The small-town folks of Ironwood, Michigan, didn’t quite know what to make of the arrival of the new family. No one moved to Ironwood. Not ever. They just grew up and moved away or relocated to the town’s only cemetery. That was why Mayor Gideon Niemi stopped and stared in stunned silence as the yellow moving truck drove slowly down the road and up the hill toward the old house on Day Street. Literally, no one ever came to town, not to visit and definitely not to put down roots and stay. In fact, no one had moved to Ironwood since 2004 when the school district hired a young woman to teach the 3rd grade at the small Elementary school. But even she couldn’t take the isolation of this little Upper Peninsula Michigan community, and moved away the very next year. Aside from the hippy couple who owned Ironwood’s only coffee shop, the Thirsty Whale, but lived in the town of Hurley across the Wisconsin border, this family would be the first outsiders in decades.
The mayor scoffed. The couple had converted the Thirsty Whale from a bar into a coffee shop, driving all the drunks away to nearby towns and becoming a loitering place for slackers and teenagers hopped up on caffeine. He preferred the drunks. Their senses were too dull to cause any real trouble. It was the holier-than-thou teenagers with too much coffee in their veins and too many ideas in their heads that could cause real damage to his town. Yes, he’d take the lazy or obstinate drunk any day, thank you very much. The mayor watched until the yellow speck disappeared over the crest of the hill, and then shuffled back into the city memorial building.
Two bright eyes watched both the van and the mayor from the woods. They blinked curiously, a buzz of excitement humming around them. Then move back into the tree line and out of sight.
It was several weeks later that most of the townspeople of Ironwood gathered together in the small church to discuss the alarming frequency of disappearing girls.
“Why do we have to be here?” Wander Glimly muttered through barely open lips. Her eyes scanned the room, quickly counting off the faces of kids she recognized from school, her eyes passing them by without a pause. She did not want them to see her notice them. She would not be in this town long enough to care who they were. Besides, none of them had bothered to talk to her since she moved to this hole-in-the-wall three weeks ago. She didn’t owe them anything. Most friendships were a waste of time, in her opinion.
“The man cornered me, what was I supposed to say to him?” her mother answered while she dug through her purse looking for a scrap of paper and a pen.
Wander didn’t bother looking at her mother, she stared straight ahead and tried not to make eye contact with anyone, “You could have said ‘no’ for starters.” If they hadn’t stopped by the city offices to get voter registration cards, something they found out they would have to go to the next town over for anyway, Wander would be home curled up with a book right now. But as luck, or misfortune, had it — they had been cornered by the town’s mayor.
Constance shot her a look, “He practically walked us over here.”
“I noticed. He wouldn’t shut up.”
“Listen, I’m sorry. I know this isn’t how you planned to spend your evening, but would it hurt us to try here? Even just a little bit? Try to be a part of a community?” Wander shrugged. She wanted to come back with a smart retort about how the only reason they’d never been “part of a community” was because of her mother. But that wouldn’t do her any good and would just end in a fight. Wander resigned herself to be stuck in this room full of strangers, some of them familiar, but strangers all the same; to help search for a missing girl. Wander tried not to shudder, but she couldn’t help feeling creeped out by what she was hearing today.
A mysterious affliction visited some local girls and was concerning to everyone; it had even made the Channel 6 News out of Marquette. Young girls went missing out in the marshes and near abandoned mines; walked off without warning. When a girl was found, if she was found, she was alive but in a comatose state.
Mayor Gideon Niemi ambled slowly over to the podium and squeezed with some effort between it and the wall. He cleared his throat and dabbed away the perspiration that threatened to drip from his brow. Speaking in public always made him sweat. He blamed it on the lights or his girth, but deep down he knew it was because he was nervous. He hated that. Hated feeling weak.
His eyes fell upon Sergeant Ed Davis, who nodded and came to stand beside him. With a polite cough into his closed fist, Gideon cleared his throat and began to speak. “Good people of Ironwood. Thank you for joining us tonight to talk about the misfortunes that have been visited upon us.”
“‘Misfortune,’ that’s an odd word to use,” Wander Glimly whispered to her mother, “Sounds odd …” Constance shot her daughter a warning look and then turned her attention back to the large man at the front of the church.
“It has happened again,” he paused, allowing the words to settle in on the crowd. “That makes two girls since November that have gone missing. We found Mary Ott, tyhjennetty, we have yet to find Carrie Marcus.”
