The third time the driver saw the billboard she read the name. Racing 70 miles an hour southbound on I-85 made it difficult to get more than one detail from the billboard on a single pass.
The first pass she registered the plea for help. “MISSING PERSON!” in enormous red letters. Almost by accident, because she glanced that way, the words got the driver’s attention.
Without meaning to, the very next day, racing 70-miles-an-hour southbound, she focused on the woman’s picture. An almond-shaped head with short hair, the kind of cut in fashion in the late 80’s but now unmistakably mom hair. A little too poofy with some feathery waves, short on the sides over the ears and longer, mullet-ish, in the back. Round eyes and a narrow nose.
The third time she read the name. Margaret Allen Ragland. She was probably one of those Southern women who had turned her maiden name into her middle name. The driver wondered absently about the woman on the billboard. She didn’t slow down, she didn’t consider stopping, she didn’t wonder if she knew the woman. She knew she didn’t. She didn’t know anybody named Margaret. Or Meg.
In her younger days Meg had been a karaoke super star. She had belted Tanya Tucker after four bourbon and diets. She had smoked long, thin menthol cigarettes and danced with abandon, shoving her ass out and rocking her hips back and forth. Her lips clung to the cigarette and she clapped her hands off rhythm.
Sweet Home Alabama had been played at her wedding reception. She hadn’t smoked then. Her mama wouldn’t let her. So she snuck behind the building with her best friend and took drags off the cigarette Stacey held to her lips. Then she laughed, choked on the smoke, said, “I love you, girl!” and ran back into the party.
Meg hadn’t meant to marry Whittaker Ragland. His buddies called him Whit but she had always called him “Mick” since that’s what it had sounded like he said when they met in that bar in Tulsa. Mick didn’t mind, he thought it was cute that the pixie Meg had a special name for him. He loved her instantly even if she did drink more than a woman should.
Meg’s mama told her the same thing. “Ladies don’t get sauced, Meg,” she would say. “Ladies don’t slurp the rims of their cocktail glasses, Meg.”
Meg cowered behind her eyelashes, ducked her head, turned away from her mama. The perfect southern gentleman, Whittaker Ragland made up for the un-ladylike parts of Meg. Meg’s mama loved him, even if he was too good for Meg. Maybe because he was too good for Meg.
“Don’t mess this up, young lady,” Meg’s mama would say to the 20-year-old Meg. “Men like Whitt are few and far between.”
“His name is Mick,” Meg would say, mostly under her breath or into the rim of her cocktail glass.
The third time the driver passed the billboard she read the name: Margaret Allen Ragland. She didn’t know anyone named Margaret. Or Maggie.
After giving birth to her third boy she had sighed heavily, taken the baby from the doctor and passed him right to her husband who appeared happy to have another one. But Maggie was mad. That moment, that hard labor, that fear when the baby hadn’t cried right away, the three weeks of bed rest leading up to it, being such a pain-in-the-ass pregnancy that she’d sworn she wouldn’t do it again. The weight from the second one wasn’t even gone yet when she’d gotten pregnant with the third. All that and another damned boy.
Maggie tried desperately to recover from that initial anger. But when the baby wouldn’t nurse it just got worse. She combed her hair and stared down at the baby in his bouncy chair, his elder brother sitting indian-style beside him, stacking blocks and gnawing on them now and then. The eldest boy sat on the bed above his brothers, hands furiously snapping the buttons on a video game paddle.
Maggie sighed. Brushed her long chestnut hair. Tried singing to herself. Couldn’t hear her own voice over the noise of the TV, the children, the heartache of those three damned boys. Grabbed a pair of scissors off the vanity and cut one long lock clean off.
The third time she passed the billboard, the driver read the name: Margaret Allen Ragland. She didn’t know anyone named Margaret Allen.
The Allen family had established three Pumpers Gas Stations in town. It was a good, honest living and they finally had enough money to fund dance classes. So the second daughter, Mary Margaret, enrolled in ballet. The eldest was too old to begin, it was a lost cause her mother was told. Mary Margaret, though, was just four and her legs were already long and shapely, her frame already wispy and lithe like a good dancer’s should be. Miss Suzanne stared with disdain at the elder sister and then gently nudged Mary Margaret into the room with the long mirrored walls.
Mrs. Allen took her older daughter’s hand and led her from the studio. They went for ice cream, sat on the bench outside of the small hut that served the pink bubble gum flavor Mary Margaret liked so much. But Mrs. Allen and the older sister got butterscotch and peppermint ice creams. They sat and ate quietly, secretly, while Mary Margaret danced.
Mrs. Allen imagined the look on her husband’s face when Mary Margaret wore her first tutu in her first dance recital. She imagined how proud he would be of her beautiful face framed with flowers, her hair swept into a severe bun, her lips painted red so they would show on stage. Mrs. Allen imagined him handing her cash for the costume deposits, $20 more than was due, so she could buy the oldest girl a circe, too. Mrs. Allen imagined the secrets that would come while Mary Margaret danced and she and Mary Margaret’s sister consoled themselves and each other for being unbeloved.
The third time the driver read the name, Margaret Allen Ragland, and imagined the life that woman must have led. Her hands gripped the steering wheel and she glanced into the back seat through the rearview mirror.
