SEVENTEEN • by Virgie Townsend

Your mother called me after you went missing, asking if I knew anything they should know. There aren’t a lot of places to hide in Victorsville, and she was worried because no one had seen you since the night before. It was four in the afternoon by then and growing dark outside. Layers of pink and orange sky were melting into the snow. I was seated in front of the telephone, and rubbed circles over the numerical faces of the phone’s dial. No one told me that you had gone missing.

They found you in a neighbor’s field four days later. That’s when I wished I’d told your mother I knew everything she should have known, but nothing that would have helped.

Behind the snow bank, your body was surrounded by ice; you were wearing a dress I hadn’t seen before — fuchsia and shorn above the middle of your thighs. Everyone says people who freeze to death look peaceful, just like they’re sleeping. You looked like a sleeping dancer wearing a bright pink tutu, and your arms softly curved above your golden head. Your skin matched the color of your eyes.

The elders’ eyes got big when they saw you — what you were wearing — and they told us to turn away and start praying that God would offer you posthumous forgiveness. Maybe I should have prayed for forgiveness from you. Then we just stood there, facing away from you, until someone took you away on a gurney.

The doctor examined you the next day and his wife threw away the dress I hadn’t seen before. Who can we blame for Elisabeth’s death? He must have asked himself as his gloves snapped into place and his hand reached for the scalpel. What do the liver, kidneys, and brain have to say? Who will the heart blame?

Then he ran the scalpel over your chilled, blue skin and split the two sides like Moses parting the sea. Inside was your baby, curled up in the fluids as though crystallized in amber.

I didn’t see your parents cry until they found out about your pregnancy. The elders wouldn’t attend your burial, so a minister from a neighboring town delivered the sermon. I threw dirt onto your coffin after your family. Snow had already fallen over the soil when I peered over the edge of the grave.

Under the knife, your body confessed its hypothermia and dehydration, but your baby kept its secret. Who can we blame? The doctor and his litany of tests couldn’t say. Your mother asked me if I could tell her his name. Surely, after a friendship dating back to diapers, I should have learned it, but I still only knew everything about you that wouldn’t help. I told her what I had always believed: That we knew the boys of Victorsville too well to think of them that way.

In the days following your death, I often woke in the middle of the night and was disappointed that I hadn’t dreamed of you. I hoped my subconscious would run its fingers through my memories, flipping the pictures back and forth until they’d run together as if they’d sprung to life again.

Instead, I thought I felt your baby pressing his nose against mine. I thought I saw him coiled above me, slender blood vessels visible across his bulging forehead. His legs were not much longer than his arms; his eyes were sealed shut. Even in my slumberous daze, I searched his face for yours — deeply set eyes with sunken spaces between the brows and lids, or twin dimples beneath the cheekbones. Then I rolled over and away from him, hid my face in my pillow, and still I didn’t dream of you.

Virgie Townsend is one of those wayward 20-somethings the New York Times warned you about. She grew up in Central New York, the daughter of a fundamental Baptist and a sex researcher. After her graduation from law school, she moved to Colorado, where she lives 5,340 feet above sea level in an allegedly haunted apartment.

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Every Day Fiction