The 911 missing person call from the Sunnyside Nursing Home came in at 8:45 PM on Christmas Eve. My partner and I had signed on for the extra holiday shift because we didn't have a family waiting at home for us. We were just a couple of twice-divorced, bitter single folks counting down the hours to retirement, living on donuts, coffee, and adrenalin.
As we headed toward the outskirts of town where the nursing home was located, the heavy falling snow made the roads slippery, and visibility was low. There were better nights than this for a search and rescue operation, that was certain. The thermometer wasn't helping us either, as it was hovering at -2 degrees. My biggest fear was that the missing resident had decided to go for a walk in the nearby woods, probably dressed only in a nightgown and slippers.
"So, what do you think, Tucker? Senior Citizen flavored ice-pop?" I asked my partner.
Looking at me over his black-framed glasses, he just shook his head and replied, "Jesus, Smitty. You are the most vile woman I've ever met. Let's hope not."
"Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em. It's two degrees below zero, it's a blizzard, and the missing woman is probably half-naked."
Silently scanning the woods alongside the road, Tucker just kept his thoughts to himself as we approached the driveway to the home. The cruiser plowed through six inches of wet, heavy snow, and we pulled up to the front entrance as an employee waved us in.
Stomping the snow off our boots, the nurse ushered us down the quiet hallway that smelled of ammonia and lemon pledge. "Birdy seemed just fine at dinner. We had a special Christmas Eve meal with a lovely cake for dessert. She was singing along to the carols the high school chorus was performing. I don't understand it. She has been fairly lucid these past couple of weeks."
The nurse unlocked a door, and we entered "Birdy's" sanctuary. "We will look around, but I don't know if we'll find any clues. Have you contacted her family?" I asked, pawing through well-organized drawers and flipping through neatly hung garments in the closet. A sudden flash of familiarity went through my mind as I caught the distinctive scent of Muguet de Bois perfume. My Aunt Dolly had worn that daily, and it was one of her favorite Christmas gifts from me. A sudden feeling of connectivity overwhelmed me. I pushed that sucker back down where it belonged. I told myself that this was business, not a family reunion with ghosts.
"Oh, her family has all moved away, the ones she had left. Her husband passed away last year around this time, and we thought we were going to lose her too," the nurse explained.
Tucker piped up, "We will take a quick look around the property, but I think I will call the search and rescue team in case she has wandered into the woods. There's a creek running through just a few dozen yards from the property, and we don't want to take a chance."
"Oh, dear. That's not good. Well, whatever I can do for you, please let me know. Please don't hesitate to look in all the common areas. We've checked the resident rooms already," The nurse informed us.
Tucker, always more astute to the human condition than I was, commented, "You don't think she wandered away on purpose because she was thinking about her late husband, do you?"
"Naw. She was probably glad to not deal with his snoring and bad habits anymore. I'll bet she's shacking up with some hot, young orderly," I snapped.
"Never mind," he snapped back, rolling his eyes at me.
We made the rounds of the dining room, kitchen, and physical therapy rooms with no luck. Tucker pulled his watch cap on over his thinning, gray hair. "Time to go for a walk in the snow. You coming?"
"Do I have a freakin' choice?" I whined.
"Nope," he declared with a smirk.
"I didn't think so," I glumly concluded as I pulled my cap and gloves on, following him out into the frigid night air, my nostrils sticking together with every breath and my cheeks prickling in the cold wind. "Sheesh, I hope she was dressed warmly, this is brutal out here, even with our winter gear," I opined.
"Chances are she was in a nightgown and bedroom slippers, Smitty. I'm gonna call in the search and rescue team and grab some blankets and a first aid kit from the cruiser."
He handed me the emergency blankets and kit while he radioed in the call. Once we knew the team was en route, we began a careful search of the property, looking for footprints, which were hard to find with all the fresh snow that had fallen. Having no luck in the parking lot or yard of the home, we began walking down the road twenty feet in either direction, looking for any hint of our "Birdy".
Nothing to the South, so we turned around and headed North, carefully brushing snow away as we trudged through tire ruts so our footprints wouldn't cover up the missing person's prints. About twenty-five feet down the road, we found a pair of twisted and bent wire-framed glasses that had been crushed into a tire rut.
