Oshibana – Erica Lee Berquist
Detective Kate Reid sat outside the house, eyeing it from her cruiser. The engine of the vehicle was clicking as it cooled, then fell into silence after a few minutes. As she looked over the writing in her notebook, she knew there was nothing there she hadn’t already memorized before leaving the precinct, yet she looked anyway one last time before knocking on the door. Her captain had trusted her with a big assignment, since she was just a rookie detective.
What had at first seemed a mundane missing person’s case from first glimpse at the file had quickly become more complicated as her captain explained the case. Today, she wouldn’t just be checking in with the wife of a missing person and delivering an update, she’d also be looking for signs of suspicious activity while trying to find a lead.
Sighing, she shut her notebook and looked at the house, a small white ranch-style house surrounded by roses in every color. Just then, the curtain twitched, and Kate knew it was time to go. While she didn’t particularly mind making a suspect wait, in all likelihood this was just an innocent woman wondering where her missing husband was. Kate knew that the police cruiser in the driveway was either filling her with dread or hope. More likely dread.
She might as well hurry to deliver the news and gauge the woman’s reaction. The detective tucked her notebook under her armpit as she exited the vehicle and strode up the walkway to the front door. Kate had her badge ready at her hip to flash at the door. Before she could knock, the door opened, and a woman in her mid-60s stood in the doorway. She was wearing a large sweater that swallowed her small body, and her faded blonde hair streaked with silver was pulled back in a barrette. Gesturing to the badge, Kate said, “Hi ma’am, I’m Detective Reid, I–”
“I think I know what this is about,” the woman said as she cut her off, swallowing heavily.
Kate didn’t think that was entirely true, knowing the unusual contents of the notebook she held. She said, “Ma’am, I know how you must be feeling, but would you please allow me to finish? I need to verify your identity before I can say anything. Are you the wife of Dr. Archibald Taylor?”
She nodded. The gesture made her head look very large on such a small neck. “Yes, my husband is Archie Taylor. I’m Ruth Taylor. Has there been news?”
Following her training, Kate kept her face neutral, not giving the family false hope, and also not playing her cards to a potential suspect who had yet to be ruled out… as unlikely as Kate found it that this woman might have killed her husband and hidden his body, when it looked like a stiff breeze might blow her over. That wasn’t just Kate’s hunch either, since if the captain really suspected this woman, he’d be here doing the interview himself. Kate asked, “May I come in, ma’am?”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Taylor said, stepping aside to invite Kate into her home. She looked like she still wanted answers as quickly as possible, but she was willing to bite her tongue momentarily as she shut the door behind the detective and led her through the house. The woman walked slowly, like there was a lot weighing on her shoulders that had just started to bend with age. When they arrived in the living room filled with antiques and outdated patterned furniture, she gestured to a plush sofa.
“Please, detective. Sit.”
As Kate crossed the room, her eyes were drawn to the art hanging above the sofa, a realistic rose drawn in earthy browns. It wasn’t until she got closer that she realized it was a pressed flower preserved under glass, and a finely done job as well. Returning her attention to the woman in the room with her, Kate sat and opened her notebook. She tapped her pen on the side of it, as she said, “Mrs. Taylor, I just want to make sure I have the facts straight before I get started, so I’m going to talk, and I might be going over some information you’ve heard before or asking questions you’ve answered before, but this is just part of the process.”
“Of course, detective, and you can call me Ruth,” she said wearily, like she’d expected this. “But detective, may I ask first… have you found a body?”
“No, Ruth. We didn’t find a body,” Kate said, keeping her eyes fixed on the woman’s face as she answered. She didn’t see anything she’d expected. No exhalation of relief. No loosening of tension in the shoulders. Ruth just nodded, like she’d expected to hear that.
Interesting. Kate made a tiny note on the page, before continuing. “So, just to get started, your husband is employed as an experimental physicist at the local university. You reported him missing approximately a year ago. Have there been any updates on your end that you haven’t reported to the police since the last time you spoke to them? For example, has he attempted to make contact? Have friends told you he reached out to them?”
“He hasn’t contacted anyone,” she said and swallowed heavily like the words hurt. “Now, will you tell me the update? What’ve you come here to say?”
There had been more questions – facts that the police procedurally go over during each interview, to see if a suspect’s story had changed since last time – but Kate turned the page. She could return to those if needed, but for now there was a woman in pain and Kate wanted to help her if she could. She said, “There’s been an update. We found his cellphone. The investigation is ongoing, but I just wanted to let you know about it.”
