The Hidden — Chapter 4: ZELDA — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH 4

CHAPTER FOUR – ZELDA:

Zelda awoke with a terrible headache.  This “fresh country air” had done nothing for her allergies.  Nate was crazy about the idea of living out here in the sticks, though and he was so cute about it that she just had to go along.  He had insisted they leave the city and build an entirely new life.  

“It’ll be a fresh new start,” he’d told her.  “The money is one thing, but we need more than money – we need each other.”  Nate had been nearly fanatical about the idea.  Frankly, it didn’t make that much difference to her where they lived, as long as they had a chance for happiness.  But she had to admit things were much better between them since they’d left the city.  Here their life seemed simpler, less complicated.  Nate laughed more and Zelda found herself taking time to look about and appreciate her life.  She had actually planted a flower garden!

In the city, they had dreamed of a time when they could lay back and spend time together doing the things they’d always wanted.  Now, suddenly that time had come and best of all they were still young enough to enjoy it.

Throwing on a light robe, she shuffled to the kitchen to put the coffee on.  Country living was nothing new to Zelda since she had grown up on a small farm in southern Illinois.  But her ambition to be on the stage had made her quit those rural climes and move to Chicago, where she met, fell in love with and married Nate.

Back home her friends had teased her about becoming a famous movie star, but that had not been her true dream.  Ever since her first appearance in her ninth-grade production of “Oklahoma!” she’d been fascinated with the idea of being in live productions.  Acting out the lives and loves of fictitious characters who were nothing like her gave her a marvelous feeling which she was unable to achieve in real life.  

In the theater, she could live an exciting life with virtually no risk.  It wasn’t Zelda Miller out there on stage, it was a charmer in a play.  If the audience booed, it was the character they disapproved of and not her.  But she need not worry about the audience disapproving because Zelda was a natural.  She was almost always chosen for the lead role in whatever production she tried out for.  Acting came easily to her as natural as breathing or walking down the street.  

Zelda sometimes thought it was easy for her to assume the role of someone else because she had no personality of her own.  She’d never told anyone this of course — not even her parents who were so proud of her.  In fact, everyone was proud of her when she put on a good performance in the various school plays and civic productions.  They would applaud thunderously while she took her bows, and she was the center of attention for days afterward whenever she came to town for shopping with her mother.

She received lots of attention from her peers.  The girls all wanted to be her friend and the boys paid extra close attention while she spoke.  

The adults of the town were quick to voice their approval as well.  The men would exclaim, “You sure were good the other night!”  And the women would hug her and congratulate her mother saying, “You must be so-o-o proud of little Zelda! Why I wouldn’t be surprised to see her on the silver screen someday.  Maybe put this little town on the map, eh?  She certainly has the looks… and the talent!”

Of course, her mother was proud of her Zelda and she encouraged her to do all she could to get into Northwestern University.  She helped her fill out the applications and she made sure Zelda spent lots of time with the Northwestern representative during “College Night” at school.  She bragged to all her friends and relatives about Zelda’s acting prowess and her prospects for a glamorous career – the kind Zelda’s mother never had.

But looking back, Zelda wished everyone could have been proud of her and given her such attention just for being Zelda – plain old Zelda Miller from southern Illinois.  What was so wrong with that?  Did she have to become somebody famous to get their attention?  

Maybe the reason she’d moved to Chicago and pursued a career in acting was not that she wanted it so much but because it was expected of her.  She couldn’t let her parents down or disappoint her teachers.  Hell, the whole damned town depended on “Little Zelda” to become the next Marilyn Monroe and give them all something to be proud of.  Well, it wasn’t fair to put that kind of pressure on a person – to make her responsible for the justification of their own existence.  

Small wonder that when the time came to prove herself in the big city, Zelda’s accomplishments fell somewhat shy of everyone’s expectations.  It was one thing to be a celebrity in a small town production, but it was something else entirely to be just one of many faces in an acting class — all talented, all sharing the same ambitions and aspirations, all competing for the lead roles.  