“‘Tyhjennetty’ means ‘Empty,’” a voice whispered near the back of her head. Wander turned and nodded ‘thank you’ to the moppy, dark-haired boy that was sitting behind her. She recognized him as the kid from her English class that everyone called Fish. He smiled at her, and then turned his attention back to the front. “We all pray for the safe return of Carrie Marcus, but prayers alone will not find her. That is why I have asked The Department of Public Safety to mobilize a town-wide search party. Sergeant Ed Davis has joined us to organize all of you good people here in a massive ground search.” The large man slid his body from behind the podium and allowed Ed Davis to step up. Ed Davis was tall and thin with a head like the cap of an eraser. Pointed and shaved to the scalp. Wander noted he looked a tinge green under the lights and surmised that public speaking was outside his comfort zone. Mayor Niemi moved toward the front of the stage and stood silently. Wander watched him as he tried to tuck his hands into his suit coat pockets, but gave up when the coat appeared too tight. He clasped his hands together across his hard rounded belly and waited.
“Thank you for coming tonight. For those of you that don’t know, our Department of Public Safety doesn’t have a lot of manpower available, certainly not enough to conduct a ground search of this magnitude.” His voice had a twinge of the distinctive Yooper accent Wander could only describe as a little bit Fargo, a little bit Minnesota. She had noticed it more among the older people than the kids at school, most of her teachers only had a mild one, and Mr. Peters, her AP Lit teacher, didn’t have one at all. Wander returned her attention to the speaker.
“I thank each and every one of you for coming out today to help. Please notice in each corner, there is a table with an officer or volunteer. If you could please move to the table closest to you, we will begin by—” A small woman in a threadbare coat cleared her throat from the back corner and stood unsteadily.
“Why haven’t you done more about this?” Her voice, thick with the twang of the Finnish-influenced accent that permeated Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, quivered as she tried to project to the front of the room. “You can’t keep pretending that something more isn’t happening here. Something has to be done.” The crowd murmured in agreement, and Wander noticed general stares of sympathy pointed at the woman.
Mayor Niemi blocked the glare of the lights with a meaty hand and squinted into the crowd. “Who is it out there? I’m having trouble seeing you.” Though he was without a microphone, his voice covered the room.
“It is Evelyn Barker, Gwen Barker’s mother.” She picked her way past the laps of the others in her row until she made it to the aisle. She stood tall, trembling, but rooted in place.
“When my daughter turned up missing, your police sergeant told me she had run away. They refused to look for her. When we found her, with no help from you or this town, DPS suggested she was a drug addict that had accidentally overdosed. We asked for toxicology, but they refused, because of ‘resources,’” her fingers flicked the air in imaginary quotation marks. Evelyn Barker turned her attention directly to the mayor now. “And you did nothing, even when I went to you to ask for help. You told me to trust our police.” She turned her attention to those around her, casting an accusing glare. “None of you did anything for her.” Wander thought she heard a gasp of offense somewhere in the audience, but if Evelyn Barker noticed, she didn’t let on.
She took a shuddering breath and continued, “And none of you did nothing for Mary Ott.” She turned back to the stage to face the mayor and sergeant now. “How can you stand there at the pulpit telling us to look for Carrie when you did absolutely nothing to stop it in the first place? And what about Mia O’Hearn? She disappeared last year. Did you tell her parents she ran away, too?” She shook her head in dismay, “So many girls. Something is happening to them. With Mia, that makes four girls! How can you pretend that there isn’t something else going on here? Four girls from a town this small don’t just up and walk off. They’ve been taken.” Someone in the audience gasped. Evelyn wasn’t finished. She went on, her voice quaking as she tried to get the words out, “they are olla metsän peitoss. It is the maahinens.” There were quiet whispers of alarm heard throughout the church. Wander turned to Fish and raised her eyebrows in question.
“She’s talking about forest imps that sort of steal wanderers.” Wander stared at him in disbelief. He shrugged.
She turned to her mother, “Mom, imps are stealing people … I guess …” her mother stiffened then took Wander’s hand in hers, squeezing it. Wander stared down at the hand that held hers and tried to remember the last time her mother had held her hand. She couldn’t.
“Bill? Bill Ott?” Evelyn Barker called out, scanning the room. She straightened her back, her weakness temporarily taken over by the anger of a fiercely protective mother. Wander glanced uneasily at her own mother and wondered how she would act if something ever happened to her. Would her mother stand up and yell in the middle of a church building, or would she curl up and go back to sleep?