Ruth blinked. She clearly hadn’t been expecting that. She asked, “Where was it found?”
The detective stared down at her notebook, unwilling to say the words due to their absurdity. Finally, she said, “This is going to sound strange. We’re still looking into how this happened. But the cellphone was found inside a time capsule.”
“Yes, you might have seen a story about it in the paper” Kate explained. “A time capsule is a collection of objects put together to preserve the memory of a place, experience, or group of people at one point in time. This particular one was a centennial time capsule, buried in the courthouse steps for 100 years. It was opened earlier this month. Everything looked to be in order in the capsule, except for the one addition to it – the phone, which was confirmed to be Dr. Taylor’s phone, once we got it working.”
Ruth was wringing her hands in her lap, and the bulky silver rings spun idly beside her large knuckles. After absorbing what the detective had said for a moment, she asked, “How would my husband’s phone have gotten inside a time capsule? Were there any clues about his disappearance on the phone?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out, ma’am. The police has been looking into this from the start, at first thinking that public property – the time capsule – had been tampered with. And then the phone was handed over to missing person’s once the connection to your husband was made.” Kate reached into her pocket and pulled out an evidence bag containing the phone, which she laid down on the coffee table. “Our forensics team has thoroughly looked it over. Apparently, the phone was in rough shape. It was full of dust, some components needed replacing, and the battery had been removed. They got it working. Unfortunately, after all of that, there was nothing on it. Our biggest lead now is the phone itself and how it came to be in the time capsule.”
Ruth’s entire body froze when the detective pulled the phone out of her bag, and her eyes stayed fixed on it. She sucked in a shuddering breath and asked, “Can I see that? Please.”
“There’s not much on it. No photos, nothing on the calendar,” Kate said but as she spoke, she recognized that this was more than a desire to snoop through the device – this woman just wanted to touch the only piece of her husband that had finally resurfaced after all this time. Relenting, she slid it across the coffee table towards Ruth and said, “It’s been unlocked by forensics. You can look at it, but please keep it inside the bag.”
With a grateful smile, she picked up her husband’s phone and started tapping at the glass screen through the plastic bag. It only took a few moments before she stiffened, and Kate could tell she’d found something. Glancing up in anticipation of the detective’s question, Ruth said, “There’s an undelivered text on here. He tried to send me a message.”
Kate nodded, looking at her notes, since she had been planning to ask about this. “01/25/1920. We haven’t been sure what to make of that. Does it mean anything to you?”
She shook her head and said, “That would have been a few years before the time capsule was buried…”
“Well, yes,” the detective said. Her pen had been poised to make a note about the wife’s reaction to the text, but she didn’t bother with this. It seemed like Ruth was reaching to make a connection between two unrelated events. Kate continued to her next question, “Ruth, did your husband have any colleagues at the university who might have known something about how to hermetically seal and preserve the contents of a time capsule?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Ruth said, shaking her head. “Are you implying that my husband had a contact at the university who tampered with the time capsule to put the cellphone inside before resealing it? Why would someone do that, even if it were possible?”
The pointed question made her uncomfortable, since the suspect so quickly caught on before volunteering any information, but Kate read from her notebook, “The theory is that this person put the phone there intentionally, in an attempt to get the police to revive their investigation of the disappearance. This person was well-intentioned and just wants Dr. Taylor found.” Kate turned the page on her notes and added, “But the thing is, we don’t know how they did it. There was organic plant matter preserved in the time capsule, and all of our expert consultants have said that this plant would have been discovered in a damaged state if the capsule had previously been disturbed to put the phone inside, even if hermetically resealed… we can’t make sense of it.
Which is why I was wondering, was your husband friends with someone in this field?”
Ruth’s face got an odd color to it, which Kate didn’t understand until the older woman burst with a cackle she had been suppressing. Once she settled down, Ruth said, “Darling, this is science we’re talking about. It’s not magic. If something is impossible, it’s impossible. Just accept what your experts are telling you. My husband didn’t know anyone who could have opened that capsule for him.”
“Then how do you think the phone got in there?”
Ruth shook her head and said, “All I can tell you with any certainty is that my husband isn’t here and it’s not within his power to get back to me. There are 39 rose bushes in the front yard. You can count them if you want. Just 39, yet we’ve been married 40 years. He would have brought me my anniversary present if he could’ve. That’s how I know he’s not here.”
