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By Chris Dymond

Nothing in the year leading up to Claire McAllister's disappearance hinted at what lay in store. Elmridge seemed the safest place in the world. Everyone knew you and what you were up to, which in the case of thirteen-year-old girls like us mostly amounted to slumber parties and talking about boys.

Before Claire vanished the only exciting thing that ever happened in Elmridge was a whistle stop by the prime minister the year before, during the 1968 election. Practically the whole town turned out at the train station. A bunch of the girls in Miss Adam's class and I managed to squeeze our way forward and got to kiss him on the cheek. The Independent ran a picture of that on its front page with the caption, "Trudeaumania Sweeps Elmridge."

The whole town was a little crazy after the visit and Miss Adams, our grade six and seven teacher, had us collecting baskets and pop bottles for months to raise money so the girls' choir could go to Ottawa on July 1st. We were supposed to sing in the celebrations on Parliament Hill.

Most of the time Claire was my best friend. When we were growing up she spent more time at my place than her own on account of her mother always working. Once, when she slept over, we got into trouble for starting a bake off with my Easy-Bake Oven at 2 a.m. . Things changed a little after Claire turned 13 and she kind of sprouted up and began sitting in the back row at school with the cool kids. I still invited her to sleepovers and when she came we'd sometimes pull out my Barbie and Ken, just like we used to do when we were seven or eight.

Most of the other girls envied Claire a little back then. First to wear a bra; first to need one; first to be noticed by the high school boys.

In the second last week of school before summer vacation, Claire vanished.

The first day we all figured she was skipping. That night my parents woke me up, their faces lined with concern. "Claire McAllister's missing. Do you have any idea where she is?" For what seemed like an hour, they peppered me with questions: when I last saw her; what she'd been wearing; and whether she ever talked about running away. I didn't mention the clearing. A bunch of us went there whenever Claire lifted a few cigarettes from her mom's purse. Sometimes boys came too. Claire even bragged once that she necked with a boy from high school there but she refused to say who, so I didn't believe her.

My mother asked my dad to leave us alone, then put her arm around me and whispered softly, "Dear, this is very important. Claire's mother hasn't seen her since yesterday. Can you imagine how frantic I'd be if that happened to you? So if you know anything, please tell me." With a little more coaxing I blurted out that sometimes we went to a place in the forest, but I kept quiet about the smoking. Later, a police car pulled into our driveway and two men got out. One was in a uniform and the other had a suit like the one my dad wore to church. They wanted to know about the forest and about everyone who hung around with Claire. After I named every girl in the class, the one in the suit asked, "Did Claire ever go out with boys from the high school?"

"No, never. I mean I don't think so."

Questions kept coming until my head felt as heavy as a watermelon. The same questions and the same answers until I began sobbing and my mother told them I was too tired. But the policemen insisted on visiting the clearing so my dad and I climbed into the back of the cruiser. It was the only time I ever rode in one. They didn't put on the siren or anything but I remember the seat being harder than the pews at church. I held my dad's hand and whispered, "I'm scared." He squeezed my hand and whispered back that everything would be alright. Huddled together, that still seemed possible.

At the edge of town, the policemen pulled out a pair of long-handled flashlights and we were soon winding along the footpath, across three boulders in the stream and into the bush. In the dark the elm trees seemed to soar endlessly into the sky. I stepped on a branch and the sharp crack made everyone jump. When we reached the clearing, we walked every inch of it shouting her name but the only thing we heard was the occasional rustle of the wind filtering through the elm leaves high above us. My dad kept his arm around me real tight and we stood together watching the flashlights dance in and out of the trees. They didn't find anything that night and I fell asleep in the car on the way back home. My dad had to carry me up to bed.

By morning everyone in Elmridge knew about Claire. There were as many parents as kids at the school that day and just one topic of conversation. I still half expected she'd wheel in on her bike by recess, pigtails flying, laughing at the commotion.

Mr. Younder, the principal, lumbered into our class just before lunch and gave a long speech about the difficulties of teenage years. He told us that Claire was troubled and it was important that each of us try to help. One by one we were taken to his office. When it was my turn Miss Adams asked the questions and Mr. Younder took notes. Mostly they were the same as the police questions. "Did Claire ever talk about running away?" "Did she mention going to the city?" "Did Claire ever borrow money from you?" "Did Claire have a boyfriend?" Looking back, what I remember most was trying to stick to yes or no answers, not wanting to give anything away, as if a few cigarettes mattered compared to Claire's disappearance.

At recess the other girls told how the police had come to their homes after midnight. I never let on I'd given their names, not that anyone would have minded. Nothing like that ever happened in Elmridge before. It was like television and we still thought there'd be a happy ending. Susie Foster lived downtown near Claire and often walked to school with her. "I think she took off for the city," Susie said. "We talked about what it would be like to go there. She wanted to be a model."

One of the other girls said we all dreamed of that but nobody would do it, not even Claire.

That evening, when my parents thought I was sleeping, their voices drifted up through the vent. My mother sounded close to tears, saying a madman must have taken Claire. My dad assured her it was one of those runaway things and that she'd probably turn up in a day or two. The other girls and I felt the same way. In our minds we would be sitting in the clearing again with Claire, laughing over the fuss.

At school there were calls for anyone who had seen her on Tuesday afternoon or anyone who knew of someone driving to the city that day, to call the police. Our teacher told us that someone had checked the Greyhound but Claire wasn't on it. So if she ran away, she must have walked out to the bypass and hitchhiked. That or gone with someone from Elmridge.

