There’s a story familiar to all of us, across cultures and through history, the story of someone who was there and then was not, of the person who relinquished their lifetime role as lover, sister, husband, grandpa, neighbor, colleague, or daughter and joined the always-swelling ranks of the Missing.
She popped out to the liquor store for a packet of cigarettes, didn’t take a coat, never came back.
He left as usual for school, but went to the bank instead and withdrew all his savings. He was caught on CCTV boarding a bus to the city.
Her car was found in a Walmart parking lot, keys in the ignition, purse and phone on the front seat.
He took his regular morning train but never made it to work. All bank account and cell phone activity ceased the same day.
She said she was going to a friend’s house on the next street to study for a test. She never showed up.
His neighbors got concerned when the mail began to pile up. When they broke down the front door they found his bed unmade and his wallet on the coffee table.
There’s a distinctive subculture of the Missing within both fiction and reality. They’re often referred to as the great silent mass disaster of the modern age: more people vanish each year than are killed in any tsunami or earthquake or hurricane. While they might start out as ordinary people, going about their day, the fact of their disappearance confers an automatic mystique. To go missing is to become a narrative. Readers of news reports, detective stories and true crime, plus viewers addicted to procedurals, are all drawn to the same, repeating, essential mystery: where do these people go? Is their vanishing the cold open or the final reel?
They haunt us, the Missing, for years, even decades after they disappear. Like the dead, their absence is a specific type of presence, constructed from pain, memory and regret. Unlike the dead, whose extinction is a certified fact, their absence is abstract. We can’t articulate where, or even what, they are. They could reappear at any time, in hours, days, months or years, in any condition, from unharmed to fully decomposed. The Missing agitate – and, yes, titillate – us in a way the simply dead do not.
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