ELLEN BIRKETT MORRIS
Author Feature - February 2021
Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Surrender, a poetry chapbook, and Lost Girls, a short story collection. Her poetry has appeared in The Clackamas Literary Review, Juked, Gastronomica, and Inscape, among other journals. Morris won top prize in the 2008 Binnacle Ultra-Short Edition and was a finalist for the 2019 and 2020 Rita Dove Poetry Prize.
When I was eighteen, thirteen-year-old Dana Lampton disappeared from the strip mall across from her family’s apartment. My mind should have been on other things—guys, college, getting past ID checker at the door of the club—but Dana’s disappearance captured my attention. We lived in the same neighborhood, and the nearness of the crime creeped me out.
As a kid, even before Dana disappeared, I was sure that I would be the girl that was taken. I was always on edge, waiting for the next catastrophe—the next fight, my dad moving out, my world collapsing around me as my mother cried day after day.
With me gone, those “Don’t tell your father” shopping trips wouldn’t have happened. My dad wouldn’t have anyone to complain to about my mom either— her “stupidity”, her “tackiness.”
Not that anyone would notice if I was gone. My parents were so busy fighting that a change of scenery would have been appealing, at times. Why not abduction? The kidnapping of Patty Hearst made the possibility seem even more real to me. Forget the fact that my family had trouble putting together enough money to take a family vacation or buy a new car—much less raise a pile of ransom money. After Patty was taken, any middle-aged man walking down my street with his hands in his pockets was cause for alarm.
I almost freaked when my new friend’s hippie dad pulled up to the yard where we were playing and yelled for us to get into the van. Images of child slavery rolled through my head. I’d be kept in some commune, forced to mix batches of granola and make homemade yogurt day and night.
I even dreamed about being kidnapped. My captor bore a striking resemblance to the 70s television character Archie Bunker. In the dream, his mother, a kindly gray-haired lady, offered me cake. I woke up in a cold sweat, convinced I had tasted the icing.
As time passed, I realized that I was just too old to be kidnapped anymore. Dana had taken my place. When she came up missing, the FBI combed every inch of the nearby field. The local paper ran her picture once a week for the first year. When I saw her parents on the television, arm in arm, united in their grief, I had a flash of envy. My parents had divorced four years before, wrapped up in their own lives.
While I tried to figure out high school and how keep my grades up on my own, my parents requested my presence for drunken, midnight weeping sessions and second marriages. I always showed up.
Years went by, and still there was no sign of Dana. How does somebody just vanish? In my imagination, I see her getting older, locked in at night, moving from apartment to apartment. Somebody’s prize.
And me, on the outside, following my usual routine. School, dates, graduation, college, first job. Sometimes I feel like I’m living for the both of us. I stop and look around, noticing my freedom, the feeling of the sun on my face, my ability to hop in my car and go wherever I want.
Why Dana? I could only guess it was an accident of timing. Who knows how often we cruise the aisles of the grocery store next to a sex offender or drive away from the convenience store as a robber pulls into the lot?
Is it fate? Karma? There are no free rides; that’s for sure. All we can do is watch our backs and hope for the best. I can’t seem to forget her. Each birthday, I do a quick calculation comparing her would-be age to my own. Every few years, I come here and leave something for Dana— tampons, an old set of car keys, a graduation cap. She’ll be 21 this year.
Tonight I’ll leave this bottle of Jack Daniel’s. By morning it’ll be gone.