Her own small child played happily in her car seat with a stuffed pink snake named Finley.
I-85 stretched before her.
Meg had disappeared on a Tuesday. Things hadn’t been right with Mick for a long time. She had decided to leave. Her old boyfriend lived in Houston and they had reconnected on Facebook and she was going to him. She would leave Whittaker Ragland’s BMW in the GSP parking deck and board a plane with no intention of coming home. She would find Tommy who had kissed her with so much passion in the grass on her daddy’s front lawn all those years ago.
She would live in Houston. Texas! She hadn’t been to Texas since she was a little girl. It was a big place, she knew. She couldn’t wait. Tommy had assured her he would take care of her. Love her. Again. She couldn’t wait.
On Tuesday night Mick had choir practice at Rock Springs Baptist Church, that mammoth building that looked like a Civic Center. When he’d left she carried a small suitcase out to the BMW, lifting the garage door with the button on the wall. She hadn’t left a note or anything. She just left.
It wouldn’t have been hard to find her. Once they found the BMW, they knew she had boarded a plane. And her name was on the passenger list, a flight headed to Houston.
The flight arrived. She had arrived. Then what?
The short hair and flowered shirt she wore, that vacation smile, her eyes a little paler than the rest of her face like she had a sunglasses tan but had removed them for her photo to be snapped. The shell necklace, the kind of thing one only wears on a cruise or at the beach. That enormous picture of a happier time and those huge words “Have you seen?”
Women didn’t just walk away from their husbands. Not the Ragland family, kind, church-going people who had only ever helped everyone they had ever known. Meg may have been the only person who called him Mick, but they all knew who he was. He was a keeper, a catch, a good man, a pillar in the community.
Certainly not, the driver thought to herself. She shook her head slowly. Certainly Meg hadn’t just left.
Maggie may have.
Maggie had been so pissed at her boys and so pissed at her husband for only giving her boys, she may have left. She may have waited for someone to find her attractive, with her baby lumps and mommy folds, maybe she had needed that. Maybe Maggie was vain.
The boys worshipped her. Even the youngest, whom she despised, worshipped her. They thought she was a goddess when she cut their sandwiches into circles, when she made faces with grapes for eyes and French fries for hair. They thought she had the most beautiful voice when she sang Kelly Clarkson songs. They thought she was an artist when she colored pictures of puppies and Spiderman and kept the brown and red crayons in the lines.
The boys crawled into her lap and nuzzled her neck. They stroked her arm, the soft pale hair and the tiny brown freckles. The boys lined up to show her their teeth, brushed clean. They hugged her neck tight when she put them to bed. They fought, boys did, and they came home dirty and smelly.
They played sports in the house, knocking over her nice things and breaking them until she didn’t have any more nice things. They dripped popsicles on the furniture and carpet until everything was always dirty.
Her husband worshipped her, too. He told her she was beautiful while squeezing her tits in his palms. He pressed himself hard against her, kissed the back of her neck under her hair and then without it after she’d chopped it off.
The boys shouted and carried on to be louder than the TV and her husband turned the TV up louder so he could hear it. He put his hand behind his ear as she yelled to him across the living room but he didn’t tell the boys to hush and he didn’t turn the TV down.
And Maggie couldn’t hear the sound of her own voice. She stopped thinking she needed to be loved. By the time the third one could talk she had gotten over wanting to be loved. Love was slobbery and noisy and sticky. She needed to be heard. Maggie was desperate.
Maggie would have left, the driver decided firmly. All she would have needed is a place to go.
But Mary Margaret was killed.
Glancing into her blind spot, the driver moved the CRV toward the right lane in anticipation of the exit ramp. Headed home, she and the precious cargo in the back seat who was now singing hilariously to the Lady Gaga song on the radio.
Mary Margaret was good at everything she did. The apple of her father’s eye. Worshipped and adored by her friends, classmates, teachers, and teammates. She had danced and played volleyball, and taken a scholarship to college. She had been president of her sorority and courted by the most handsome boy on campus. She had married in the event of the season in Athens and wore red and yellow flowers in her hair. And then she had been murdered.
How did they even get that picture of her? That one on the billboard? It was ten years older than Mary Margaret had been when she went hiking alone and disappeared. They all knew she was dead. Georgia police had long since stopped looking for her. Her family hadn’t given up. Her older sister, the one who liked peppermint ice cream, convinced herself that Mary Margaret would return. Her father, wheelchair bound since a stroke on the day the Georgia police called, had kept praying for her.
But her mother, the one who had stolen from her father, skimming off the top every time he paid for something for Mary Margaret, her mother who had tried to give the elder sister something that Mary Margaret didn’t have, her mother was glad she was dead.
Her sister had married Mary Margaret’s husband, who killed himself shortly thereafter without leaving a note. Then her sister had paid for the billboard.
The third time she drove by she read the name: Margaret Allen Ragland and she wondered who that woman had been. She wondered if that had been her, would she recognize herself? Or would she be standing below that sign, staring up at those enormous words: “Have you seen?” and thinking, “no, no I haven’t.”
Or driving by, at 70 miles an hour, thinking what a terrible, desperate place to be. Wherever that place was.