Message on a flyer taped onto a dollar store entrance door, on Stony Island Avenue, in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States of America, North America:

Sharika Fortinberry
African-American, Female
Last seen: Chicago, Illinois
Age at Disappearance: 3  Current Age: 23

Sharika was last seen riding the Chicago El train with her father in July of 1993. She is African-American, with a medium-brown complexion, brown eyes and black hair. She would be twenty-three years old today, and possibly of above-average female height. Here are photographs of Sharika at the time of her disappearance and a computer-generated image to approximate her aged appearance today. If you have any information on this missing person, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at: 1-800-THE-LOST. The family is able to offer a small reward for information leading to Ms. Fortinberry’s safe return.

If you could cook me my eggs, I like ‘em scrambled soft on white bread with hot sauce. That’s how they turn up sometimes. I know I ain’t do it that perfect, like my mama used to for me. Your mama a little bit too, before she left me, you with her. I can’t blame her. Especially not considering what I done. When the elevator buckle on down the shaft next door to my apartment, sound like you knocking.
Them oily handprints on the wall. That swing going, but ain’t no breeze. Them missing socks nobody tack up in the laundry room, like we do for everybody. Them wine spills on the floor in the morning, dried up in different-size circles.

You think you slick, don’t you?

When I first got Rebecca for the mice, she went straight to your old cot. Straight to it. It’s her favorite place to rest, sleep, wash, look, meow. So, I had to change her name. I gave her yours. I hope you don’t mind. She ain’t caught me one mouse though, not in eight years. Or nine. Maybe seven. I done forgot.             

When I woke up on the train, I swear, you was gone. You usually stuck in the crook of my arm or elbow when we rode the trains together. You kept one arm around my waist or both round my tight stomach. Lanky-armed, you was. You usually gurgled if you was sleep, a little spit crawling down the corner of your lips, one of your ponytails crooked and bent, knocked out. Then I ain’t feel you with me. I was traveling too light. 

I remember calling your name, screaming it really. High-pitched. Hoarse. I know I must have hollered. It’s funny now. I was facing the aisle, two seats on both sides of me, both empty. When I saw your empty seat, my feet flew up like I was shot in the chest. Nobody else was in my car. I looked both ways. My neck snapped. That car hopped. I swung from them loop handrails like I was a gymnast working for that gold.

I wore Jordans back then. Shit, now I can’t afford ‘em. My Jordans was untied. I dropped my satchel. Its straps tripped me like a raggedy porch step. I fell. My stomach slapped the floor. I nicked my tooth in a spot smelled like piss. Didn't matter. You remember your daddy used to be a boxer? I get up when I fall. I never did get the tooth fixed, not even when I started working for the transit authority. Got that good dental now. But the hole remind me of you. And I know I don’t spit toothpaste in the sink without running the faucet. Catch that sometimes, too. That’s neither here nor there. It’s alright…

The ones ride every day recognize me. I wash out my orange and yellow vest on the corner, so I look good and shaved and together and professional. Now. I make you proud. The ones ride every day nice with they problems: CTA card ain’t go through, money missing on the card, which way is this and which way is that and what’s the next stop. Signs all around. Maps at the station. But, everybody like to hear they own voice outside they head every once in a while. It’s the strangers—them North Side Brown line white folks and Indians and Africans—act like they don’t know how to say “Fortinberry.” It’s right on my tag. Or, they see me every day. But some of ‘em bring me coffee and doughnuts in the winter, on account of making themselves feel better about standing on a Windy City train platform in January—frozen tears, heart attacks threatening every Monday until the end of March. They damn near get the Holy Ghost when them train doors slide open, and they pack in, and the doors shut, and the people go away, and it’s strange for a while. Then the new ones start to line up.

Over and over again all day the doors open and shut, open and shut. And I think about that night—all day. It help pass the time. And I can remember you.

