Jenny stood outside the building, she took one step forward, then stopped. She turned and started back to her car. She made it half way across the parking lot before she managed to stop herself. Jenny took three deep breaths, “C’mon, it’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. It’s only an hour or two right? In a few hours you’ll be at home and you can get pizza or something.” She nodded once to herself, then started walking back towards the building. It had been years since she had been out here, five or six at least. It had gotten a bit grubby since. The walls looked dirty and grey in the gloom, rather than the gleaming white she remembered. The windows were covered in grime and had wire mesh running through them. She had heard about that, a few years back, some kids broke in and wrecked the place, she had thought it was such a shame at the time and intended to drop by to offer some help tidying up, but she had never quite gotten around to it.
She stepped into the hall, it seemed bigger and emptier. She pulled her jacket tighter and moved over towards the refreshment table. The smell of coffee, both fresh and stale, hung in the air. With shaking hands she poured herself a cup of coffee and added milk. People were standing around in groups, chatting to one another. Jenny took a sip of her coffee, then looked at the food on offer. Doughnuts, biscuits, some pastries with unidentifiable filling. She started to reach for one, then stopped. Would it be rude to take one? She glanced around, one or two people were eating, so it wasn’t just for display. She took another breath and picked up a doughnut. She was just being silly, that was all. She took a bite and started looking around properly, trying to decide where she should stand. Jenny moved from the table, people would be going back and forth to it and it would look weird if she just stood there. She discretely looked at the groups of people, trying to figure out where she should go and which one she should try and join. She glanced at her watch, the meeting was going to start soon anyway, that would take care of it at least.
“Jenny?” Jenny jumped slightly, then turned to find a woman, mid-forties or so, smiling at her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to give you a fright, I’m Carolyn.”
“Of course, Hi, nice to meet you.” They shook hands, Carolyn’s hands were rougher than Jenny expected. She looked like such a soft, matronly woman.
“I’m sure you’re probably a bit nervous, but there’s no need to be, everyone here is really nice. Andrea said you might be coming, did she say much about what happens?”
“No, not really to be honest. Just that you all met up and talk about, well, what happened.”
“Yes, well, that is the gist of it. We’re here to support one another, help each other out. We sit around and talk about what ever. It doesn’t have to be about the person, it can be even just about your day. There is no requirement to talk, some people just come to listen. You don’t need to say anything, or tell us about what happened if you don’t feel comfortable. If it becomes overwhelming at any time feel free to leave, no one will think less of you, or if you want to talk to someone privately, just signal to me and I’ll come outside with you for a breather.”
Jenny nodded, “Thanks.”
“Unfortunately we’re going to be starting now, I didn’t spot you until just now, but afterwards if you want to stick around for a few seconds, I’ll introduce you to a few people. You’ll get to know a bit about everyone during the meeting. Do you mind if I introduce you a little to the group?”
“I guess not.”
“Don’t worry, it won’t be anything too personal, just your name is all.”
“If you’d like to take a seat we’ll get started, anywhere is fine, there’s no real assigned seating here.”
Jenny moved over to the circle of chairs that had already been set up and sat down, still feeling awkward. The small chat had helped a little though.
“Ok everyone, let’s get started then. There’s a new member this week, everyone this is Jenny. I’d like you all to welcome her warmly, though I know you will. Now, seeing as we have a new member, it might help a little bit for us to go back a little in the beginning. If anyone wants to share their story, feel free. We’ll see where it takes us. We’ll have a little breather afterwards, if anyone wants to discuss anything specifically we’ll do it then, have a bit of a free for all. Now, does anyone want to start?”
A man raised his hand, “Ok Derek, take it away.”
The man looked as though he was in his fifties, a hard face, covered with wrinkles and small acne scars.
“My girl, Sophie, went missing about four years back now. Well, I say about because it seems a bit better to everyone else, doesn’t it?” A few people nodded.
“I’ll never forget that day. I know how long it’s been exactly. Down to the day. Hell, I could work it out down to the hour. I’ve done that once or twice, but I stopped myself. Didn’t seem healthy you know?” He coughed, “Sorry. Got a bit distracted there. Anyway. Um. Four years. She was out with her friends, she always was a sociable child, she had so many of them. They were out, going to the cinema. I had forgotten which movie it was they went to see, I could never keep that stuff straight in my head, but I knew she would be done at about five. During the movie, Sophie left to go to the bathroom, she never came back. Her friends didn’t notice for maybe fifteen minutes, then one of them, Annie, went out to check on her. But she wasn’t in the bathroom. She wasn’t anywhere. They tried to ring her, but her phone was turned off. She always had it charged and with her. She loved that thing, only got it a few months before for her birthday. They asked around, no one had seen her. They checked the footage, it showed her leaving the cinema and going into and out of the bathroom but after that she was gone. No sign of her. Not in the cinema, not on the streets outside. No one saw her again.” He took a breath, “She’s sixteen now. I had a small celebration for her, just myself. The wife and I ended up separating. It was a long time coming really. I know she’s out there and I know she didn’t just run away. Someday we’re going to find her.”
A few of the group were nodding again.