The yard suddenly made a lot more sense, and that wasn’t something Kate had to put in her notebook to remember. She shut the book and asked, “Would it be possible for me to walk around for a moment? I’d to see if there’s anything that might give me a better impression of who your husband is as I look for him. Maybe there’s something the previous investigators missed. Is there a particular room in the house he spent a lot of time in, like an office?”
“He called it his lab, not his office, but you can see it if you like,” Ruth said, and she rose slowly like her limbs were heavy. Rather than bringing her hope, the news Kate had brought was weighing on her.
Pausing only to collect the cell phone in the evidence bag, Kate followed as Ruth led her down the hallway and gestured to a room at the end. The door was open, but the lights were off giving no hint to what was inside the gloom of the room. Either there were no windows in there, or the curtains were drawn.
“The light switch is on the wall to the left,” Ruth said. When the detective hesitated, the older woman noticed and continued into the room with a shrug, switching on the lights as she went. Looking around the room, she said, “I haven’t been in here for a while.”
Kate also took in the room. There was shiny lab equipment and computers, which she knew any school would covet. Some of the machines looked nicer than the ones even the lab tech at the police department had. More than anything else though, the room was filled with white boards, and every inch of them was filled with equations scrawled in small handwriting with markers of various colors, almost as much variety as there were in the roses in the yard. Having not studied much science since high school, Kate couldn’t make sense of any of it. She commented, “Your husband must be a very smart man.”
“Smartest man I ever met,” Ruth said, reaching out to touch the text on one of the boards with a light touch, careful not to smudge the writing. Now that she was looking closer, Kate saw that there were actually two types of handwriting on the boards, one a bit neater than the other.
Spinning in a slow circle to take in one last look of the room, Kate said, “Thank you for showing this to me. I feel like I have a better sense of who your husband is now.” This was usually the part where the family member asked the police detective to do everything they could to bring back the lost person, but Ruth didn’t do that, almost like she knew it was pointless to ask. She just stood there, staring at the writing her husband had left on the board. Kate cleared her throat to break the woman out of her trance, and said, “Mrs. Taylor, I don’t want to take up anymore of your time. Thank you for speaking with me today.”
Ruth blinked for a moment before returning to the present. “Yes, of course. Thank you for bringing me the news. I’ll walk you out.” They walked in slow silence down the hallway, and the detective could tell that the older woman was thinking very hard about something, but she didn’t say anything until they reached the front door. Rather than opening it, Ruth hesitated before asking, “The organic plant material they found in the time capsule with the phone… was there any information about what plant it came from?”
The detective looked down at her notes, though she already knew the answer, and said, “It was a rose. It had been dried and preserved, so it didn’t decay in the capsule, and didn’t disintegrate until after being removed from it.” Kate looked up, seeing the older woman leaning on the wall by the front door for support, and her brows knit together as she asked, “Are you okay, Ruth?”
Ruth closed her eyes and swallowed heavily, but she nodded. After a moment to collect herself, she reopened her eyes, yet didn’t seem to completely focus on Kate’s face. She said, “I’m fine, detective. Today has just been a bit overwhelming. I think I need to rest.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Kate said, though she knew this was just a polite way of asking for the cop to leave her house. There was something off about this that made her think leaving this woman alone was a bad idea, yet Kate couldn’t come up with an excuse to stay. Instead, she extracted her business card from a pocket, handed it to Ruth, and said, “My personal number is on the back. Call if you think of anything that might help the case, or just call if you want to talk. I’ll be there to listen.”
“Thank you, detective. I’ll do that.” The older woman still had a far-away look in her eyes, and she held out a hand to accept the card without really seeing it. There was something about her eyes that Kate hadn’t noticed until now, finally looking at Ruth in this moment that the woman was refusing to back look at her.
“Thank you for your time, ma’am,” Kate said, as she reached for the doorknob, unsure if the woman had heard her. Ruth was in an entirely different place now, looking in her memories at people who weren’t there, and Kate felt like if she reached out to touch Ruth’s face that she wouldn’t be able to feel it.
“Look at the mess you’ve gotten me into, Archie…” Ruth said to the empty room. She had to shake her head at herself for talking to someone who wasn’t there. She’d been raised by a widowed grandmother, who spent her days walking around her house talking to an absent husband. Her grandmother hadn’t been insane, Ruth knew that now, she’d just been trying to keep the memory of the husband she loved alive. At the time it had looked so strange, and Ruth had never wanted to end up an old woman talking to a missing man. Yet Archie had done this to her. He had known the risks. He knew their experiment wasn’t ready. But he tested it anyway, perhaps worried Ruth would step into the machine first and get hurt.