I was dizzy, sweating cold, when I looked through them doors separating the cars. That day was so hot, so miserable, so sweaty, so ridiculous, so against cracking a smile or thinking a thought or taking a breath. The night was no better. When you got lost, it was the time after midnight when the moon light the sky fullest but the streets and trains are emptiest. “Last call” time. Isley Brothers time. Quiet Storm time. Faint sirens time. Rats running the alleys time. I didn't see nobody to tell me if I was sleepwalking or suddenly nuts in the head. So I just kept on running, from the front to the back to the front of the car again until I thought to go to another. I snatched open the chilly silver door between the cars. The metal train tracks below my feet skedaddled by, razors, marionettes. 

Thought I saw one of them little old dirty dolls you liked to carry thrown on the tracks. I had to hold my balance on one door and reach for the handle of the next at the same time. That one car looked three times as big as any one I’d ever seen in my life. This white light in hit me like a sledgehammer. The rhythm in my gut—jerk, jerk, put, put, glide, jerk—told me the train was gonna stop soon. I planned to jump out screaming.

No, stay on the train, she's here, something said. I’m still on the train sweetheart.

Ten years back, when I took down the poster announcing the CTA job fair from the platform post, I ain’t think I was gonna get the job. I had a lot of tickets, boots on the car. License was suspended at one point. Got it back though. And, then , all the hooplah and mess and drama about you. But, they ain’t look that far back. No.

“So, Mr. Fortinberry, you think you could see the same thing over and over and over all day for eight hours in one booth overlooking one little part of Uptown Chicago which probably won’t change too much with the days and months and years?” one of them bright-smiling HR people asked me. The no-smiling administrator looked on.

“Well,” I told them both, “the people change, don’t they?”

“No, it would be just you in the booth alone, for the most part,” the administrator lady told me.

“I mean the people riding the train,” I smiled to her. “New faces. New people. Every stop. All day long. I like to watch people.”

Ever since you got lost, I don’t pass by a face. Twenty years I never forget one since. Good, bad, ugly. Number one I didn’t do that for you and number two I never know when you gonna turn up. What you look like now. Pretty, I imagine.

Footprints in the snow. Somebody cracked the window. None of the neighbors said they signed for my package, but it’s at the door anyway. A little throwaway change missing from the top drawer in middle of my fallen teeth and stopped watches. My African violets doing alright, sprayed down. I thank you kindly.

From all that running through cars and noise and sweat and heat I did that night, I finally concluded there were six faces on that train and one was missing: yours. There was four late night folks in the car I stumbled into. One looked like a zombie. Another was screaming a song about Lord Jesus. The other two looked coherent—an old cat in a florescent yellow and orange City of Chicago vest, and a chick with two Aldi's bags full of God knows what. Neither of one of them looked my way. I wobbled down the middle. Don’t know what you like now. But, back then, you was small enough to fit in one of those bright orange bags the woman carried. They came up to the shopper’s knee, rested right up against her rolled up stocking. Was my baby inside? Should I go snatch the bags and look? I was ready to hurt somebody. No questions asked. No excuses accepted. There were six of us, but nobody involved in this ever went looking for the other four. Just me.

"You seen a little girl? A little girl?" I asked them all. I did. The train slowed down so I could get my balance. Before I could catch a hot breath, risk stumbling over my laces again, watch anybody else walk off that train like nothing was happening, I had run up to the old dude and pulled at his vest. His whole collar was wet, sweating that bad. The Sun-Times in his hands was crinkled and crackled, stressed. It had said, real big, front page, all capital letters: CAUTION URGED DURING HEAT WAVE.

I knew the story without having to sit there on a train and read about it or think about it twice. Shit, I was drowning in the story. Three days. No heads-up, just a wake up call: Mother Nature can show anybody who’s the boss. Refrigerator trucks was parked outside Cook County Morgue, ‘cause there was no room for all the bodies inside. Folks had fainted, dried out from the inside out, collapsed in yards, mobbed for ice, packed tubs with cold water, flopped delirious at the Lake, staggered the streets crying, screamed at the parks, hung out of windows, died with nobody else in the room, had a smell discovered before their body was. The news was one long lesson: where to go to cool off, what to expect when the power went out, how much water to drink. 

That old man had some big strong lips. And his beard scratched my face up sitting right on my nose. I could smell his tart breath. He could smell my dry mouth. He shoved me back into the seat right across from him.

