Seven minutes before curtain raise, her daughter Paige had the worst case of the hiccups.
The small cast of the school play was gathered around her, and that only made things worse. Her Paige wasn’t one to love an audience, especially when she wasn’t up to par for the task. She’d hid her glittery face against Miriam’s jeans and refused to leave the comfort of her mother’s leg.
“I’m so sorry,” Miriam had said, looking at the teacher, Mrs. Langhorne. The woman smiled, feigning understanding and compassion, when her eyes glinted with impatient irritation as if it were Miriam’s fault Paige had the hiccups. Or Paige’s even. “I tried everything. I gave her water, the other teacher, Mr.—”
“Mowrey, yes,” Mrs. Langhorne replied, shooting her wristwatch another concerned look.
“Yes, he tried to talk her out of it.” Mrs. Langhorne sighed, tapping her heel impatiently against the scratched, wooden floor of the theater backstage. “This is not exactly a Broadway show if you know what I mean,” Miriam pleaded in a lower voice. “We can be a few minutes late if need be.”
The woman rolled her eyes, a quick gesture she tried to hide under her long lashes and a quick turn of her head to the side. “This is the Universal Stage Theater.” She sounded as if she was about to choke on her own indignation. “The school went through a lot of trouble to secure this venue on a Saturday evening, Mrs. Welsh. We might as well behave accordingly and be on time.”
Miriam pressed her lips tightly together, gently caressing her daughter’s curly, red hair and counting the seconds between hiccups. She wished she could tell that woman everything that was crossing her mind at the time but couldn’t. Not if she wanted Paige to continue to attend the classes of the exclusive St. Moritz school. Even at the ridiculous tuition they were charging, the waiting lists were a mile long, and kids had their names on them since birth. That was, of course, if parents could make the commitment to pay fifty grand a year for their offspring’s exclusive education.
Two other children, including the little boy who played Hansel, whispered something and giggled, shooting her daughter amused looks. Paige whimpered against her leg, the barely noticeable sound interrupted by a loud “Hic.”
“Let me try something, if I may,” a man asked in a low whisper, approaching from a dressing room. He was dressed for the stage and wore a mask and woodworker’s coveralls with fake stains applied with stage makeup. Through the holes of the mask, his eyes seemed like anthracite.
Miriam looked at her watch and groaned. Two minutes until curtain raise. “Sure.”
The man took Paige’s hand gently and waited until the little girl look at him. “Wanna get rid of these hiccups so we can do the play and go home and watch TV?” He still whispered, no one else but the three of them privy to their conversation.
Paige nodded. “Hic.”
The man held his hands in the air and looked at Miriam briefly as if asking permission again. “Hiccups are nothing but spasms of the diaphragm. Sometimes,” he touched Paige’s stomach right under her sternum with one expertly placed finger, “all you have to do is push the right button.” He held his finger pressed against Paige’s diaphragm for a few seconds, then took a step back. “Done.” He grabbed both Paige’s hands into his. “I’m willing to bet you one dollar you won’t be hiccupping again today.” There was laughter in his whispered voice.
Paige seemed disappointed. Maybe it was the thought of the dollar she wasn’t going to earn, or perhaps she had stage fright like Miriam suspected.
Crouching by her side, Miriam arranged her long, auburn curls and straightened her costume. She’d inherited Miriam’s hair and complexion. She quickly wiped a fleck of glitter off her nose and put a swift kiss on her freckled cheek.
“Mom,” Paige protested, shooting the other kids an embarrassed look.
So soon. She was only eight.
Mrs. Langhorne clapped her hands in typical foreman-on-the-floor style, steering the kids toward their places for curtain raise.
Rushing to her seat and trying to step on the balls of her feet to keep the clicking of her high heels to a minimum, Miriam barely got there in time for curtain raise. She had an aisle seat, and the one next to her was still empty. Max, her husband, wasn’t there yet. She checked her phone and saw a text message apologizing for a work-related delay that couldn’t be avoided.
Across from the aisle, another empty seat caught her attention. Paige’s father, Darrel, hadn’t arrived either. Miriam swallowed a bitter sigh. Tonight, Paige would learn how to act in front of a sizeable audience and how to deal with disappointment.
The theater was large, equipped with comfortable plush seats spaced to leave plenty of legroom. Miriam sunk in her seat, happy to be off her feet after what had seemed an endless day. She’d worked a few hours that morning, dealing with a staffing shortage at the pharmacy, then had rushed home to fix lunch and get Paige ready for the performance. They’d rehearsed lines together the entire week, to the point where Miriam had dreamt she was Gretel herself one night. She was beyond ready to be done with the school play, but it had been a wonderful opportunity for her to spend more time with her daughter. Thankfully, all she had to do after lunch and a quick nap for Paige was her hair, her nails with plenty of glitter, and another fitting of her costume, with last-minute sewing of hidden clasps required to keep the darn thing in place.
But Paige looked beautiful as Gretel, her long hair brought forward on her shoulders, her freckles picture-perfect, her starched white apron shining over her burgundy gathered skirt with ruffles, her smile beaming, full of confidence. Of course, that was at home, in the sanctity of her own bedroom. As soon as they’d reached the majestic theater, everything changed. She started trembling at first, then she needed the restroom three times in twenty-five minutes. Then the hiccups came.
