FICTION April 7, 2023

The Girl Goes Missing

The girl goes missing, and her family sounds the alarm.

She has never been missing before—not like this, not for so long without warning. The girl is the light of the whole kingdom: radiant smile, golden laughter, lilac perfume. The king and queen never imagined this would happen. 

The advisors say, “All girls wander at her age, even princesses.” But, the king and queen know better, know that the girl is safe and loved and has no reason to leave on her own. Know that their story is different from every other story—or was supposed to be different—that in their story, the girl was never supposed to go missing at all. 

They recount for the advisors the day they brought the girl home, small and pink, how she smiled weeks before she was expected to and laughed soon after. They are trying to say, “How could that joy become this sorrow?” It feels inconceivable. 

What they do not know—or maybe know but do not realize—is that in every story, the girl goes missing. It’s the way of the world. 

The girl goes missing, and maybe she is in a tower with a sorceress who climbs her long hair. 

And maybe she is in a cabin with seven dwarfs working in the mines. 

And maybe she has pricked her finger and fallen asleep.

And maybe she is in a castle, teaching a beast to read.

In every story, the girl goes missing.

The king and queen throw themselves into finding her. They forget to sleep, to eat, sometimes even to breathe. Search parties chase every lead, investigators excavate everything that might be a clue, warriors threaten and interrogate. Someone must know something.

Their subjects write letters, letters that they must believe are a comfort. Letters that begin, “I understand. My girl went missing, too.” 

It’s then the queen remembers when she went missing. She’d forgotten until now. She was twelve or thirteen, that age when so many girls disappear, and she can’t remember how she was recovered. 

The girl goes missing, and maybe she has lost her voice and now lives on land.

And maybe she has been turned into a swan by a wizard. 

And maybe she is buried in the desert in Juarez.

And maybe she is discarded behind a dumpster.

And maybe she is hiding in her room with the curtains drawn dark.  

In every story, the girl goes missing.

In this story, after three days and three nights, the girl is found. The kingdom rejoices. Then the nightmares begin for the girl, for the king, for the queen. The celebrations play on by day, but at night, the king and queen comfort the girl, comfort each other. In every story, the girl goes missing, but after the story, then what happens? The king and queen post guards outside the girl’s bedroom. They watch her every movement. They question and reason and try to understand. They wonder how they will ever move on. 

Throughout the kingdom, parents write to ask what the girl did, what the parents did, how this could have all been avoided. They want a way out of this story. There is no way out of this story. This is the story. 

The princess pours herself into her subjects. She reassures them that she is back now for good. She smiles at them with her radiant smile, laughs her golden laugh. Her subjects sigh in relief that all is well, but the queen hears the difference, understands that some part of her girl is gone forever.

Eventually, the girl grows up, and the kingdom forgets that she was ever missing. They are too preoccupied with their own daughters, the way they have begun to disappear, slowly, one by one. The girl too forgets, like her mother forgot, forgets until she has a little girl of her own: pink, squinty face, tiny baby grunts. Then, she remembers, and her dreams take her back to nightmares. Her daughter smiles and laughs and coos, and the girl cannot imagine a future in which she goes missing. She pours over the old stories, tries to find even one exception. The girl goes missing and she is lost forever, or she goes missing and she is found but a piece of her is missing, or she goes missing and she is found and then goes missing again. The girl’s room fills with towers and towers of books. Every story the girl reads is the same. The girl goes missing. She cannot find another story.

It’s then that the girl takes out a pen. She holds her sleeping baby against her chest, breath soft through parted lips, eyelashes fluttering. The girl holds her baby, and she holds a pen, and she begins to write. 

In this story, the girl is here. She has always been here and always will be. In this story, she battles sorcerers and dragons and sea monsters but never disappears. In this story, even if the girl is cut down, she remains. In this story, when the journey is hard, there are more girls, all lined up in a row, refusing to fade away. The girl writes and writes until her arm is numb with writing. She writes her daughter a new story, and she will read the story aloud every night, like a prayer. And, one day, if her girl goes missing, and the advisors say that all girls go missing, and the kingdom writes letters that recount how in every story, the girl goes missing, the girl will stop them. She will hold up this story, its pages by then worn through by its nightly retelling, and she will say, No, not in every story, not this one. 

Courtney Craggett is the author of the story collection Tornado Season (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). Her short stories appear in The Pinch, Mid-American Review, Baltimore Review, Washington Square Review, CutBank, and Monkeybicycle, among other journals. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of North Texas and teaches at Weber State University.