“Evelyn is right,” a tall thin African American man said as he pushed himself out of his chair. His face stood out in stark contrast against a sea of white faces, but his posture made it clear he very much belonged here. “When my Mary disappeared I was told the same thing as Evelyn. At first, I thought maybe the authorities were being racist, bought into the stereotypes about blacks being drug users. I thought we were the only ones until Evelyn found me. This town just isn’t doing anything to protect our girls or trying to solve these disappearances. I can understand one girl but two? And now three? And I’ve heard two others have disappeared from Bessemer too. That would make six girls in just two years. When will enough be enough? When will you realize that there is something out there that is taking our girls?!”
The audience was getting louder. A family stood up toward the back to see better, and a child somewhere was crying. Wander stole a glance at her mother. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand why her mother would move them to this town, of all places. One more place in a list too long to even think about. When her mother told her they were leaving Chicago, initially, she didn’t care. She never cared where she lived if she was not living near her best friend Hazel, but she never imagined she’d end up in a town so small there wasn’t even a Starbucks. Instead, there was a healthy amount of disappearing girls and classmates to ignore her at school.
The mayor was futilely trying to get back control of the crowd. Wander suppressed a smile when she imagined the sergeant pulling his gun and firing it into the air. At least it would be something to text Hazel about.
“Now please, no one become alarmed! We don’t know that there is any connection between these disappearances and those other girls from Bessemer. Evelyn, Bill, please know that we did everything we could with the information we had at the time. And now doctors are doing their best to figure out what is causing your children’s suffering. But anger and dissension will get us no closer to solving this. We are a community and we must stick together. I’m certain we’ll see this young lady returned safely if our small community stands together. Together, hand in hand, we will locate her. Just today our local police set up a new page in Facebook and on the Twitter.” Wander sniggered. Clearly technology wasn’t this man’s forte.
“Commenters and Twitterers can use this to notify authorities of anything out of the ordinary. But until we find the cause of this scourge, it would be wise to keep your wanderings to familiar areas. Now Eve and Bill,” he paused, his hands extending, palms up pleading, “please return to your seats and take my words to heart. We will do all we can.”
Bill Ott sat slowly down, looking around him and probably wondering if what he had said mattered at all. But Evelyn Barker stayed where she was, hands nervously twirling a stray piece of yarn that had made its escape from one of the large coat buttons. She leveled a hard stare at the Mayor and waited. The mayor, with a defeated sigh, motioned back to the sergeant who began directing people to different areas of the church to volunteer. The mayor himself, he said loudly enough that Wander could hear him over the din of the crowd, was going to direct the land search. Wander was sure it was for show. She’d only been in town a few weeks, so what did she know of this man? But something about him told her that his priority was not so much finding the cause of the disappearances as much as making sure he looked like he was trying.
Wander stood, stretching, and looked around the small crowded church. Grave-faced families huddled together as they stood in line at the various stations. One girl, in particular, caught Wander’s eye, and not just because she was one of three people of color in the room. But because she stood in the corner of the church frequently wiping at her eyes. Mary Ott’s sister, maybe? Wander could see the grief rolling off her. She thinks she’s never coming back, Wander thought to herself. Wander couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. Her own eyes began to sting with tears of missing someone desperately, so she quickly forced her eyes forward and sat back down.
“Do we have to do this?” Wander whispered, leaning into her mother. Constance Glimly shushed her daughter again and gave her a look that told her it was not up for discussion.
Wander slumped in her chair and turned up the volume on her iPod. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” blared into her ears. She closed her eyes and lost herself to the lyrics, humming along to the tune. She felt her mother’s finger against her lips. Wander opened her eyes to find her mother raising her eyebrows disapprovingly. Her mother’s almost imperceptible nod told her this venue was not an appropriate venue for this song. Wander sighed. She managed to stifle the urge to sing along by tapping her fingers on her chair, but it wasn’t the same. She looked around the room with disdain. A few weeks in town and already something was going wrong. No matter how many times they moved, bad luck always seemed to follow them. Some tiny thing would happen, and then Wander would come home from school and find the house packed up.
She was tired of all the moving, all the running away. And just like that, Wander decided she wasn’t doing it anymore. She was going to stay right here, in this tiny speck of a town, until May when she graduated. Then she would go off to college and happily live wherever she pleased for however long she pleased. Mistress of her own ship. No matter what happened. She was staying put this time.