Open 2024 Stories - Toni Kochensparger


Poster Child

By Toni Kochensparger

Mark and Molly hadn’t been allowed outside on their own since that young girl got took. The kids on their block all disappeared, too, all at once like a dissipation of fog, as their parents comprehended the news--what one fall afternoon’s carnival of blue and red lights meant, an absence of a child whose face was quickly tacked up in all of the stores anybody went to so it was like she vanished and was everyplace, all at once.


After a month went by and the little girl was still missing, some of the parents eased up. A boy down their street, playing basketball. A pair of brothers, back on their bikes. Mark and Molly still stuck inside a cocoon of their mother’s ecstatic fear.


“I told you. I fucking told you!” she had screamed when she spotted Molly in the front yard, talking to a friend. She was harsher with her daughter, who was older than Mark but a girl and, besides that, the same age as the one that was took.


“It’s so stupid,” Molly whispered to Mark that night, from the top bunk. “Nothing’s going to happen.”


A whole argument the neighbors could probably hear, a week later when Molly tried to fully sneak out of the house: “What do you mean I’m grounded? We’re already grounded.”


Which hadn’t won any points for either of the kids. Instead, their mother chose their favorite items (Mark’s Legos and Molly’s clock radio) and threatened to remove them from the house permanently if they ever went outside without her, again.


“Mom, you can’t--”


“I can do whatever I want if it means keeping the two of you safe.”


Sometimes she would shake during these conversations, which Mark told Molly later reminded him of a ticking bomb from cartoons. Her mood was never great, even before the kidnapping--always teetering on the edge of a knife blade, only now the knife was thinner and was shaking and she had started taking pills.


“She’ll catch you just like last time,” Mark said to his sister, the night Jessie Ferguson, a girl from their school who lived two blocks away, had invited Molly to a sleepover and she was seriously thinking of doing it.


“She’s not going to catch me. She’s asleep.”


“What if she gets up to check on us?”


“She’s not going to do that,” said Molly, stuffing clothes into her book bag. “She doesn’t check on us.”


“She does.”


“Look: would you shut up?” Molly asked, shattering her younger brother’s heart. “I put a pillow under my blanket. Jessie’s got an alarm clock and she knows about Mom so she’s gonna put the alarm real early so I’ll be back before she even wakes up.”


“I don’t want her to take away my Legos.”


“She won’t.”


“But she said if either of us--”


“I told you: Jessie has an alarm. Okay?” She zipped her book bag. “Just: relax.”


Mark woke up at four AM to the sound of his mother screaming.


“Where is she?”


A lightning bolt of fear ripped through his skin as he scrambled for an answer. Mark was no good with a lie. But that meant...the truth meant...


“So you knew,” his mother said, hurtling the pillow across the room, at their toy chest.


“I told you...I told you both...I told you both...” Mark could hear his mother muttering from down the hall at six. She had finally left him at five but he hadn’t even closed his eyes once. He just lay there, paralyzed by the fact of it all, until he heard the sound of the front door and the wrath of God and the world’s end.


“It’s your fault, you know,” Mark said a week later, sitting on the bottom bunk. Molly had had the audacity to complain about the sound he made when he colored, a soft scratching. “You wouldn’t even be able to hear me if we still had the radio.”


“It’s not the radio. It’s my radio.”


“Yeah, well you’re who got it taken away. And my Legos.”


It wasn’t just the Legos and the radio, either. Molly’s escape had caused such a manic outrage in their mother that she had drug their entire toy box into her room and their books, too. All they had left was homework and some colored pencils. Each afternoon took a year.


“I might leave again, anyway,” Molly said. “She already took everything away. I might as well go.”


“She’s just scared,” said Mark. “Because of that girl.”


“Maybe I’ll run away completely,” said Molly. “Maybe then she’ll get what she deserves.”


Pictures of the missing girl seemed to double by the month, wallpapering Kettering, Ohio. Any hope of their mother’s anxiety subsiding was dashed every time they went grocery shopping or to the post office or watched the news. Each time she saw it seemed like the first time, like the girl just got took again--these trips with their mother to the pharmacy where she’d reach past the postered image for her medication, which by this point had doubled in dose.


“Do you think they’ll ever find her?” Mark asked one night, in bed.


“I think she’s dead,” said Molly. “I think she’s been dead since the beginning.”