It was worse yet to be number thirty-seven in a cattle call with the lights glaring in your eyes and three people sitting way back in a darkened theatre passing judgment on every move you made, every note you sang.

Miss… Miller?  Is that a natural tremolo in your voice or are you simply scared to death?

Perhaps that was why when she’d met Nate, working in a local supermarket it had been so easy for her to fall in love with him and his dreams of the future.  Marrying Nate was a way of saving face, both within herself and with the folks back home.  After all, no one could blame her for abandoning her career to marry the man she loved.  

In fact, it was kind of romantic and rather noble.  She was like the heroine in the romance novels her mother was so fond of.  Poor Zelda Miller had so much potential and could have been a star, but she gave up all that glamour and fame to be Mrs. Nathaniel Malone… almost poetic really.  Too bad it was a lie.  The truth was, she’d lost faith in her dreams and herself.  Marrying Nate was the smartest thing she could have done.  

There was no use pretending she was going to make a big splash on the stage either here in Chicago or anywhere else.  The one thing her mother and all that attention back home had not prepared her for was competition – stiff competition with hundreds of other would-be Marilyns who were quite willing to do literally anything to get what they wanted.  Zelda was just not that aggressive or driven.  It was easier to change her goals than to see them through to fruition.

And she’d been happy actually.  She really did love Nate.  He was kind, gentle and so intense in his quest for a better life for each of them.  Until recently, his dreams had been enough to sustain them both.  He was full of energy and eagerness, and he had vision.   The kind of vision that you could hitch onto and let yourself be gladly pulled along.  Nate promised her the kind of life any girl would hope for:  a home and family and the kind of security that sounded so attractive to a young girl who had been thrust out into the vast, hard world alone.  

Zelda had been feeling overwhelmed and out of her element.  What Nate had offered her sounded so warm, safe and comfortable when compared to the cold cruel arena of the performing arts.  She rationalized that, even if she were to become a big star someday, everyone knows that its lonely at the top.  And loneliness was something she was too familiar with and could most definitely do without.  

So She had married Nate, and shared his vision… for a while.

One day however she had glimpsed sadness in his dreamy blue eyes.  Nate, just like her, was starting to lose faith in himself.  His confidence was slowly running down.  He was like a radio-controlled toy with a failing battery; sometimes the current would flow and he would charge ahead as though nothing was wrong while other times he would wake in the morning with no juice at all.  He was pressing all the right buttons, but nothing was happening.  The signal was dead.  That was before the lottery came along and changed their lives entirely.

After dressing, Zelda prepared a simple breakfast of poached eggs and toast.  They may be living like country folks, but she wasn’t about to start cooking like some country farm-frau, serving stacks of pancakes and such.  She called Nate in from the yard.  

Shutting the lawnmower off, he tramped through the front door looking so damn pleased with himself she had to smile.  Nate looked healthier these days and more handsome than she could ever remember.  He was spending a lot more time in the sun and it had streaked his light brown hair with flashes of golden blonde.  It fell stubbornly across his forehead, despite his constant attempts to swipe it back out of his eyes.  This habit, combined with the freckles splattered about this lightly tanned cheeks gave him a boyish charm which she found quite appealing.

“That’s it?” he asked seating himself.  “How’s a hard-working, grown man supposed to survive on a breakfast like this?”  His words were harsh, but she knew he was teasing.  Both of them had been working on trimming back their diet – low fat-this and diet-that.

“You are not a hard-working man anymore, Mister Malone,”  She ran her hand lovingly across the back of his neck as she joined him at the table.  “You’re a man of leisure… with LOTS OF MONEY!  And that’s why I love you so much.”

He took her hand and kissed it, his mouth full of breakfast.  “Well, who cares why just as long as you stay!  What’ve you got planned for today, Hon?  Just what does the wife of an independently wealthy land baron do in her spare time?”

Zelda smiled and then looked at him seriously.  “She goes shopping of course!  What good is all that money if you can’t spend it like it was going out of style?”

