Chapter One: Candle
A single street runs through the central part of town; small businesses, housed in renovated clapboard buildings, line each side: a seamstress advertising custom slipcovers, an art gallery, a dental office, a small library, an auditorium called Park Hall where a local theater company puts on plays and musicals, a dog grooming parlor, and a hairdresser. The Ben Lomond Market dominates the street, a large and well stocked rural store with a bright green awning and posters on the sliding glass doors, advertising weekly specials. That September, pumpkins, acorn squash, and gourds began to fill the storefront displays a bit earlier than usual, crowding out the last of summer’s bounty as autumn edged in.
When I remember that night, I always consider how the moon must have shone with a particular coldness on a road in Ben Lomond called Love Creek, named for an actual creek which cuts straight through the site of ancient landslides. A more recent landslide in 1982 took out houses during a wild, flooding storm; several bodies, including those of two small children, still remain under those tons of dirt and rubble; a wooden sign advises people not to dump garbage there. Next to the sign, someone has built a large toy box, painted bright red and filled with faded stuffed animals in memory of the two children. Each Christmas, a local Girl Scout troop hangs glass ornaments on a Douglas fir planted not long after the storm.
For many hours, light would have shone not at all into a shallow ravine just at the place where Love Creek rises again from the canyon and becomes, in the dark, a flowing blackness more sensed than seen, braiding and unbraiding over smooth stones. Eventually, the moon must have cast a miserly silver on what rested just above the creek, suspended between two fallen trees: the body of a young woman, six and a half months pregnant. She lay facedown, her left leg extended behind her, right leg pressed against her full belly, arms prostrate as if in prayer.
We exchanged animated mother-talk about infants; I told her that my youngest son had been born on Christmas Day several years before. As we spoke, Asha carefully wrapped up the pink candle in a sheet of butcher paper.
"Don't want to get that broken," she said, and I thanked her.
Candle, Part Two
Candle, Part Three
“Seems like it, though maybe she’s too ill to talk and didn’t have identification on her, or lost it somehow." Even the most far-fetched speculations had begun to seem plausible.
Fred closed the dishwasher and put on his jacket before he went out to stack brush and fallen branches in the front yard. Later, he planned to go to the dump, a remote canyon on Newell Creek Road, which stood in sight of the county reservoir. Before he closed the front door, he said he’d keep an eye out for Asha and take some extra time to look for her.
I sat back down at the kitchen table, powered up my laptop, and opened the website of the local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The lead article had the same picture of Asha as the one on the Missing Person flyer. It described her as someone who conscientiously called well in advance if she needed to be absent from work. Among the several appointments she missed included one for signing her lease on a much-wanted apartment in Capitola, a seaside town several miles away. The fact of her advanced pregnancy frightened me: had she gone for a walk in the woods around Ben Lomond, perhaps? The cool forest paths could be inviting on dry, hot September days and I had taken such walks myself in late pregnancy when I carried Matt, my last child; the midwife said walking strengthened the pelvic and back muscles and helped the baby ease into the proper position. I brushed away the thought of Asha lost somewhere in the woods, hurt or sick, or—God forbid—in labor or having newly given birth by herself to a premature baby. She is fine, I told myself; people were searching for her. Soon she would be found and, no matter the reason why she’d disappeared, things would be put right again for her.
Chapter Two: Car
Brookside Drive branches off two main roads in Ben Lomond: Glen Arbor Drive and Love Creek. If you drive up Glen Arbor--a pleasant, winding road flanked with houses and tall, old trees--you'll reach a stucco building painted a soft, weathered peach, with a blue sign, illuminated at night: Valley Churches United Missions. This place provides basic necessities to low-income families of the San Lorenzo Valley. I myeslf resorted to their help many times after my husband and I split up, leaving me with no child support for our four children. Over the course of several years, I stood in line for food bags, used clothing, Christmas presents from strangers, vouchers for gasoline, and ten-dollar gift certificates to the local Safeway.
They'd been a lifesaver for me and deeply appreciated, despite that some of the workers at the front desk felt free to express their opinion of the people sitting quietly in the waiting area. Once, a small group of four people, including me, arrived at Valley Churches thirty minutes before closing time. A beak-nosed receptionist in a crooked knit cape of green and white yarn, with a peaked hood that did not quite fit, slammed down her pencil and bellowed, "You people don't have jobs, so you should get up out of your beds and come here before closing time!" When she was on shift, she never failed to make us aware of our place.
If you take the road next to Valley Churches at night, you often travel in pitch-dark; the few streetlights are sometimes inoperable. Then it is easy to feel disoriented: broad canopies of bigleaf maples, green and benevolent in the daytime, hover overhead like black umbrellas. You become worried that you've lost your way and are headed up into the mountains with their perilous one-lane roads, but you will soon feel reassured when you see the green sign for Brookside, illuminated by your car's headlights. An extremely sharp right turn takes you onto the street.
Signs for some of Brookside's roads bear the names of poets: Whittier, Emerson, Tennyson. A street with not such a fanciful name, Estates Drive, runs up a low incline. A rail fence fronting a ranch-style home stands directly across from the incline. Behind the fence, oleanders--pink, white, and magenta--raise poisonous blossoms among equally poisonous green leaves. A length of dirt makes a dry border in front of the fence.
Neighbors must have soon noticeed the chocolate-brown BMW, circa 1978, on that narrow strip of dirt, an unusual place to park, the border not really wide enough for a car. People walking their dogs or just taking a stroll passed it, as well as drivers on their way to work and school. Perhaps someone peered into the smudged windows; people often dumped their cars on side roads, or took considerable time to move them in case of a breakdown. The interior revealed nothing particular about where it came from, or who parked it there.
After a few days, angry or worried about the unfamiliar vehicle parked for so long in front of the fence, someone would have finally tried the balky door and found it unlocked. They would have unlatched the glovebox, pulled out a registration card, saw the owner's name, then dashed for a landline or pulled a cellphone from their pocket, perhaps dropping the phone in haste and stooping to pick it up again, because the car with neatly folded baby clothes in the trunk, some in a cheerful Winnie-the-Pooh print, was Asha Veil's abandoned car.