallow grave at the back of a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor’s dog, Sally, a yellow lab, had been digging where the grass grew high against the fence. “That dog’s always trying to get into those woods,” her owner Vernon Lockhart said to the local reporters. His wife, the one who found the girl, was unavailable for comment, upstairs with a headache, a cold washcloth across her face.
For a few days, the Lockharts were people of interest. Not under investigation, per se, as the police already had a main suspect, a family friend, an ex-con last seen talking to the girl as she sat on her front porch, waiting for dinner. No one knew what the man had said, standing on the sidewalk the way neighbors did in these parts, out for an evening stroll, pausing to pass the time. The girl at sixteen was pretty, until you got up close enough to see the plastic braces that made her teeth look misshapen, yellow, and in need of a good brushing.
“What happened to metal?” Lockhart asked his wife the first morning the paper ran a photo of the missing girl. “Plastic’s fine for tupperware. But braces should be made of metal.” Lockhart, an orthodontist with an office down at the local mall, refused to follow the latest trends in dentistry—the colored rubber bands, the plastic braces, the invisible retainers. “Why try to hide it? They aren’t fooling anyone.”
“It’s a shame, isn’t it.” Mrs. Lockhart chose her words carefully, to sound like she was agreeing with her husband while in fact she was talking about something completely different. Forty years of marriage had honed this skill.
At first, reporters wanted to know how it was possible that the Lockharts didn’t notice the grave. “It’s a big yard. Look how it drops off into the woods right there. We don’t get back there much, only mow it a couple times a year.” Lockhart curled his thick fingers around an imaginary mower handle, moving his hands back and forth.
Not that Lockhart actually mowed; later interviews with a neighbor boy confirmed that the teen was the one who mowed the yard once a week. “But that back area, they just let grow. Cost too much money, I guess, to keep it mowed.”
“Money’s got nothing to do with it. We’ve got yard enough,” Lockhart interrupted. “Up by the house. Why would we want to be walking around in the woods? Lyme disease, chiggers.”
No one thought to ask Lockhart’s wife about the yard, or the space by the fence. Nor did she offer to explain how she and Sally went into the woods every morning, as soon as Vern’s car turned the corner at the end of the block, and stayed out there until evening and the first of the fireflies. Had Mrs. Lockhart been wearing shorts, perhaps an astute officer might have noticed the bug bites and bramble scratches. Why explain? No one would understand. What’s done is done, she figured.
Even without Mrs. Lockhart’s testimony, forensics quickly determined the girl hadn’t been in the grave long, less than six hours. The news reported that the girl’s body showed signs of having been kept somewhere else for the two weeks she had been missing, though they did not say what signs those were, and attention turned from the Lockharts and their yard. There were bigger problems. The killer was still out there, some crazed fiend who would drag that sweet girl’s body through the woods at night just to leave her like that.
“Might as well have just dropped her in the middle of the road,” Mrs. Jones said to Mrs. Lockhart as they stood in line at the grocery. “Did you see the price on those hothouse tomatoes? Outrageous. Can’t get good produce since that farm stand closed.”
Mrs. Lockhart shrugged and turned back to the checkout girl, squinting to read the prices as they flashed across the screen. Nothing had price tags anymore, so shopping had become a real crapshoot. Not that Mrs. Lockhart thought much about the cost of her food or the difference in tomatoes or even the new technologies. What did she care? Her fingers found her charge card and she passed it through the reader.
“Everything’s self-serve now,” Mrs. Jones said in a stage whisper. “It’s like they expect us to rape ourselves, what with the prices they’re charging.” Mrs. Lockhart furrowed her face into a frown and Mrs. Jones quickly added, “What? I’m just saying.”
Mrs. Lockhart’s hands shook as she signed her charge slip and handed it back to the girl, who was probably not much more that sixteen and had most likely known the dead girl. It was a small community after all and one person pretty much knew another, if not by name, then at least by face. “Becky,” Mrs. Lockhart said, reading the girl’s name from her tag. “That’s pretty.”
“Thanks,” Becky said, giving the plastic bags a shove to make way for the next set of groceries.
“How long should we leave that tape up?” Vern Lockhart asked that evening, pointing his steak knife toward the woods. “Kind of kills the appetite, doesn’t it?” He shook his head and turned his attentions back to his plate.
Mrs. Lockhart pushed her potatoes around and trimmed off bits of meat to secret under the table to Sally, who sat waiting. “People have been coming by, leaving flowers. Like it’s a shrine.”