A woman started speaking, “My husband John went missing two and a half years ago. He went out for a pack of cigarettes. It sounds so ridiculous, doesn’t it? He was getting them for me. I ran out and was feeling lazy, I was already in my pyjamas, so he went for me. Told me he’d pick up the cigs and a few nice things for watching the telly. I was worried after half an hour, the trip to the shops should only have taken twenty minutes. Sometimes he was a bit longer, he’d run into someone he knew, but this time I was worried. I tried ringing him, but his phone was off. I rang a few of his mates, to see if they’d run into him and he’d slipped into the pub for a quick pint. I thought maybe his phone was on silent or something and he didn’t realise the time. None of them had seen him. I was starting to panic, I had to stop a few times, tell myself it was fine, he was just delayed, but I knew. I rang his mum then, asking if she’d heard from him. Her house was near the shops, maybe he’d popped in for a cuppa. She hadn’t seen him either. I rang the police after two hours. I waited the entire time by the front door, my phone in my hand. They didn’t take me seriously at first. Why would they? They thought he’d just run off with another woman or gone to the pub. They wouldn’t listen. They didn’t start looking until the next day, told me to ring back in the morning. His mum had rang them by then. They looked, but I think they still thought he’d just done a runner on me. But even if he had, he wouldn’t do something like that to his mum, he’d have let her know at least. They asked around the shop, he’d never even been in. He’d just vanished, somewhere between our house and the shops. They tried to track his phone, it was still ringing, but they couldn’t. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. I hope he is, I really do, but the longer it is the harder I find it. I don’t think about him as much now. It’s a bit awful to say, I used to spend every day out looking for him, walking the same path up and down to the shops, looking for something, anything that the police missed, but there’s been nothing.”
Jenny listened as a few more people shared their stories, then there was a lull, a brief silence, before she realised it Jenny was speaking.
“Derek was fifteen. He’d been off at football practise. He was supposed to be home by half eight, but there was no sign of him. He was always good about letting me know if he was going to be late. I rang him, but there was no answer, so I tried one of his friends mums, asking if her lad had gotten in yet. He’d had, I could hear her asking him if they’d walked home together. I was trying to convince myself it was fine. It wasn’t the first time he was late and sometimes he did just forget. Maybe they’d been talking to some girls. I couldn’t hear what he said. She came back on the phone and told me that they’d walked back together, that Derek had continued on by himself as usual. They were only a few minutes walk from our house, he should have made it home at the usual time.” A few of the people were nodding, Jenny took a deep breath trying to steady herself. “I knew then. I just knew. When I was ringing him I could feel that something was wrong. I’d never felt like that before, not ever. I went and had a look myself. I kept saying that I needed to calm down, that he was probably just talking to a friend, or chatting up some girl. I walked all the way to the football pitches and then ran back, hoping that he’d gotten home while I was gone, but he hadn’t. The police started looking for him. They found his phone, lying on the side of the road, its screen cracked. They didn’t find anything else. I always thought about that. If someone robbed him, why leave the phone? He had a bag with him, but it would have been full of his football stuff, heavy and not worth much, it was never found either.” Jenny realised it felt good to be talking about it. It felt right sharing it with these people, who knew what she was going through. She had been going to a therapist, but it was mostly for everyone else. Everyone who kept telling her to go, that it was good for her, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t do anything to help. When she was done speaking she felt exhausted. At some point the woman beside her put her hand on Jenny shoulder, the warmth of her hand felt so reassuring, so good. She had cried then, proper cries. The woman had pulled Jenny into a hug. When she was done she didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed like she did at her therapists office. She felt cleansed. Fresh. The people here didn’t judge her. They knew her, they knew what she had gone through, what she was still going through.
Jenny felt drained, but it was a nice feeling. It felt like it was come by honestly, rather than through nights of tossing and turning. The people were all nice and welcoming, she had thought there would be a couple of crazies, but they all seemed sane. Andrea had told her about the group, said it would be good for her. She had mentioned something about conspiracy people, but had quickly hand waved it away when Jenny tried to find out more. It had been explained to her at the break. A few of the people believed that the same person had abducted the people they had lost. Not all of them believed it, only a few, and they dismissed anyone who simply tried to go along with it. They had their reasons for thinking it was the same person, and if someone’s story didn’t have that detail, one they never explicitly shared with people, they kindly told them that it probably wasn’t connected. Jenny shoved a piece of paper into her pocket, one that was now loaded with names and phone numbers of the people in the group, in case she needed to talk during the week. She already had plans to meet up for coffee with three people. She was looking forward to that, it had been a long time since she had been out of the house for coffee. She hadn’t really realised it, but she had secluded herself from everyone, family and friends. She didn’t like going out in public, being seen, those looks of pity or cruel interest. She had set places she liked to go and that was it.
As she was about to leave a man approached her, “Hi, Jenny right? I’m Adam” He stuck out his hand, Jenny shook it, “Hi, nice to meet you.”
“Look I’m sure you’ve heard about us and probably think we’re crazy. But we think Derek’s disappearance may be linked to the disappearances of other people. We’re not going to try and make you think that, if you don’t want to discuss it as a possibility that’s completely fine. We usually meet up once a week, just ourselves. Normally it’s in one of ours houses, but if you’d feel more comfortable, we could meet in the pub. We’ll tell you our stories, and then you can decide for yourself. If you don’t agree that’s fine and you can leave at any time during and uh yeah.”
“Sorry. It’s just Angela normally does this but she’s sick. If you want to give either herself or myself a ring. We’ll be meeting on Thursday at seven. Anyway, give her a ring and see what you think. I hope we see you there.”
“Um thanks. I will.”
Jenny walked back to her car, feeling that faint thrill of hope, the one that had been getting less and less the last few months. Maybe they knew something, something that would help find Derek. As she sat into her car she decided she’d go. Hell, she already went to this thing and she survived it, something similar wouldn’t hurt. She tried to keep the feeling at bay, she didn’t want another bitter disappointment, but she couldn’t help it. It just kept growing. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “just wait, ok? Just wait at least until you hear what they have to say, it might be nothing, they might just be crazy or something. Driven mad with grief.” She started the car, already knowing she’d go and listen to every word they said, hoping, praying that something, anything would click into place.