The following is a selection from the first episode of a planned podcast series, Whisper Colorado. It was written in collaboration with authors Kallyn Hunter and Jo O’Brien (as Jessica Aelwood.) Though this episode–and further episodes–are planned for release, production was unfortunately halted due to an unforseen health issue that has since been addressed.
Whisper Colorado is, in short, a story about a young woman who returns to her hometown to discover that her past looks different when viewed through the eyes of an adult. It is a “Mountain Gothic” story that combines slice-of-life character drama with supernatural mystery.
On Wednesday, July 28, 1999, Devin Morris, age ten, disappeared from Whisper, Colorado.
Devin left his parents’ home around ten that morning to visit his friend, Maisie. He was supposed to be home by one that afternoon, so his family could drive to Cripple Creek to spend the evening with visiting grandparents.
According to phone records, it was 1:13 when his mother, Deborah, called Maisie’s house, annoyed that Devin was late. Maisie told her that Devin had left around noon so he would be home early.
The walk from Devin’s house to Maisie’s was about ten minutes. Deborah walked the intervening area, looking for her son, and when she found no sign of him, she called the Teller County Sheriff.
The only physical evidence of Devin discovered after his disappearance was a set of footprints leading down to the nearby creek. The search was conducted along the water and further downstream as most speculated that Devin had gone down to the creek and been swept away. Why Devin strayed from the straightforward path home to the creek is unknown.
A public search force was organized, and they combed the area in force for about two weeks, although volunteers continued to report through week five.
By that time, summer break was over and school had started again. Despite the widespread unease at the disappearance of a young boy, parents still let their children walk to and from school alone.
(Recording transfer to ambient in-car noises. Radio playing quietly. School sounds, at start)
MAISIE: It’s Tuesday. February ninth. Driving past Millard Fillmore K-through-Twelve. God– it’s just like the last time I saw it. New paint on the bike racks. I think they got a new playground. I would’ve killed for that swing-set when I went here.
(Transfer to studio mic)
MAISIE: My name is Maisie Holbrook. Three days ago, I received a phone call from Sheriff Tillman of the Teller County Sheriff’s Department, informing me of my father’s death by suicide.
(Back to ambient mic)
MAISIE: I genuinely, genuinely, never thought I’d be back here. I thought I’d–
(sound of slammed brakes, children talking)
(sigh, continuing to drive)
A line of kids just walked in front of me. It’s weird, being in a town where traffic law was never developed.
MAISIE: There was no one else who would come. My father lived alone. The rest of his family was dead, and he and my mother hadn’t spoken in over a decade. As it was, I took the flight from Chicago to Denver, and arrived in Whisper, Colorado just around three-thirty on a bright, cold, February afternoon.
MAISIE: Whisper hasn’t changed. There are a couple of new store-fronts on the main street. That ice cream place by the gas station is new. Whisper’s too small for a Wal-Mart, but it looks like the Garcias sold their grocery store to Kroger after Mom and I left.
MAISIE: My parents divorced when I was eleven, and I moved away from Whisper with my mother, to the suburbs of Chicago. I hadn’t returned since. My most recent memory was staring over the junk in the back of our sedan at the statue of Cardinal Dagmar Beckenbauer, the founder of the church that’s now Our Lady of the Pines, holding a pick. Some kind of homage to the miners that were here first. It’s pretty bad.
MAISIE: Oh my god, Cardinal Dagmar is still there. When I was a kid, I thought he was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen — and damn, I was right. It’s a lot less scary now, though. That melted face… Oh! Oh, Jesus – I wonder if my Dad still has the painting of him he did. Did he ever get rid of that?
Pulling onto the road out of town, now. I never liked coming down this way. I think… was it Devin? Someone told me they kept dead bodies here. And, I mean– they were right, but still. As a kid, it seemed pretty bad. And like everything else here, it hasn’t really changed. Big trees hanging over the road, like something out of a fairy tale. You don’t usually see pines that look like that, all dark and bent. I don’t blame Dad for spending so much time out in the woods. I forgot how… isolated they could make you feel.
Man. The houses here look like they’re falling apart. They’ve looked that way for as long as I can remember. This close to the creek, with all the floods, I can’t imagine why…
Aaand there’s Dr. Wallace.
MAISIE: Dr. Wallace was my father’s general practitioner. He was waiting for me outside of McRath and Son Funeral Home.
(Maisie parks and exits the car. Sound cue: door slam, gravel crunch. Footsteps as Maisie and Dr. Wallace walk to greet each other.)
DR. WALLACE: Maisie? Maisie Holbrook?
MAISIE: Dr. Wallace. Hi.
DR. WALLACE: I haven’t seen you since you were this high. Thanks for getting back so fast.
MAISIE: It’s okay, work has been–
DR. WALLACE (interrupting): What’s that?
MAISIE: Oh. Do you mind if I record this?
DR. WALLACE: I guess not. I didn’t realize this was a story you wanted to tell.
MAISIE: It’s just for me.
DR. WALLACE: Right. Well, listen– I’m sorry for your loss. I wish you could have come home under better circumstances. If you want to step inside, we can start the process.
