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
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,
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
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
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
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.
lives in a small town near a big city.