The December Tapes

Every year on December 12th, a new one would arrive. Always in the same bright Christmas wrapping, always unmarked, always left on our front porch.

They started coming a year after my sister, Libby, disappeared.

She was last seen walking home from the elementary school in her favorite bright purple jacket with the faux fur hood. It was just a couple blocks, a walk she’d made hundreds of times, and our mom was standing at the foot of our driveway keeping an eye out for her. No one knows for sure what happened in the ten minutes it should have taken Libby to get home; we only know that she never made it.

I remember lying in bed that night, listening to my dad trying to keep his voice steady while he spoke to the cops and my mom making phone call after phone call to Libby’s friends and our neighbors and all the local stores that Mom knew she liked to visit, just in case she’d decided to take an uncharacteristic detour and lost track of time.

Our quiet life quickly became media fodder. It was surreal and upsetting to see my nine year old sister’s latest school portrait grinning at me from the TV screen on the evening news, to hear her name spoken on the radio. My parents gave interviews and pleaded for anyone with any information to come forward, which only resulted in dead ends and prank calls. There were reporters stationed outside our house for a week, just waiting to pounce with their invasive questions.

And then, slowly, the attention began to fade. A missing girl only kept people interested for so long and, when no new leads appeared, they moved on. The reporters gave up first, then the cops, and then our neighbors, until only my family was still looking.

“We’ll keep it open, but inactive,” we were told over the phone by a sympathetic sounding desk sergeant, “it” being my sister’s case file. She didn’t even have a name to them anymore.

The first year after Libby disappeared went slowly. My parents did their best to keep things normal for me, but it always felt thin, fragile, strained. Normal now meant pretending I didn’t notice Mom staring at the seat Libby used to sit in every night at dinner. It meant tiptoeing back down the hall so my dad didn’t know I saw him standing in the middle of her room, her favorite stuffed toy hugged against his chest. It meant dreading her birthday and holidays because they were now just razor sharp reminders of loss.

It meant trying to cope without my little sister, and there were some days I wondered how anything would ever feel right again.

And then, on December 12th, exactly one year after she went missing, a package arrived on our doorstep.

It was wrapped in sparkly red paper and tied off with a bright purple ribbon. There was no card or name tag attached, just the box, but Mom brought it inside anyway. She figured it was from one of our neighbors just trying to spread a little Christmas spirit. It was the first gift we’d gotten. She put it aside and set about making dinner, careful to keep her back to me so that I might not notice she was crying, but I did anyway and any tiny speck of holiday cheer I might have been feeling was swept away.

The package sat on our kitchen counter, unopened, until my dad got home and asked what it was.

“Go ahead and open it, Phin,” Dad said with a tired smile.

With as much enthusiasm as I could muster, I tore into the wrapping paper and pulled open the small cardboard box within. Sitting inside, nestled on a bed of red and green tissue paper, was a cassette tape.

Curious, I ran to my room for my boombox and lugged it back to the kitchen, where I popped open the front and dropped the cassette into its player.

The room filled with my sister’s terrified, desperate screams.

“Mommy,” she wailed from the speakers. “Daddy!”

We all sat in stunned silence for a moment before my dad leapt at the boombox and tore the tape out.

I listened to that cassette many times in the following days. First from just outside the kitchen, when my parents played it in full after they thought I’d gone to my room, and then a second time when the police came. Snippets were released to re-generate interest in the case and they were played on the news and on the radio and, once again, Libby Helmer was a household name for another couple of weeks.

It didn’t matter how many times I heard it, though, it never got any easier.

Libby screaming for our parents, the gut wrenching fear in her voice, the way she sobbed and begged to go home, and behind it all, a soft voice that just kept saying, “Shhh, shhh.”

Nothing came of it except more heartbreak. There were no prints, no DNA, nothing to trace the package or its contents, and all we were left with was Libby’s terrified voice.

The only solace we could take from it was that, somewhere, Libby was alive.

Mom and Dad redoubled their search efforts and upped the reward offered for Libby’s safe return, but another year came and went without any new information, until December 12th was upon us again.

For the second year in a row, we received another cassette tape.

“Hi Mommy and Daddy and Phin,” Libby said from the boombox once we’d gathered enough courage to hit play. She sounded tired, the kind of tired that resonates from deep down; the kind no kid should be familiar with. “I miss you. I hope I can come home soon, but I don’t know. I think about you lots. I hope you think about me, too.” Her voice cracked and I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek to keep from doing the same. “Smiling Thom says I’ve been a good girl. He wanted you to know that.”

The tape ended.

Again, we went to the police, and again, nothing came of it. Even with the inclusion of a name, this Smiling Thom, they weren’t able to dig up anything that might have helped us find Libby. All we had to hold us over for another year was her sad, small voice.

The third tape arrived, right on time, the next year. Libby’s voice sounded a little older, but it was still recognizably her’s.

“Hi, it’s me. You remember me, right? I try to draw you lots so I don’t forget you, but it’s getting harder. Smiling Thom says that’s just the way it goes. I asked him for a picture of you, but he hasn’t brought me one yet. He said if I was really good, he will, and I’ve tried to be, but I dunno if he will. I want to go home. Smiling Thom said maybe next year. He says that a lot. I love you.”