The Independent put Claire's school picture right on the front page. Inside, there was a smaller one of her mother sitting by the phone, face etched with strain and tear tracks. The story said Mrs. McAllister was clinging to hope that the police would still find her. By the next issue things had started to change. The paper expressed concern that Claire might have been a victim of ''foul play.'' My mother cried while she explained what that meant.

The last day of classes came and went. For once, nobody got in trouble over low marks. Our Canada Day trip was cancelled and so were the town fireworks. Instead, over 150 people showed up when the police chief asked for volunteers to search the forest.
Articles in the paper began calling Claire ''the victim'' and referred to efforts to locate her body. Though my classmates and I still felt she'd turn up at a modeling agency in the city, we joined the search. While the rest of the world watched the first landing on the moon, most Elmridge citizens were wearing hip waders and mosquito repellent, trudging through the swamp five miles from town.

Every time a remnant of clothing was found news spread faster than summer rain. But none of it was Claire's. Even tracking dogs couldn't find anything. As summer dragged on, my father's tone changed. Though it had been years since anyone in Elmridge had been convicted of anything worse than drunkenness, he and the other adults looked worried.

Mother wouldn't let me go anywhere without a thorough cross-examination and seemed reluctant to even leave me alone at home. All my girlfriends experienced a tightening of rules and soon our games in the forest were distant memories. After that, nothing felt safe: not riding a bike, not going to the store, not playing in the park.

One afternoon my mother dragged me along with her to the hairdresser. I sat in the corner reading a magazine and nobody paid me a lick of notice. It wasn't long before the conversation turned to Claire. "Not a mystery to me," said one woman. "Like mother, like daughter. Every man in town must have noticed how she developed this past year. Had the body of an eighteen-year-old, but even less sense." I wanted to shout that none of them knew Claire, but I kept my mouth shut. Just because she was raised without a father was no reason to look down on her.

By the end of July the police called off the search. The paper put a small story on the inside pages about Mrs. McAllister imploring anyone holding Claire prisoner to let her come home. I didn't know Claire's mother too well. She had a job at the hotel and worked most nights and weekends. We all thought she looked sexier than the other moms but in the paper she just looked worn out.

Susie Foster suggested a bunch of us visit Claire's little house next to the post office and try to cheer her mother up. When we got there it was awful. Mrs. McAllister thanked us for coming then began sobbing gently and none of us knew what to say.
During August the rumour mill churned out a regular supply of suspects. First, there was one about Dr. Smythe putting Claire on birth control pills. Pretty soon the story had him carrying on an affair with her. Since he was the only doctor in town people needed to trust him and it was a relief when the police chief officially put that one to rest. If you can't trust your doctor you might as well live in the city.

Then there was poor Burt Wilkins who lived on the block behind Claire. People said that from Burt's bedroom you could see kitty-corner into Claire's. Burt was over 30 but there was something wrong with him and he never got past 10th grade. Everyone said he had a stack of dirty magazines in his room and binoculars for spying. That mostly fizzled out when a search turned up only a dozen issues of Fisherman's Monthly, but even years later my mother warned me to be careful if I saw him.

Church attendance went up for awhile. Our congregation prayed for Claire and Pastor Quigley warned that society was spiraling out of control, which I took as a sign he had more or less given up on finding her.

When we went back to school in September the class planted a willow as a ''hope tree'' for Claire, but our teacher didn't save a desk for her. Then the town had a memorial service. Even though there was no casket, now it was undeniable: Claire wouldn't be coming back. Pastor Quigley said she had gone to God and we all prayed for her soul. I cried the whole time, dabbing my eyes with a handkerchief with one hand and clutching my mother's skirt with the other. It was my first funeral and I remember an awful feeling, not just about Claire but an unpleasant sensation that whoever had done this to Claire might be right there in the church with us, maybe even looking at me.

After that parents stopped mentioning Claire as if that would allow us to forget. The other girls and I lowered our voices when we spoke her name and tried to guess what had happened. Mother told me not to pay too much attention to rumours but also warned me to be on guard around men. She didn't complain about me leaving the light on while I slept.

From that year to this, I've wondered if a killer lurked among the boys who asked me out in high school or the men who leered at our cheerleader uniforms. The feeling never went too far away and paid a visit at every football game, funeral and wedding I attended over the years. Guess I suspected about every man in town, from Mr. Hinkle, the school caretaker, right up to Mayor Thompson. Everyone but my dad.

Elmridge changed over the years. Most of the girls in my class married and moved away. The hope tree must have put down good roots because now it towers over the school. Doctor Smythe died of a heart attack the year I finished high school and Burt Wilkins drowned about a decade after that. Even Mrs. McAllister died last fall; Cirrhosis of the liver.

People no longer think of Elmridge as a small town. About 10 years ago they built a subdivision in the clearing and the population almost tripled. Out by the Trans-Canada there's a Wal-Mart and a Cineplex. Downtown changed too. A lot of the small stores have closed and where the feed store used to be, we have a Tim Horton's. But the mystery about Claire wasn't solved until last month when they bulldozed a few small houses to make way for the new regional post office.
That's when they finally found her.

All the other girls came back for the graveside service. Afterwards, we went to the schoolyard and sat on the grass under Claire's tree to talk about her and how her death marked us. After so much time the coroner could only say her neck was broken. We all still wondered why? I wasn't alone in thinking of all the men I suspected over the years and how wary I'd become. Between the anger and tears, we all agreed on one thing. After all that happened, it wasn't right that poor Claire was buried in Elmridge Cemetery next to her mother.

Chris Dymond lives in a small town near a big city.





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