"What's wrong with you son? You better get on out of here."  He balled his fist. 

I saw the woman turn back and look. Then, she jumped up, trampled off to another car. I yelled after her: "Miss, miss, have you seen a girl? A girl?" I don’t think she did it.

You was three going on four. You was yay-high. You had a gap in your front teeth. Your hair was so-so long. Your big old eyes was bright. Your lashes was thick. Your voice was deep. Your dimples were deeper. But nobody wanted to hear all that, or even ask. Old Grandpa was strong. He grabbed my tight shoulders so firm the neck of my Hanes t-shirt choked me like a noose. Then it gave way to a moist rip.                                                  

"You better go on...." he grunted.

Nose to nose, face-to-face, man to man, strangers and dangers to each other with nothing in common at all but a busted-up train we had to take in the wee hours of the morning in a city didn’t give even give us emergency buttons past its downtown.

I tasted blood for the first time and felt my knees give out. Old Grandpa held me up. "She's gone, she's me.  Help me!"

He twisted his face, and relaxed his grip, held me up still under my shoulders. He understood he was to understand something but he didn't understand yet. The train strut high above 47th street in all this abysmal madness. We was in the next station going South. Many more to go, down to 63rd and Cottage, before it turn back around in the other direction. How many stops did I miss? Was it too late to run them all back? Which one you get off on? What stop a motherfucker force you out on? Would it be this one? Was you kicking and screaming? Did anybody hear or help or see? My insides felt rinsed, like I had been up drinking all night. That was my plan—bring you to my place, drink a little, drop you off at your mama’s the next day, see you the next time it was my turn.

The long black hairs in my grease. The freezer door ticked open. The cold water all run out. The umbrella waiting at the door, open, in a storm. The calendar skipped to the right month. The shirts ironed. The shoes matched. I know I never been so organized.

The preacher believe me. The rest tell me: “Mind’s playing tricks on you Saul.”

When the little ones with the big, soft balls on their hats and the yarn mittens tap across the platform, holding on to somebody’s hand—I don’t care if they black, white, yellow, gray—whatever. I think of you. I watch them. I can see they wonder why I’m closed up in a clear booth—like a cartoon, a mystery, a toy, something for them to break like a piñata. I wave at those ones. They wave back, sometimes they smile and start a peekaboo game. And they jiggle on down the tracks with the ding dongs of the little bells that’s supposed to wake up the dozing or help you keep count to get home. And when the platform get empty for a change or that one straggler run up too out-of-breath to look my way, I just run back of my hand across the few tears that freeze in winter.

I wrenched away from the old man and ran to the doors of the car with my arms on the doors like Samson bringing down the temples. Truth be told, at first I thought this was all just a misunderstanding. One breath outside and I may as well have gulped steam. I couldn't catch a breath. Grandpa came up behind me and looked out of the train past the back of my head. Down the platform, a few people stumbled off towards the glow of the downstairs underpass onto the street, but they were all tall and grown. None were babies. And nobody had any babies in their arms. No Sesame Street lunch boxes, to tip tap jelly shoes, no scalps with the hair parted into a cross from the back of the head.

No, stay on the train, she's here—I felt like somebody said.

“47th Street, Doors Closing, 55th Street next,” the conductor announced over a
scratchy intercom. I walked backwards before the train pulled off and I lost my balance. By this time, Grandpa understood. He came to me, and he fanned me with his newspaper, and he cooled me off, and he grabbed my shoulders, but I was fainting.

"You had a child on the train?" he asked me.  "A little girl?"

His uniform predicted my fate. He planted the idea. He, nobody else, helped me get off at end of the line. King Drive. Police showed up. They saw his orange and yellow vest. They knew he worked. And, that’s when I realized what had been missing all them years to bring me that respect: some uniform, a tag, a quick way to identify me, a respect. He ain’t leave me his name. He went on home, in the dark, after that. He left me, like you did. And the next few months was chaos and shouting and crying and sickness and crazy.