His laugh made her feel warm inside and she leaned across the table and kissed him.

“Good, good!  Go on into town and buy yourself something extravagant.  I’m sure you’ll look radiant in it.  Just don’t run off to Paris without me,” he warned her.

“Actually I had in mind something like groceries. We’re low on a few things.  But I might take some time to poke around some shops while I’m in town.”

“Okay, sweetie.  I’ll be working in the yard all day anyway.  So, have a good time. But first, I’ve something to show you in the bedroom…”  His leer made her feel even warmer inside.  

The town of Snyder reminded her very much of her own small hometown in Illinois, only it was not quite the mirror image of what she remembered. The bank was on the south side of the street instead of the north.  However, it was still directly across from the post office.  And the curve in Main Street was on the wrong end of town. But there was the Amoco station, right where it should be on the corner.  The Lutheran church, the one she and Nate kept saying they were going to check out one of these days was on the east side, by the highway.

Looming large over everything, its rusty tin siding providing an ominous backdrop for the rest of the buildings was the ancient feed mill. As Zelda drove past, she considered it. Surely, it must have been one of the first buildings erected in Snyder. Its pointed roof stretched high into the air, providing home and aerial playground to hundreds of swooping, careening pigeons. Driving beneath them with the sunroof down, Zelda prayed silently that none of them held a grudge against transplanted city types, moving into their little town.

Zelda decided at that moment, she didn’t like the mill. If there was one thing she could change about Snyder, it would be the presence of this hulking giant with the dark windows, looking upon the world with vacant eye sockets, staring gloomily from an enormous rusty skull.

Still, it was somewhat similar to the one in her hometown, right down to the huge, antiquated “Supersweet Seeds” sign clinging tenaciously to the side. She supposed these archaic, malevolent-looking monstrosities were a necessary evil that all small midwestern towns must endure, but it brought back memories that were not all good ones.

There were times in her past that she would rather not remember. When she left for the big city, she thought she was leaving behind all those bad times — the bad things her subconscious strived so hard to blot out. But occasionally and with increasing frequency, she found those memories coming back now that she had returned to small-town life.

One thing that was different was the new shopping center on the west edge of town where Zelda parked in front of the grocery store. She’d already browsed through the antique shops downtown and the ladies apparel shop here in the center. Now it was time to get down to business with some groceries.

As she walked up and down the aisles, examining the labels and comparing package sizes, she thought about her life with Nate. She marveled at how different things were going to be now that they had money. They would be able to travel — she’d always wanted to see Europe! Or maybe they’d spend time on cruises. But, best of all, they would have time for each other and, maybe now, they could think of having children and building a family. This was something they had been putting off until they were financially secure.

Well, you don’t get much more secure than seven million dollars, thank God, thought Zelda, whose biological clock had been ticking for some time now. Her life with Nate was becoming idyllic, but she needed to be a mother to make it complete. No matter how rosy their financial future, it was the one thing their money couldn’t buy. It was the one thing she needed above all else.

These thoughts were running through her mind as she approached the checkout-counter with her cart full of groceries. While standing in line, she spotted a poster, obviously home-made, asking the whereabouts of this child:

Susie Dawn Chamness

Age 11

Last Seen: Aug 3, 1993

Below the picture was printed instructions on who to contact with any information and a reward was offered. The picture was black-and-white, but the spirit of the little girl shone from it all the same. Her face was beaming with eagerness, and her long golden curls fairly glowed. But something deep within her pale eyes showed a hidden sadness, perhaps a longing, as though she had knowledge beyond her years — knowledge of something she would rather forget.

As Zelda stood looking at the angelic face of this child she tried to put herself in the place of her poor mother. How tragic it would be to give life to a beautiful child like this only to have her snatched away when you’d learned to love her with all your heart, as surely her mother must. This sort of thing was all too common in the city, but here in this rural community, it seemed out of place.  Zelda wondered…What could have happened to her way out here?

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