It was her.
He didn’t need to wait for the dental records or DNA testing. He knew.
He turned away from the white suits of the forensics team and pulled the dog-eared photograph out of his jacket pocket for the millionth time. The girl in the yellow summer dress. With ice-cream on the end of her nose and a smile that put dimples in her cheeks and made him want to smile too. But not today. Today he couldn’t shift that awful feeling of tightness in his throat.
Two-hundred and thirty-six days had been and gone since she disappeared and only a few dozen less had passed since the search had been scaled down. Officially at least. In his mind, though, it had never really stopped. How could it? He had promised the mother he’d bring her little girl home. Perhaps it was small town naiveté but he had never allowed himself to imagine it ending like this. Never lose hope. That’s what he’d told her. And now he would have to snuff out what little she had left.
He wished more than anything else that there was someone else who could tell her but he knew it had to come from him. She deserved that much at least. He slipped the photograph back into his pocket and headed blindly through the trees in the direction of the road.
The officers at the entrance to the woods gave him sympathetic glances as he passed but he ignored them. It was nothing new. He’d been the crazy detective for a while. He’d heard the whispers. He should never have been involved. It was too close to home. It had pushed him over the edge. Sometimes they made him feel like a pariah. Most of the time he didn’t care.
He reached the car and slid behind the wheel. His fingers fumbled with the keys as he tried to start the engine and he punched the dashboard in anger. He had to get away from there. To clear his head. To drive until he could think again. The key finally turned in the ignition and the tires spat gravel as he put his foot to the floor and shot out onto the road.
By the time he realised which way he was driving, he couldn’t have stopped if he wanted to. The car knew the way too well. He pulled into the car park and found his usual space sitting empty. Winding down his window, he filled his lungs with the fresh air and the smell of spring blossom.
He watched as two small children played in the sunshine and the sound of their laughter floated to him on the breeze. Closing his eyes, he let himself imagine it was her. That it had all been nothing more than a bad dream and that when he opened his eyes she would be there. Waiting patiently on the swing as if she’d been there all along.
But, when he looked, the park was empty and the children were running off ahead of their parents in the direction of the ice-cream van. He pulled the photograph out of his pocket again and gazed into those clear blue eyes. His vision blurred until he couldn’t make out her features anymore and her golden hair looked like a halo. A tear fell onto her face but he brushed it away with a gentle finger.
‘I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.’
Then pulling his phone out of his pocket he scrolled through the numbers with unsteady fingers. Until he found the name he’d been looking for. The screen waited for his response to a question he never wanted to answer. Call Home?
Yellow Summer Dress – FLASH FICTION
It was her.