"Yes, yes, I did, I did," I told the old man, then. "About this tall. Two ponytails in front and one in back. Some pink barrettes in her hair. A Big Bird t-shirt on with some jean shorts. Jelly shoes on. A Sesame Street lunch box.”

"Well, why didn't you have your eye on her boy?"

…Delindo asked me to work two shifts in one day after the latest driver quit that job the way I had planned to do my first week. It started off just temporary, until I could get out the shelter and stop bringing my daughter to a SRO when it was my turn to have her…

…That had been 8 months ago, right when I came to Miss Shirley’s gym and she told me she needed a maintenance slash security man to stay in the basement. I kept the job with Delindo though, to make the money for Sharika’s day care and her needs…

…That day, Miss Carleen agreed to watch Sharika while I picked up the extra money. So I picked her up after midnight and not around 4:00 p.m. like I normally do...

…I had us some Church's Chicken. Me and Sharika was headed back to where I got to live, in the basement of the gym Mrs. Shirley run. I opened the box of chicken and spread some honey on Sharika's biscuit for her cause she was too little to do it herself. I put the spoon in the mashed potatoes for her and took a couple of bites off a greasy drumstick. Around Lake Street, Sharika told me "It's good Daddy." I smiled…

…I left her to her food and put my head back awhile. I had some cleaning up to do. Just a little sweeping and mopping. Then I can rest around two in the morning, I thought…

…I didn't put my arms around Sharika's neck cause she was eating and leaning forward. I figured for her to put her arms around me when she got finished…

…I heard a dog barking and running after me from the back of my head cause my job was hauling abandoned and euthanized animals in Chicago off to an incinerator in a used truck all day. I heard them almost every night and tonight was no different. I knew it wasn't real, but it caught me up anyway. I guess I got too deep into the haunts and fell beyond a nap into a sleep. I just jumped awake at a lurch on the train. Sharika was gone, and so was her lunch box and any trace of a box of chicken. And for real that’s what happened, officer and Mama and Grandma and officer and everybody and fuck you…

“I was tired," I told the old man. And that’s all I could tell the police, too.

But, I was high. High as a kite. Me and Delindo snuck off in the back when I finished my shift. We fired up that office. That’s why I was sleep on the train. I knew that. I should have had me some coffee instead, stayed up with you. Saw him take you. But, I knew you wouldn’t ask me why my eyes was red, then. And now, even when they still are, 20 years after last time I saw you in real life, from crying, nobody asks me at all.

At the annual Christmas shinding, they gave me a set of pens, a certificate and a right good dinner it was: “10 Years of CTA Service, To Saul Fortinberry.” And, they don’t even know we got history long before that. Now, I could have sued for you. I could have. But, something called ‘negligence’ got in the way. Wasn’t the City’s fault. Happens every single day, social worker told me. See it all the time, the court advocates said. Now, I heard there was some kind of alert folks supposed to give. There have television shows for folks like you. But, my phone wasn’t on for awhile, shortly after. The producer said I missed all her calls. And, hard to find work when you too scared to ride the trains.

And your mama and your other sisters, they fine. Now. They are. They moved. But, from what I hear through folks keep in touch with her, your mama decided not to keep on killing herself sick and rambling and tired. Everybody ran from her after some years. On disability now, she is. It keeps her out of a job so she can stay in the house, hating me. I still call her on your birthday. I have cake. She don’t answer me, though.

When the morning rush hour pass on by, especially in winter when the Howard Brown line step get abandoned until the thank-God nighttime to go home, I think about moving to the midnight shift. Less people. Less small talk. Less interruptions. More pay. Just keep my eyes out to nod to conductors and the ones still traveling. I just don’t know how I would keep myself, in the dark hours, from jumping in front of a train. On a whim. And in the meantime, if you wanna keep on using my soul as a punching bag, you may. I can understand.

The ring gone from the tub. The curtains shifted just a peek. The windows cleared up. Them damned keys right in my pocket. The crackers and cereal nibbled through but closed up, no droppings or crumbs. The magazines pop up in the mail. The midnight cigarette roll out from under the bed. The half snow angel under the full moon. The cookie jar empty. The penny jar full. The thoughts that count.