“If you were just here, I wouldn’t be talking to myself,” she mumbled under her breath. These days, she felt like blaming everything on him. If it rained too hard, it was Archie’s fault. If the rabbits ate the lettuce in the garden, Archie had sent them. If her toast burned, that was Archie’s doing too. Being mad at him for trivial things was easier than missing him, and so she told him so.
“And now after all this time, you’re finally talking to me again…” she mumbled, as she walked down the hallway once more. As she turned on the light in the lab again, she said, “1920 was it? That number wasn’t written on your part of the board.”
The numbers on the white board stared back at her, confirming what she’d said. This had been the piece of information she was missing, and Archie had finally given it to her in the most unexpected of ways. All this time, she had known where he was, the past, but not when he was. “You darned fool,” Ruth grumbled. “I can’t believe you’ve done this to me. You left me all alone, and now you tell me 1920? After a year? What do you expect me to do?”
Still, she wanted some confirmation. Ruth wasn’t just the wife of a scientist, she’d been one as well. Scientists don’t assume things. She sat behind Archie’s desk and turned on their computer. It only took a few minutes of searching to find the news article about the centennial time capsule when it was buried. A photo published in the historical newspaper showed a crowd in the town gathered to see it being interred at the steps of the courthouse.
“You darned fool….” Ruth repeated, but hollowly this time and with no force behind it. She slapped the button on the computer to shut off the screen and looked away, but when she turned her head another photo of Archie faced her on the desk. It was taken 10 years ago on their anniversary, and Archie was hugging her from behind. “You got yourself into this mess, not me,” she snapped, but then regretted it. She continued to look at the photo as she spoke with less heat, “I know you didn’t mean to get stuck. I know you were trying to take the bigger risk to keep me safe. But what is it you expect me to do now? Are you just trying to let me know you survived? Or do you want me to go to you? Leave this life behind? Sacrifice everything for you? It’s too much, Archie. You’re asking too much this time.”
She didn’t realize that she was crying until she felt the tears on her cheeks and wiped them away. It occurred to her that if Archie were here, he’d be doing that for her. Once again, she repeated hollowly, “It’s too much.” Turning her head, she looked back to the screen where the historical photo she’d found had been displayed, but the screen was black since she’d shut it off. Yet, she didn’t need it on to see the photo that was now burned like an afterimage into her memory. She said, “Archie, you’ve made a mistake. You were always the one who made me brave, and this is the scariest thing I’ve ever considered doing. I know where you are now, but I can’t follow you.”
Ruth stood and turned in a circle in the room. Since her husband had vanished, she had felt him all around her as she was surrounded by the things they’d gathered over a lifetime together. But for the first time, now knowing when he was, the house felt different without Archie in it. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms for warmth. Any words she’d had for her husband suddenly halted on her lips. She couldn’t shout at him. She couldn’t call out for him. She couldn’t even cry to him. He wasn’t here, and it felt wrong to continue pretending otherwise.
Ruth felt the emptiness of her house echo inside of her chest, and she stood swaying indecisively for a moment. She felt like a leaf fallen in a stream, waiting to see where the current would take her, and that bothered her as she’d never been the type of woman to hand her fate over to another. She took a step forward. Just one step. But it felt like after a year of standing still, she was finally walking somewhere. Some place. Some time. And that was an improvement.
Detective Kate sat once more in front of the house in her cruiser. Unlike last time, she wasn’t lingering in the car to look at her notes – as she eyed the house, the ominous vibe of it kept her away. She had last been here in summer, and the roses had been bountiful. Now, an early frost had crisped the leaves that were about to fall from the bushes. Kate didn’t believe in omens, but it seemed a bad one somehow.
Ruth’s neighbors had reported not seeing the older woman in some time. Her newspapers were collecting on the sidewalk before becoming pulp in the rain, the lawn was overgrown, and mail was starting to spill out of the letterbox. The sight had concerned the neighbors, who requested a wellness check, and now Kate was concerned too. It had been months since she met Mrs. Taylor, but she had never forgotten her – the unsolved case file on her desk was a constant reminder.
After daydreaming for so long about when she’d finally return to this house with more news for Ruth, perhaps even with the missing husband in tow, she was here again. But not under the circumstances she’d hoped. Kate walked up the sidewalk and smiled professionally at Ruth’s neighbor, who had already unlocked the door with a spare key, but had been too wary to go further into the house when Ruth hadn’t responded to any attempts to call her name from the threshold. The neighbor had the look of a busybody, eyes in a permanent squint from peeking through her drapes at other’s houses, but that curiosity apparently ended at the possibility of discovering a body.
