Daniel Norrish returns to NITH with a powerful short story about a missing person. Taking the underused second person perspective as it’s starting point, Daniel places ‘You’ into the shoes of the antagonist in the search for Miss Gradier, with an ending that straddles the line between just deserts and supernatural retribution.
Want more short stories? Take a look at our Current Short List and find out more.
Short Story About a Missing Person
by Daniel Norrish
You wait with forty others in a rocky clearing as Constable Taylor stands out in front of the pack. He tries to hide a yawn as the small pieces of official equipment jangle from his belt. Shackles, a baton and a pistol. The yellow sun begins to dry the early morning dew and the horse’s thick clouds of breathe lift above the gathering like ghosts. The constable speaks.
“Morning all. Thanks for coming out again. Miss Gradier has been missing for three days now without food or water. Every hour is crucial. I trust you have your whistles, remember, it’s a series of short blows like this,” The constable sticks a whistle in his mouth. “BEE BEE BEE! To call for me. Any questions?”
You stop listening. You look behind you at the swag you’ll be carrying today. A blue felt blanket with a canvas bedroll.
You look ahead to the tall gum trees. You squint through the morning glare at the nuts hanging like tiny bells from thin fingers. The diamond leaves covered in that natural white wax with the undersides that sometimes look blue in strange light.
The earth is cracked up ahead. New trees and old bush stretch to chest height and create a kind of thorny barricade so dense that even kangaroos are sometimes forced to abandon all efforts and retreat.
But not you. You didn’t give up. You buried her near here and you’ve returned to hide the evidence. That’s why no one is going to find her.
You walk with everyone else in a long line, the man to either side only just out of sight.
“Emily!” People call out.
Small, loose stones shift beneath your feet and your boots occasionally slip a few centimetres to the side. Apathetic magpies watch from perches high above. Their wet, black eyes not judging and their sharp beaks not speaking. Nothing to betray you.
You kneel and scrape at the earth occasionally to appear as though you’re truly interested in the search. You’ll stand over her soon and no one will think to investigate there after you. You stuff your hand into your back pocket and fondle the silver bracelet. It’s thin and the touch of the dead metal reminds you of the moment you took it from its rightful owner. The moment the dirt began to fall into the shallow grave.
Before long, you’re there.
You look to the left and the sun falls hard on your right cheek. You squeeze your eyes shut and when you open them, a man about fifty metres away is peering back at you. He frowns and nods as if his sadness should be somehow encouraging, then he moves on. You smile when you’re certain no one is watching.
You take a few more steps and study the ground around you. No human footprints remain from your last visit. The sand holds only the three-toed markings of emus and the tiny, delicate paw prints of foxes. Flies continue to tease your eye lashes and the insects on the ground avoid your shadow.
You look for Emily’s grave. Exactly where is it again? You look for a little longer, and then you begin to panic.
It’s here, surely it’s here. You know it is. Or is it?
“BEE BEE BEE!”
You jump at the sound of the whistle and your heart races in your chest.
“Don’t stop, keep going.” The constable calls out as he charges through the bush toward the noise.
Your pulse thumps rhythmically in your ears like a tortuous organic clock. Are you wrong? Is she here, or is she there?
Now you search for real. You scramble. You check behind every tree and in every bush. You dig and dirt creeps up your wrists to your elbows.
“BEE BEE BEE!”
The whistle again. This time it’s closer.
Then you see it. A frail wisp of white fabric sits above the dirt. The cloth peaks up from hell and points to your damnation.
You’re on the dress in moments, shovelling more sand over it. Moving rocks to seal the corpse away behind a wall of stone. A makeshift tomb of dirt and leaves. The peaceful ground around you now is disrupted, but it’s finished. You’re safe.
You stand and breathe for a minute. You absorb that sense of relief and imagine a life without persecution. Without judgement.
Then, all of a sudden, an intense pain snaps into your heel. It’s as if someone has dropped a lit match into your boot and you scream.
“Damn it!” You cry as you fall to the ground. You’re on your back and fidgeting with your pants leg, trying to roll them up. The pain is still there. It’s excruciating, like an itchy needle.
You see the wound and you turn to see the culprit. Two bloody pinpricks sit above your ankle and a long black snake watches you die from beneath a stone on Emily’s grave.
“Are you alright? I heard a scream? What have you been doing here?” The constable’s voice joins you but you don’t bother to look up at him. You watch that snake as the pain spreads to every muscle in your body. Its tongue flicks out to taste your sweat in the air and you know your end. The serpent’s wet, black eyes not judging and it’s thin, cracked lips not speaking.
THE SEARCH – A Short Story About A Missing Person originally appeared on the JUST A POE BOY Competition Short List