“She’s not dead. She’s missing.”


“She’s dead,” said Molly. “They shouldn’t be looking for her where they’re looking. They should be trying to find where she’s buried.”


The vanishing act had been on for three months when the kids saw the dog. By that point--by November--Molly was floating running away on a nightly basis, a conversation that made earthquakes in Mark’s stomach, and their mother had made it more than clear that, if anything like the night at Jessie Ferguson’s ever happened again, the pair would sincerely wish they were dead, including one idea where they would have to go to bed the moment they finished their homework every day, no matter how bright out it was, and another where she’d take them out of school, altogether, and they would all move out of the suburbs completely and live somewhere far from any friends they’d ever made and life, as they’d known it, to this point.


“I’m going crazy,” Molly said. They were in their room and both out of homework to do and Molly was pacing the wood floor into knots.


“Don’t say you’re going to run away, again,” said Mark, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyelids and watching the colors that made. “I hate when you do that.”


“Well, I really am, this time.”




“Why not? I mean: there’s nothing keeping me from doing it. There’s nothing to do here. There’s no reason to stay.” Mark’s heart broke, again. “I mean: she’s downstairs, right? She’s downstairs, watching TV. She won’t hear me if--” and just as Molly turned toward the window, it happened.


The dog met the front of the pickup truck at five over the allowed limit. The right side of the fender clipped it which sent the animal scattering, spinning like a pencil on a desktop, all lifeless and unresisting, until it came to a stop on the concrete.




The two of them watched as the truck’s tires screeched and a man stuck his head out the window and looked back at the animal.


“Oh, good: he can help. He’s going to help it,” said Molly.


And then the two of them watched as the man disappeared back into the cab of the truck and drove off.


“Mark, it’s...” Molly’s face paled. Her eyes were locked on the dog. “It’s still breathing.”


“He just left,” said Mark, eyes wide.


“We have to go,” said Molly. “We have to get it. We have to--”


“We can’t go outside.”


“If we don’t go get it, it’s going to die.”


“But Mom--”


“That’s stupid. No. No, we need to--”


“You can’t go out there.”


“You can’t stop me.”


Mark’s eyes welled.


“No!” he said, almost shouting at her. In the street, the dog’s breaths were still steady, but slowing. From their window, they could still see it twitch in awful bursts.


“What do you think we should do? Just let it bleed to death?” Molly asked.


“We can’t go outside. She’ll kill us. She’ll...she’ll make us move.”


“She’s not really going to do that.”


“She did everything else.”


“That’s different than moving, that’s...Mark. It’s still moving. It’s still alive.”


“I won’t let you,” said Mark, stepping in between Molly and the window. “You can’t.”


“You can’t tell me what to do.”


“I won’t--”


“You can’t stop me from saving the dog.”


“It’s not just you!” said Mark, in a voice Molly had never heard him use, before. She paused. For the first time since the truck hit it, she wasn’t looking at the dog.




“It’s not just you who gets in trouble when you do stupid things. It’s me, too. I get in trouble. I have to go to bed early. I lose my Lego sets. I have to deal with all the the the...I don’t want to lose all my friends.”


There were tears in Mark’s eyes, hot tears streaming down his face and heavy, dew-soaked eyelashes and snot and, for a moment, Molly could see him, again. For a moment, it wasn’t just her life she was living in. For a moment, it was her brother’s, too. It was both of them. For a moment, she could see.


And then, beyond her brother’s heaving sobs, she could see the dog stop breathing. And she would never, ever forgive him for getting in her way




They wouldn’t find out what happened to the took girl until they were in their late teens. In middle school, their mother pulled through on her promise to upend the family and moved the three of them to the country to live so, even though everyone found out what happened to the girl six years into the search, the news took longer to make it their direction, by which point their mother’s lithium intake was off the charts and the kids were long-used to turning down invites from friends. They did and they did not have each other for company. They kept to themselves.


The girl had been playing outside when she was struck by a car. The people driving panicked and put her body in the trunk and drove off. It took six years for the person in the passenger seat to fess up but, by then, of course, the damage was done.


Toni Kochensparger from US was born in Kettering, Ohio, and now lives in Queens. Their short stories can be found in Kelp Journal, Alien Buddha, Free Spirit, Two Two One, and Scribble.


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