It hit me then that it was getting harder for me to remember her, too. Not just what she looked like, but the sound of her voice and the things she liked and the way she laughed. While my parents played and re-played the tape, desperately listening for any clues that it might hold as to Libby’s whereabouts, I went and dug out her baby book. I spent the rest of the night studying her face and all the little notes that Mom had put in the margins.

I fell asleep with the book clutched against my stomach and tears staining my face.

It was another long year with no answers.

For four more years, we waited for December 12th to arrive with a strange combination of hope and horror. We fed off of those tapes, used them to get us through another 365 days with the belief that Libby was still alive. We dreaded getting them, but we dreaded the December 12th that we opened our front door to find nothing there even more.

Every tape followed a similar pattern: she’d tell us she missed us, that she wanted to come home, that she thought about us. In some, she’d ask questions like whether we still thought of her. She’d tell us that Smiling Thom said she’d been good again.

She sounded more and more different in every one; older and more articulate, but always sad, always tired. It was like listening to my sister grow up in sound bites when I played the tapes back to back.

There was never anything new in them. We kept bringing them to the cops, but it felt more like a hollow effort each time, until Dad finally decided he’d had enough and we wrote them off the same way they had us.

“We’re not giving up,” Dad said. “We’re just on our own now.”

Another year passed. We put up posters, we shot local commercials, we gathered volunteers and combed wider and wider areas, although it was obvious that those who joined us were doing it more for solidarity than out of any actual belief that we would find Libby. Even when we played the tapes for people, they didn’t seem quite convinced that the girl they were hearing was my sister

It had been 8 years since Libby disappeared and the only people who still thought she might come home were me and my parents.

Until we got the tape that year.

Mom stood over the table, staring at the still wrapped box, for a long moment. Her eyes were glassy, her lips trembling, and she shook her head.

“I can’t,” she said weakly. “I can’t listen to another one. I don’t even know her voice anymore. What kind of mother am I? What kind of mother doesn’t even recognize her own child’s voice? Just take it away; put it back! Put it back! I don’t want it in this house!”

She started to sink to the floor and Dad hurried around the table to catch her.

“Just do it, Phin!” He shouted over his shoulder.

The pain I saw on both their faces, still so raw after so long, drove me to grab up the box and run to the front door. I dumped it back on the porch and left it to sit in the gathering snow. I didn’t think about it at the time; if I had, I would have hidden the box in my room or just tucked in a drawer somewhere. In that moment, though, I just did what Mom said. I got it out of the house.

I had no doubt that, once Mom calmed down, I’d be told to retrieve it again and we’d listen to it the same as we had all the others. Neither of my parents would miss the chance to hear their Libby’s voice.

It was only an hour later that I was instructed to go and get the tape. Mom apologized and said she was ready.

But when I opened the front door, the package was gone and no amount of searching made it reappear.

We assumed some opportunistic low life looking to steal Christmas gifts had taken it and tried to console one another with reassurances that there would be another tape the next year, but it didn’t really help. Mom blamed herself, I blamed myself, and Dad was just caught up in his grief over not getting to hear his little girl. We thought about filing another police report, but after all the previous years of no real help and dead ends, we decided against it.

We’d just have to try and wait until the next December 12th.

We didn’t put up posters or launch search parties or do anything else to look for Libby in that year. It was too exhausting, too expensive, too heartbreaking. Mom was especially fragile after the loss of the last tape. There was nothing we hadn’t tried and it had all ended in failure. We just needed some time to recoup and collect ourselves before we began the search again.

I was woken up the morning of December 12th that year by a muffled thud coming from downstairs. It was early, still dark, and I almost rolled over and went back to sleep until I remembered what day it was.

I was up and out of bed instantly.

My parents bedroom door was still closed and their light off when I hurried past on tiptoes. I was relieved, in a way. It was always hard to get the tapes, but seeing what it did to my parents just made it harder. I thought, maybe, if I could listen to it alone first, it would make it less horrible somehow.

It didn’t occur to me until I was opening the front door that the tapes had only ever come in the evening before.

By then, I’d already seen the package, and I knew immediately that something was very wrong.

Instead of a small box, this one was large. Very large. It was still wrapped in the same bright paper and tied off with a purple ribbon, but this year, there was a card on top. Instinctively, I closed the door behind me before I moved towards it, as if I was doing something wrong and didn’t want to get caught, and I reached for the card.

Only 9 years before you gave up. I had hoped for better from you. She was such a good girl.

The message was written in slanted, thin letters and ended in a drawn smiley face.

A slow boiling queasiness had started in my stomach. I let the card slip through my fingers to the ground and I grabbed the edge of the large box and I started to peel back the paper. The box beneath was plain white and covered by a lid.

I paused, panting, sweating despite the cold, my heart hammering against my chest, and I fought back the bile rising in my throat.

I could only bring myself to lift the lid ever so slightly, just enough to see inside. Just enough to see the thin brown hair and the pale face with its slack jaw and sightless eyes peeking back at me from within a bed of red and green tissue paper. Just enough to see the edge of a bright purple coat wrapped around her emaciated body.

Just enough to see that Libby had finally come home.

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