It was winter when they started going missing. The kids from Dunburry. An eight year old boy was first. A tragedy, to be sure, but the last time anyone saw him, he’d been heading out toward the lake. Most suspected he’d wandered on to a weak spot and gone through. The town would have to wait until it started to thaw to comb the bottom for any remains.
A few weeks later, the Kellie girl vanished. She was twelve and walking to her grandma’s house just a street over from home.
After that, the Martin boy disappeared, and then the Dunlap twins and the Kim boy. All between the ages of five and fourteen over the span of a couple months.
Even after the press releases urging caution were played across every news outlet in town and the curfew was put in place, we still lost Shauna White. She was the last that year.
I joined the force the following fall. One of a small station made up of dozen cops. As the rookie, I took on the more banal cases: the ones between exes disputing who gets the blender and the noise complaints from overly sensitive neighbors. That and run-ins with the regular drunks and junkies that populate small towns was the bread and butter of Dunburry PD.
There was only one board in the office, one covered in smiling kids’ photos, that remained unsolved.
A new picture was added to it in December that year, just days before Christmas. A grinning, red haired girl with big, round glasses and braces. Morgan Crownsley.
“It’s happening again, isn’t it,” Shelly, the precinct secretary, said sadly, voicing the same thought we all had.
We called in recruits from neighboring towns. Some FBI guys showed up. The show of police had never been so strong as it was after Morgan’s disappearance.
It didn’t stop Ray Pollock from being next only two weeks later. He was a few days shy of being ten, on his way home from the arcade. He’d told his parents he was getting a ride with a friend, but had decided to walk after his friend’s mom was late. His photo was pinned up beside Morgan’s.
There were some leads, phoned in claims that they’d seen Such N’So in the same area Ray had been in or anonymous letters claiming the writer had taken all the children. We followed up on every tiny crumb thrown our way. Most were dead ends, some were outright hoaxes, and the few that seemed even the least bit promising quickly unraveled.
Paranoia gripped Dunburry. Children weren’t allowed out alone or, in some cases, at all. Schools saw a spike in absences. The parks and playgrounds were empty. Parents were tense and angry, mostly at us cops. They demanded answers. We didn’t have any.
Two more children would vanish before the winter was over. Down from the previous year’s number, but no less horrifying. No less heartbreaking.
They were dubbed “The Dunburry Eleven”.
As spring rolled in and the snow receded, every lake and pond in the area was swept. We spent hours every day going through the woods, poking around in caves, searching abandoned properties. But there were never any kids. Just more disappointment.
I’d drawn the short staw and was working the front desk the day the call came in. It was a frantic, fast talking woman on the line, and she was shouting at me before I’d finished my greeting.
“I think I’ve found them. Oh God, you need to get out here! Oh God…”
It took a few minutes for her to tell me where “here” was. She had been hiking in the woods about twenty miles outside of town in the national park reserve by Big Bend River when she made her discovery. She’d thought clearly enough to mark where she’d been on the map before running back to her car and hightailing to the nearest gas station to use their phone.
Half of the force was tearing up the highway as soon as I hung up. Because I’d taken the call, I was allowed to join them. We stopped off at the gas station long enough to pick up the woman, Gabrielle, and then continued on, a line of blaring, flashing sirens.
When asked what she’d found, Gabrielle just buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
“The children,” was all she could say.
The turn off from the highway put us on a poorly paved road that turned to dirt. Our convoy wound through the woods, to the lot where Gabrielle had been parked. She handed her map off to my sergeant and pointed out the route she’d taken. Two officers remained behind with her to try and get a further statement. The rest of us followed the path she’d created for us.
It was chilly in those woods despite the sunlight coming in through the treetops. Everything was green and lush and alive, and marching through it in our uniforms and gear was a tiring challenge. At any other time, I might have thought of it as beautiful. Now it felt far too oppressive.
Up ahead, Sarge held out an arm to stop us. We must have reached the spot marked on Gabrielle’s map. He crept ahead, hand on his holster, and ducked behind a tree to take surveillance. When he saw no movement, he nodded for us to fan out and approach.
The trees were thinned out a bit here, allowing the sun to pour brightly in, and someone had made use of the more open area. An archway marked its entrance. A handful of tiny playhouses had been built at the base of the trunks. Scattered around the houses were rough park benches, rocks laid out to form the borders of paths, and hand painted road signs. Everything was handmade. All were child sized.
The miniature village was not empty.
Eleven little bodies in various stages of decay were posed throughout. They’d been dressed in the clothing of an earlier era. The early 1900s, I thought numbly. One was seated in a house window. Another on a park bench. A pair were strung up to one of the signs so that they appeared to be standing side by side. One with red hair and big, round glasses was lying on a blanket with her hands folded behind her head. Her rotted face pointed up towards the sky.
All of them had had their chests split open, and from inside them sprouted bouquets of bright wildflowers.
More than one of us turned away, desperately trying to keep from retching. I heard my sergeant take a deep, steadying breath, and then the crackle of his radio.
“Dispatch, this is Sergeant Donoghue,” he said solemnly into his shoulder. “We’ve located the missing children.”
While we waited for the crime scene unit to arrive, we carefully picked through the village for any kind visible of evidence. We all tried to avoid looking at the children as much as we could. I reached the far end of the macabre setup and turned around again. That was when I saw that the back of the archway had words crudely carved into it. Carefully, I crossed towards it again and shielded my eyes against the sun to read it.
Only four words, but they made my heart sink deeper into my roiling stomach. Somehow, they just made everything seem that much sicker. I looked away, back at the children, still posed with their floral bursts, and I wondered how anyone could look at what had been done here and think those words fitting.
How anyone could do this.
I glanced up at the sign again and shuddered uncontrollably.
Forever young, forever beautiful