Kate didn’t blame her, as she was already holding her breath. She’d made enough of these wellness visits to know what she was likely to find inside. Car in the driveway. No relatives the woman might be staying with. This looked bad. After walking as far as she could into the house without encountering anything, the detective took a cautious breath but there was no hint of decomposition in the air.
There was no Ruth Taylor either though. She continued deeper into the house, down the dark hallway that led to Dr. Taylor’s lab. Not much had changed about the house since her last visit, so when she flipped on the light switch, Kate was surprised to see something new – a dress form had been moved into the room. Kate stepped closer to take a look. There was no dress on it now, but she would guess that one had been here recently, if the pins, scraps of fabric, and pattern on the table were any indication. Kate turned the paper to get a better look at what Ruth had been working on, and she saw a vintage dress pattern, something from around the turn of the century.
Looking in the room for any other signs of activity, she saw a notebook near the computer. She flipped it open and saw printouts from newspapers tucked inside. The one on the top of the stack was related to the time capsule, which didn’t seem odd to Kate given where she had found the cellphone, since of course that would have piqued Ruth’s interest in the event. Kate had started to move away from the printouts in the notebook when something out of the corner of her eye drew her attention. Picking up the photo of Archie Taylor on the desk for comparison, she held it up beside the photo printed in the historical newspaper of people gathered beside the time capsule the day it was buried. There was a man in the back with white hair and a moustache, sort of a Mark Twain-ish look about him, but… no, it couldn’t be.
There’s an odd sort of perspective that comes with being a modern person. People of this era are too jaded to believe in magic and mysticism, but not futuristic enough to believe in a world where technology can solve all of humanity’s problems and fulfill their wildest wishes with the push of a button. It’s like being stuck between two eras in time where nothing truly incredible is possible. As Kate turned in a circle, taking in the room once more – the inconceivable photograph, the empty dress form, the theorems scribbled on the white board, and the machinery cluttering the room, she had to wonder… But no, she couldn’t let herself believe.
Rejecting the idea, the detective hurried out of the lab that was hurting her brain the more she thought about it. She just focused on doing her job, searching each room of the house for a sign of where the wife might have gone. There wasn’t much food in the fridge. There were no upcoming appointments on the calendar pinned to the fridge. Her closet was full of clothes, and her purse was on a table near the door. Her jewelry box looked half empty, but that was hard to judge since Kate had never seen it before. There were no signs of a disturbance, no sign at all that anything was wrong except for the houseplants that had dried to a crisp in Ruth’s absence. Everything else looked like she had just stepped out for a moment and would return any second.
Shaking her head, Kate started to walk to the front door. She had no theories and hadn’t made a single mark in her notebook, as she had no lead to follow… no logical lead that is. Something stopped her though, on her way through the living room before she reached the door. She turned, seeing the sofa where she’d sat and talked to Mrs. Taylor, and she pulled out her work phone as she walked closer and flipped through the photos. It must’ve been that this was the last thing Ruth had asked her about since it finally clicked now. The organic plant matter from the capsule had been confirmed to be a rose, and not just any rose but a pressed rose.
A photo had been taken of it when the capsule was opened before it degraded. It had been perched at the top of it, a fleeting beauty that had been preserved, a wonderous 100-year-old rose. The pressed roses hung on the wall in frames were considerably younger, but as Kate held up her phone to compare the roses, she swallowed heavily at the sight. They looked so similar they could have been cut from the same bush… or more likely, had been preserved by the same person.
Kate tucked her phone back into her pocket with shaking hands. Her mind was already composing her report with the usual words: missing person, no leads at home, will follow up with contacts. She didn’t expect to find anything. She couldn’t bring herself to think of the impossible, the unthinkable words time travel, and though she struggled to come up with another theory about what had happened.
In the same way that Archie Taylor had vanished, Ruth Taylor had just done the same. No one would find them. And yet, they had found each other.
Since graduating from Towson University in 2014 with a BS in English, Erica Lee Berquist has worked for KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd. as an Editorial Associate and Cloudmed Solutions LLC as a Recovery Analyst. Erica has been published previously in Grub Street Literary Magazine, volumes 65 and 71. In her free time, she enjoys making jewelry, researching family history for herself and others, and spending time with her cats.