"What do you think, Tuck? Abduction? Rescuer?"
"Hard to say. I don't see any signs of a struggle near the glasses. Maybe it was a good Samaritan, and they took her to the hospital? I'll radio it in to check hospitals," he told me as he touched the radio on his shoulder that buzzed into life.
I walked forward about ten paces and could barely make out the outline of a small, bare footprint highlighted by my flashlight in the crystalline snow. Oh boy. It was worse than I thought. She wasn't even wearing bedroom slippers. How on earth did an eighty-year-old woman walk this far in this weather barefoot?
"Tuck, Tuck! I found footprints. You aren't going to believe this, but our Birdy is barefoot in this howling storm."
This missing person had become "our Birdy" in less than half an hour. This is why cops can't leave their work at work. Our work is all about human beings. Whether we arrest or save them, they infiltrate our souls with their troubles and seep their pain into our hearts, whether we want them to or not.
Birdy had grabbed a hold of my heart as soon as I smelled that familiar old-fashioned French perfume my Aunt used to wear. For Tuck, it probably happened as soon as he heard the call. He's like that, always trying to hide his tender heart under a gruff exterior. But he can't fool me. We'd been riding together for seven years, and not much gets past me. Tucker had held me together and kept me employed while recovering from my second divorce. It was messy and sad and took me forever to get over. He listened quietly, never offering to fix me. That was all I needed: an ear.
Tuck knelt down in the snow beside me to examine the footprint. Running his gloved hands down his face in frustration, he turned to me and said, "This just keeps getting worse. It's a long way to walk barefoot in this weather. She must be one determined lady. Let's stay close to the ground and see if more prints show up."
He found the next set of prints: one bare foot and one with a slipper still on. At least she still had one slipper. We were hunched over, practically crawling on the hard-packed snow, while the storm kept barreling down, relentlessly blasting our faces with bitter, stinging, icy pellets.
Tuck looked up at me with concern. "Smitty, you holding up? You need a break?" he said, pulling a handkerchief out of his uniform pants pocket for me.
"Thanks, yeah. I'm just worried about our Birdy. She's not going to be okay, is she, Tuck?" I asked, wiping the tears and snow from my face.
"I can't even think that far ahead. We're thirty years younger, dressed for the weather, and struggling. I just want to find her, is all."
Flashing red lights lit up the snowbanks and danced off from the whirling snow, causing us to move to the side of the road as the search and rescue teams approached. I flagged them down and told the lead team they needed to search the wooded area behind the nursing home to rule out the danger of Birdy falling into the frigid waters of the creek. Once they were on their way, Tucker and I resumed our painstaking search for tiny footprints.
An unusual glint caught my eye as we crept along, searching for clues. I shone my light on it and was rewarded with a broken gold necklace with a locket hanging from the twisted chain. I held it up in the air, and Tucker pushed himself up from a crouch with a groan and shuffled over to take a look. I wiped the slush off the locket and pried it open with freezing fingers. On one side was an oval frame with a tiny photograph of a dapper young man with dark hair combed into a duck's tail. On the other side was a similar photo of a pretty girl with short, blonde curls neatly tucked into a pink chiffon head scarf. A perfect fifties couple who probably did the twist and listened to Chubby Checker together. Maybe they went to the malt shop and high school hops.
Birdy was now more than a memorable scent or an elderly missing person to us. She was real. A person who had lived a life and deserved to be found so she could keep living. We stayed on the trail until the little footprints disappeared into a snowbank at the side of the road.
Tuck reached out and steadied me as I climbed the bank, wondering at the agility of our little Birdy. I had all I could do to not wipe out in the two feet of snow, even with help from Tucker. Once settled at the base of the hill's incline, I helped Tuck keep his balance on the slippery slope as we climbed. A fresh wind blew the powdery snow aside, revealing more tiny prints that had previously made it up this mound.
"Where was she going?" I asked Tuck, troubled that this woman would have ventured out in the storm on some mysterious mission that only she understood.
"Beats me. But I don't think she was out here wandering. I think she knew exactly where she was going. Just a hunch." He replied.