MAISIE: “The Process.” It’s funny. Until you have to deal with it, you don’t think much about what goes into preparing for a funeral. My father didn’t prepare a will, so I had to guess how a man I hadn’t spoken to in ten years wanted his affairs handled. Mrs. McRath told me there was a plot available in the cemetery for him, but it seemed– wrong. I opted for cremation. All the paperwork was ready, but Dr. Wallace was pretty firm that I come and view the body, first.
DR. WALLACE: Through here. Do you need some time with him?
MAISIE: … No. (silence, as they look over the body.)
MAISIE: He looked good, considering. More silver in his beard than I remembered. He was pale. I guess that goes without saying. But they’d done a good job of cleaning him up for me, I think.
MAISIE: What did he do?
DR. WALLACE: Well, he didn’t do anything. They found him up on his roof the other morning. It was the hypothermia that took him.
MAISIE: On his roof? What was he doing up there?
DR. WALLACE: Stargazing?
MAISIE: (cold laugh) …I’m sorry. Was he– I mean, did he…
DR. WALLACE: No blood alcohol content. No narcotics. He was clean. As far as we can tell, he just got tired.
MAISIE: Was it dementia? Alzheimer’s?
DR. WALLACE: He was fifty-five and clear-headed. I saw him just eight weeks ago. He was as healthy as could be.
MAISIE: Did he seem depressed? Or anxious, or–
DR. WALLACE: Maisie. I’m sorry. We don’t know why he did it.
MAISIE: …Yeah. Okay.
(Ambient sound: cloth shifting as Dr. Wallace covers the body)
DR. WALLACE: He never was the same after the Morris boy disappeared.
MASIE: Devin? But they found him.
DR. WALLACE: (snorts) They found someone.
DR. WALLACE: (sighs audibly) I apologize. That’s neither here nor there.
MAISIE: No, no. What does that mean, they found “someone”?
DR. WALLACE: There’s no use dusting off old bones. Let’s get those papers signed, and we can talk about the memorial.
MAISIE: I hadn’t really planned on a ceremony, but Dr. Wallace had convinced me to have one when we’d talked on the phone. My dad’s family had lived in this town for four generations. Besides me, he was the last of Whisper’s Holbrooks. So I signed the paperwork. Our Lady of the Pines wasn’t charging me anything to hold a small service, and the date was set for the following Saturday.
After that, all that was left was dealing with my father’s affects. His house was across the creek from town, not far away, but isolated by ice and snowmelt. The only way to get to it was to cross a bridge– it used to be an old bridge, but one spring it got swept away by the current and my dad had to rebuild it. The new one was mostly concrete and rebar. It’s not wide enough to drive across, so I had to park on the other side and walk up to the house. There’s nothing quite as fun as crossing a frozen concrete bridge, on foot, wearing Converse, in the middle of February. At least the new bridge had a handrail.
I’d forgotten how beautiful the creek could be in winter. Like a snapshot, white river rapids caught in the sharp, cold air. The last snow hadn’t melted yet, but the water cut a black ribbon through the ice that clung to the banks. Beautiful. But stark.
Walking up the path to my father’s house… the thing that stood out to me was how normal it all seemed. My Dad’s truck was still parked in front of the garage, extension cord trailing from the hood to the garage to keep the diesel engine warm. Someone must have been by to turn the lights off, because my dad never turned off the porch light. It drove my mom crazy.
The key still had an ID tag from the Sheriff’s office taped across it. I peeled it off before I climbed the stairs and unlocked the door.
(Ambient mic; sounds of shoes on old wooden stairs, key in lock)
MAISIE: The last time I was here, I was wearing… overalls? Jesus. And a Power Rangers backpack. I loved that backpack. I lost it my first day of school in Chicago.
(walks inside, tosses key in a bowl. Pauses. Turns on lights. Turns on more lights.)
Same carpet. Walls are a different color. They used to be… like, a light powder blue. His tools are right here by the door, set out like he was gonna stop by a client’s house after he…
I can’t decide what to look at first. The studio? His room? My room?
Mail on the counter. Bills paid through the month… Bank statement… Huh. New subscription for Dish Network. There’s a dirty plate in the sink, from… from his last dinner, I guess.
(pulls out a bottle, sound of cap hissing)
Mm. We drink the same kind of beer. Don’t know how I feel about that. (takes a sip.) Fridge is pretty well stocked. I guess. I don’t know what he eats— Uh. What he ate.
God. Past-tense. That’ll take some getting used-to.
Ha! Oh, man. He still has– had a landline. I haven’t seen an answering machine in ages. Wonder how bad cell reception is, up here…
(takes a sip, sound of pressing buttons on the answering machine.)
VOICE 1: Hey, Marshall. This is Don, at the hardware store in Cripple Creek? We finished the repairs to your drill-press. It’s ready for you to pick up whenever–
VOICE 2: Marsh, hi. This is Toby. Toby Clark? I was wondering if you could stop by when you have a free minute. The sink is still giving me trouble. I know you looked at it when you were here last week, but I think this is a different problem. Anyway, call me back when you get a sec.
VOICE 2: Hey, Marshall. Toby again. Just checking to see if you’d got my call. Nice talking to you. And… Hope you’re doing better. Okay, thanks. Call me back.
MAISIE: Doing better…
Doing better. (cold laugh) Sorry, Toby. Maybe I’ll see you at the memorial.