Derek Himself stared incredulously. Cal, a deejay, and Vinnie, the station manager, who were the other two guys at the station tonight, looked up from their paperwork. All three began to snicker, and then actually to snort, with laughter, although background noise was forbidden when the mike was on; it would be picked up and broadcast. Once upon a time? A beginning for kindergartners. A beginning for fairy tales and picture books.
Reeve would never live it down. He really would have to transfer.
He pictured Cordell laughing at him. Laughed at by a roommate stupider and smellier than anybody on campus? He imagined the guys in the dorm yelling Loser! Loser! Guys he wanted to be friends with but hadn't pulled it off yet. Guys who would not be polite about how worthless Reeve was.
"Once upon a time," he repeated helplessly, stuck in horrible repetition of that stupid phrase.
And then talk arrived, like a tape that had come in the mail. For Reeve Shields really did know a story that began with "Once upon a time."
"I dated a dizzy redhead. Dizzy is a compliment. Janie was light and airy. Like hope and joy. My girlfriend," he said softly, into the microphone. Into the world.
"You know the type. Really cute, fabulous red hair, lived next door. Good in school, of course, girls like that always are. Janie had lots of friends and she was crazy about her mom and dad, because that's the kind of family people like that have."
Never had Reeve's voice sounded so rich and appealing.
"Except," said Reeve, "except one day in the school cafeteria, a perfectly ordinary day, when kids were stealing each other's desserts and spilling each other's milk, Janie just happened to glance down at the picture of that missing child printed on the milk carton."
His slow voice seemed to draw a half-pint of milk, with its little black-and-white picture of a missing child. It was almost visible, that little milk carton, that dim and wax-covered photograph.
"And the face on the milk carton," said Reeve, "was Janie herself."
He deepened his voice, moving from informative into mysterious. "They can't fit much information on the side of a half-pint," said Reeve, "but the milk carton said that little girl had been missing since she was three. Missing for twelve years."
In radio, you could not see your audience. Reeve could not know whether he really did have an audience. Radio was faith.
"Can you imagine if your daughter, or your sister, had disappeared twelve years ago? Twelve years have gone by, and yet you still believe. Surely somehow, somewhere, she must be waiting, and listening. You haven't given up hope. You refuse to admit she's probably dead by now, probably was dead all along. You believe there is a chance in a million that if you put her picture on a milk carton, she'll see it."
Beyond the mike, Reeve imagined dormitories--kids slouched on beds and floors, listening. Listening to him.
"Well," said Reeve, "she saw it."
From the Hardcover edition.