But it was all sorted out now, and Miriam could rest for a few minutes. Thankfully, Paige’s appearance on the stage was flawless, her first lines perfectly articulated, her voice strong, fearless. Whatever stage fright monsters had plagued her were gone as if they’d never existed.
Her little girl was a natural.
Mouthing the lines as Paige acted them, Miriam held back tears. Something tugged at her heart seeing her little girl there, vulnerable and brave in front of all those people, elbows locked with the boy who played Hansel, playfully jumping and walking in circles on her thin legs as if the whole world was hers. She was growing up so fast… too fast. Soon she’d be gone, a young woman with a life of her own, a house of her own, children of her own.
Among enthusiastic cheering from the gathering of parents, a gentle tap on her shoulder got her attention. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
She turned. A man leaned toward her to keep his voice down and still be heard while speaking with her. “Yes?”
“Do you have a red Subaru, with the tag number, um,” he read from a note in his hand, “GHR-G12?”
She frowned. She’d never been able to remember her tag, but she’d driven her burgundy Subaru Forester tonight. “Yes, what’s wrong?”
The man straightened his back, but not completely, still hunched forward, his hands clasped together. “I’m so sorry, ma’am, but I’m afraid I caused it some damage when I pulled out of the lot.” He threw a look over his shoulder. “The usher told me where to find you.”
She sighed, screwing her eyes shut for a brief moment. One minute of peace, and it had to be shattered by this klutz who couldn’t drive straight for the life of him. Son of a bitch. At least he’d had the sense to own up to his crap, instead of disappearing and leaving her with a dent or whatever, to fix on her own. That much deserved some respect.
She threw Paige a regretful look, wishing she didn’t have to leave the play to deal with the car nonsense. At least Paige wasn’t paying attention to her, engulfed in her act, spreading confetti as breadcrumbs from her cute little brown satchel.
Miriam stood and followed the man who kept walking with his shoulders hunched forward and his head lowered as if begging forgiveness with every fiber of his body. It was rare to see someone acting like that these days when people didn’t have decent morals anymore.
She turned toward the theater exit, but the man gently touched her elbow. “Follow me; it’s shorter this way,” he said, pointing toward a half-lit corridor that led to the now-closed coffee shop. Frowning, she tried to remember where she’d parked. By the time they arrived, the front parking lot was full, and she’d parked on the side, but which side? Torn between wanting to get back into her seat and some unnerving gut feeling, she hesitated but eventually gave in. The man, wearing a dark jacket zipped up to his chin, seemed kind, humble even, deeply embarrassed to find himself in that situation. He wore a ball cap that shaded his eyes in the dim light, but Miriam could tell he was smiling apologetically, showing two rows of teeth slightly stained by tobacco use. His beard was trim and dark, not a strand of gray in it. He must’ve been young, maybe even younger than her.
As they approached the door, her footsteps resounding loudly on the marble corridor, he fell behind a little as if getting ready to hold the door for her and let her exit first. “After you, ma’am,” he’d said in a strangely excited voice.
That was the last thing she remembered before everything went dark. The half-baked question about that nuance in his voice. Why the excitement? What was he—
Then the blow to her head that had sent shards of light in her skull before darkness took ahold of her mind.
When she came to, she was lying on the floor in what must’ve been the theater’s janitorial closet, the smell of Pine-Sol and chlorine bleach unmistakable. Pitch dark except for a faint sliver of light coming in under the door, it was enough for Miriam to get grounded. Ignoring the thumping in her skull, she rose to her feet and tried the door handle, silently praying.
It opened without any resistance.
A thought zapped like lightning through her mind, leaving her breathless, her heart beating hard and fast against her rib cage.
She ran all the way back through the corridor, noticing things were slightly different. Most lights were off now. There was an eerie silence, where before, there used to be music coming from the stage, the high-pitched voices of the children, and the rhythmic clapping of the audience. Now the only rhythm she could hear was the frenetic beating of her own heart and the clacking of her high-heeled boots against the marble as she was rushing to find her little girl.
When she finally reached the auditorium entrance, she gasped. The doors were wide open, and the auditorium was shrouded in darkness.
Where her daughter had played Gretel in front of a cheering audience, only two faint stage lights remained. The theater was deserted and eerily silent; the only sound she could hear was her own heart, pounding in a frenzy against her chest.
“Paige,” she called loudly, and the echo of her voice reverberated in the wide, empty space.
For a moment, she considered searching the backstage area where she’d last been with Paige before the play had started, but it made no sense. Those rooms were a mere curtain away, and not a sound came from there.
She rushed toward the main entrance and pushed the massive glass door. It opened after opposing a brief resistance, and an alarm sounded. She stepped outside and stopped sharply at the top of the stairs, stunned, her blood turned to icicles. Darkness had fallen, thick and filled with ocean mist, lampposts like ghosts sprinkling yellow haloes against the sky.
The place where she’d parked her car was deserted, as was the entire parking lot. She was the only one there.
Paige was gone. They’d taken her little girl.