She did not explain that she had been watching from the woods, holding Sally in place so as not to scare anyone with sudden movement.
“I saw that,” Mr. Lockhart said. “A strange thing. Sad. People been talking about it at the office. Mary says we should put up some candles out there. Not sure I’d want that. The brush is a little dry this summer. Could catch fire easy, burn down the whole forest.”
From Mrs. Lockhart’s chair, she could see all the way to the back of the yard and beyond into the woods, though at night the trees closed in like a wall and the grave was only noticeable because of the plastic flowers and drooping balloons woven into the fence wires above it. “Candles might be nice,” she said. “It gets so dark out there.”
“You know I can’t hear you when you mumble like that,” Mr. Lockhart said.
Mrs. Lockhart turned from the window, smiling. “I said, be sure to leave room for dessert.”
The girl’s mother came by a week later. Mrs. Lockhart recognized her from the TV, her gray face with its deep blue hollows made her look closer to Mrs. Lockhart’s age, though she was only half that, in her early thirties, a single mother, grown up in the area. The mother tugged up at the knees of her pants, loosening them enough to sink down on the ground, smoothing her palm over the hollow where her daughter had lain, smoothing the way one might brush wrinkles from a sheet while making the bed. She then stood and touched the different flowers still on the fence, ran her finger along the balloon string, lifting the deflated balloons before letting them drop again from her fingers. She sighed loudly then said, “I can hear you breathing. You might as well come out.”
Mrs. Lockhart crawled out through the gap in the shrubs, clearing her throat as she stood. Sally nosed up to the mother then fell back on her haunches next to Mrs. Lockhart’s feet. “Sorry,” Mrs. Lockhart said. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
The mother stared hard, her eyes scanning Mrs. Lockhart’s features from forehead to chin. “You’re the one what found her,” she said, turning her face back to the ground.
Mrs. Lockhart nodded.
“That must have been a real shock. I wished I’d been the one to find her. I’m sorry for you, for that.”
Mrs. Lockhart nodded again, the knot in her chest moving up into her throat. “I keep seeing her, whenever I close my eyes.”
The mother nodded. “You have kids?”
Mrs. Lockhart shook her head. “Just the dog.”
“People been telling me to get a dog.”
“Labs are nice.”
“They never talk back to you. That’s what people say, trying to be funny I guess. Take my mind off things.”
Mrs. Lockhart nodded.
“The funeral was last week.”
“I read about it.”
“It was nice.” The mother shrugged. “I didn’t cry there either.”
“You’re in shock.”
“Maybe. Everyone’s always crying around me, look, even you. Me, dry as a bone.” She knelt down next to Sally and scratched behind her ears.
They caught the killer a week later, holed up in an abandoned warehouse in Camden. Mrs. Lockhart watched it on the morning news and again at noon. They showed a picture of the girl’s mother and Mrs. Lockhart wasn’t surprised to see that she had been crying. That’s the way it always is with waiting. She whistled to the dog and locked the backdoor behind her.
Mrs. Lockhart watched for the lights to come on later that night when Mr. Lockhart got home. A sliver of light from the living room, then the light from the kitchen pooling in the center of the back yard. She could see his mouth moving, imagined he must be calling to her as he bent over at the fridge. Her fingers found Sally’s collar and laced themselves tightly around the leather. “Shh,” she said as the dog whined, straining to run to the house as Mr. Lockhart came through the backdoor, a drink in one hand and a plastic grocery bag hanging down from his wrist.
The night was so quiet, Mrs. Lockhart could hear the bag rustling as he came toward her. For a moment, she thought he saw her but then he stopped short, at the fence, set down his drink and pulled a flowerpot from the bag, one of those green pots of pansies they sold in front of the grocery. He upturned the pot into his palm and dug at the ground with his fingers before setting the flowers into place.
“I’m real sorry,” he whispered, patting the dirt into place then watering the plant with the water from his glass. He rocked back on his heels and stood, brushing his hands down the front of his pants. Mrs. Lockhart bent closer, but before she could see his face, he had already turned back to the house.
Mrs. Lockhart waited, until after he had found her note and had dinner without her and placed the dishes in the sink and turned out the kitchen light and gone off to bed, before she came out of the woods. The pansy was rose-pink and velvety between her fingers. Mrs. Lockhart lay down on the ground next to the flower, her arms folded across her stomach, and felt herself breathing. She kept her eyes open for a long time, watching the sky, so that when she closed them, all she would see was stars.