The Twelve Days of Christmas:
A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.
The Eighth Day of Christmas
I was out early again on New Year’s Day. The streets in town were dead—all the stores were closed, of course, and not even Dinah’s Diner had the “Open” sign out. But I didn’t need any of them, anyway; I was headed out of town.
Right at midnight, while I had been sniffling into my lonesome glass of champagne in front of the TV that showed the ball dropping in Times Square, the penny dropped in my mind. For all of last week, I had been waiting for something to turn up, had been half angry with Tom for vanishing as he did, had figured the police would find him. But as the crowd in Times Square in their backwards count to midnight reached zero, it had burst on me with more explosions and sparks than the fireworks: I had to get Tom back. Filing the missing persons report with the police wouldn’t do it—I had to go myself.
I knew it was something to do with that mansion at Carson’s Landing, and the two gorgeous people who had denied seeing him. With that woman who wore the ring that Joe Engelhard had hinted had been bought by Tom. So I was going back out there, and I was going to look, and knock, and ask questions, until I found something.
But I drew another blank. The fancy house was, this time, actually empty. No answer to my knocking and doorbell-ringing, no response to my wandering around the outside, tapping on windows, and even trying to peer in through the glass. Nobody home. Not even the swans were in sight on the lakeshore.
I got back in my car and stared out the window at the lake. Across the inlet, I could see the big barn of Whitewell’s Dairy Farm, where Celia still lived with her brother’s family. They were the nearest neighbours to the Carson place—maybe they knew where the inhabitants of the lakeshore palace had gone off to.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled up in front of the Whitewell’s big barn. The door stood half open, and I could hear voices and the sound of machinery. I supposed that even on New Year’s Day the animals had to be taken care of on their regular schedule. I got out of the car and stuck my head into the barn. The warm smell of milk and cattle dung met my nose; black-and-white cow rumps lined up side by side to the right and left of the central walkway, stretching what seemed like a long ways into the distance. There was a rhythmic hissing noise, like some pneumatic machinery, and gently the tails of the cows swished back and forth as if keeping time to it.
Down the central aisle of the barn, a young girl and a guy walked towards me, carrying a piece of shiny machinery with hoses hanging off it. Oh, no, the second person was a girl, too—the short hair and baseball cap had me confused for a moment.
She looked at me with her eyebrows raised. “Hey, anything we can do for you?”
“Hi,” I said, “sorry to bug you while you’re working—”
“It’s okay,” she said, “we’re always working. Life of the dairy farmer. The milking has to be done, no matter what.”
“I guess. Well, I was just wondering. I’m looking for someone—my friend Tom. I’m asking around if anyone’s seen him.”
Another short-cropped girl’s head poked around the rear end of a cow just a few stalls down from where I stood.
“Do you mean Tom Rimer?” the girl asked. “Tallish, dark, drives a black 1970 Chevy pickup with purple fenders?”
“Yes!!” I said. “Yes! Have you seen him? Was he here?”
The girl shrugged. “Sorry, haven’t seen him—but his truck’s been parked by the forest road, just the other side of our property line, for about a week. At least I think it’s his truck.”
Of course it was Tom’s truck; it was the only one of its kind in town. It had been in almost mint condition when he bought it a couple years back; it used to belong to Eldon, the guy that disappeared back in ‘71, and it had sat in storage ever since. Finally, a sign of Tom’s whereabouts!
“Oh!” A fourth girl came out from between two cows further down the barn. “Is that whose truck that is? Do you know if he’d consider selling?”
“Em, you need another truck like you need a hole in the head!” the first girl said.
The Em girl pouted. “But I want it, it’s really cute!”
She sounded like a grade school kid with her Barbie doll collection. Now I remembered: the Whitewells had a whole lot of daughters. Four, or five—yes, there was another one, way down the other end of the barn. Oh, six! Yet another one. That was a lot of girls. As far as I knew, they were all adults, and most of them lived away; they must have come home for a holiday visit.
“So, Tom’s truck is here?” I said, excitement making me feel tingly all over. “Do you have any idea where he went from here?”
The first girl shook her head. “Not me,” she said. “Em? Mara? Cally?” The three girls that were closest to my end of the barn shook their heads. “So, sorry, can’t help you,” she said. “If you want to stick around until we’re done the milking, might be able to talk it over then and see what we can do.” She hoisted her shiny machine and turned to the nearest cow rump.
At the far end of the barn, I could see yet another two figures emerging from between the cattle, and they and the last two that had come out looked like they were staring at me. I gave myself a slight shake. Eight girls. Eight girls in a barn, milking the cows.
Surreptitiously, I took out my phone, booted up the camera, and took a picture of the length of the barn.
The girl farthest down the building was waving at me—beckoning me. Did she want to tell me something? Those four at the other end of the barn hadn’t responded to the first girl’s question. Suddenly I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they knew something. Something about Tom.
I hitched my purse higher on my shoulder and walked down the long aisle of the barn over the squeaky-clean polished cement. Somewhere half-way down, my foot caught on something—for a split second, it felt as if I had walked into an invisible wall.
But I kept going, walking towards the four girls at the far end of the barn. They just stood there. So did their cows—where the ones at the front of the barn vigorously swished their tails and rustled around in their stalls, these ones held perfectly still. In fact, they looked fake, as if they were nothing but movie props—cardboard cutouts.
I looked at the girls as I got closer. They looked familiar. Really familiar. They looked—they looked just like the other four girls in the front section of the barn. Two of them with short blonde hair, one with medium-length brown hair, one with a ponytail under a backwards baseball cap; all of them wearing jeans or overalls and rubber boots. I looked back towards the front section of the barn, and then ahead to the back section. The one was a mirror image of the other.
“What’s going on here?” I could hear slight hysteria in my voice.
“Nothing,” said the girl who was the double of the first girl. “You want to find Tom? We can help you.”
They were giving me the creeps, with their silent, unwavering smiles and the motionless cows between them. Yes, I needed to find Tom, but not with their help!
“No thanks!” I said. “I’ll be leaving now, thank you!”
With a few strides, I reached the barn door and pulled it open.
In front of me was a spring meadow in full bloom.
To be continued…