We slipped and slid to a small tree stand in the middle of an old farm field, bordered on two sides with haphazard rock walls that stood two feet high and were covered almost completely by the storm. An unnatural lump was evident in the snow near an old apple tree. A sick feeling began in the back of my throat and traveled to my mouth as I retched up my last cup of coffee.
"No! Birdy, we're here, we're here. Don't give up!" I yelled as the blizzard winds stole my words, rendering me voiceless.
Tuck reached out and took my arm gently. "Smitty, Darlene, we've found her. But she's not alive. Okay? Look at me. It's Okay. We did what we could, and we'll take her back home. Give me the blankets. You stay here."
"No. I don't want Birdy to be alone. I'm coming with you. I'm all right. I want to be there with her, Tuck."
Shaking his head, Tucker knew not to argue with me. We approached the lump under the snow with caution and gently brushed the accumulation off from our dear Birdy, who had died with a brilliant smile on her face and her eyes open and shining happily in the glow of my flashlight. So untroubled and young-looking was she that I immediately could tell she was the pretty girl in the locket.
We placed the blanket over her, rolling her over so her body was completely shrouded and protected from the frigid cold and wind. I called in to dispatch and told them to send the search and rescue home, as Tucker and I had found the missing person deceased in the snow. I gave them the last known location before we left the road, and dispatch would send the coroner's vehicle to that location.
As always, Tucker was more aware of his hunches than I was. Before we hefted Birdy's little body between us for the hike down the hill to the road, he walked closer to the apple tree where Birdy had spent her last moments on Earth. Brushing away the windswept, caked snow from the trunk of the gnarled little tree, Tucker waved me over.
'Jimmy 💘 Birdy'
Neither of us dared to utter a word, as our emotions were too raw to go down that road tonight. We just solemnly looked at each other, picked up Birdy's little body between us, and retraced our steps down the hill where the coroner's van was awaiting us.
With Birdy left in the capable hands of the coroner, Tucker and I returned to the nursing home with the bad news. It was almost 3AM, the end of our shift. I didn't want to go home alone to my bare-bones apartment to think about how Birdy must have suffered in the frigid weather. But I didn't want to make Tucker babysit me. I was not a needy woman. I was a cop.
Driving silently back to the station, Tucker drummed his thumbs on the wheel and said, "Are you hungry? You wanna stop at the diner and have a Christmas breakfast with me? I'm starved."
There was a Santa Clause! "Yes, that would be great. I'm hungry, too. I guess I really don't want to go back home and think about tonight anyway," I admitted.
"Me too. Imagine loving someone so much you can't go on living without them? That must have been some romance, huh?"
"Hmm. Yeah." I half-heartedly agreed, thinking of the months I spent wanting to die after my second marriage broke up. I got it and was sad that Tucker had never felt like that in his life. He had two marriages and three kids and could walk away without missing a beat.
We stretched out the breakfast until dawn began to spread its fiery wings across the sky despite the clouds and the sprinkles of snow still falling. Clearly, neither one of us wanted to be alone right now.
As I stirred another creamer into my third cup of coffee, I glanced up at Tucker, catching him eyeballing me, then he quickly looked away.
"What? What? Do I have snot hanging down my face?" I snarled at him.
"No. I was going to say you look, um, good with rosy cheeks from our walk in the woods."
"Yeah, I'm a real beauty in my black cap and frizzy red hair, right?"
"To me, you are," he stated calmly and decisively. "I can't imagine going through what we did tonight with anyone but you."
"Okay. I'm not going home alone," I sputtered, trying to cover up my shock and surprise at his sudden admission. "We either stay here for the rest of our lives or one of us will have to invite the other home, and I hate my apartment."
Tucker did something very unusual for him. He reached over and took my hand in his big, weathered paw. "How about you follow me to my apartment. It's not a mansion, but at least it's not your place."
Did we carve our names into the trunk of that little apple tree in the Spring?
About the Creator
G-Is for String is now available in Ebook, paperback and audiobook by Audible!
G-Is for String: Oh, Canada! and Save One Bullet are also available on Amazon in Ebook and Paperback.