Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3423 words
SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

The Lost Ones

Walter Cummins

When she announced herself on the phone—“It’s Libby, Libby Merchant”—the voice high-pitched, as if at the edge of hysteria, Roger remembered her immediately, the skinny girl with a head of tight brown curls, eager on every committee all through high school. He hadn’t thought of her for years and wondered why on earth she was calling now. “It’s our thirtieth,” she announced. “Can you believe it?”

“Not really,” he told her, shaking his head, wishing he could hang up.

She wanted him to help track down some people everyone had lost touch with. “You’d be good at that,” she said, and he was sure she had no idea what he was good at. They’d hardly known each other. But, taken by surprise, it was easier to agree than come up with an excuse not to.

“We call them the lost ones.” Libby emitted a nervous laugh, as if the loss were her fault.

“Who’s on the list?” he asked and listened to her recite names of people he had no memory of until she came to Lauren Duryea. Roger didn’t think his swallow made a sound, but Libby reacted as if she had heard.

“Weren’t you two close?” she asked.

He imagined her eyes narrowing. “Briefly. A long time ago.”

“Otherwise she wouldn’t be lost.” Libby laughed again. She promised to email him whatever details she had about the names and said an abrupt goodbye, clearly with many others to call for favors.

“I’m on a reunion committee,” Roger told his wife, Evelyn. “Hunting down lost classmates.” She had been sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, listening to the conversation with puzzled eyebrows.

“I suppose that means we’ll have to go.” She sighed. He understood it would be an ordeal for her. She hated being confronted with new groups, content to socialize with a few long-time friends. “You never talk about high school. Why do you care?”

“Curiosity,” he told her. “I want to see what happened to kids I grew up with, how their lives turned out.”

“What really matters,” Evelyn said, “is how your life turned out.”

He walked across the room and stroked her hand.


Lauren Duryea. Over the years, Roger had played with the fantasy of a life with her, in the dark of sleepless nights recalling Lauren at eighteen, the deep grey eyes just inches from his, her fingers stroking his face, then kissing him with hungry eagerness. Roger could still feel the surge of her need.

But, even in moments of arousal, breathless, he had never told her he loved her, just that she was wonderful, precious. And she, in turn, only spoke his name, again and again, with such intensity that the memory of it, the sound in his brain, made him shiver.

They never had actually made love, though he was sure Lauren would have been willing, even more than he. They didn’t even speak of it, the way he had with other girls, engaging in a negotiation inseparable from the act. He wouldn’t think of asking if she were a virgin. Just the question would have been a violation. Roger had never had that feeling with another person, and the more he thought about it, he realized that the issue hadn’t been sex, the only thing he could name when he was young, but something else, something more profound that he still couldn’t identify. He suspected that was why he had resisted consummation, as close as they had been to it, a mere touch away. Yet often, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, he had brooded, fearing a terrible mistake. If they had made love, his life would be different.

And yet they had drifted apart. No, he had been the one, choosing a college a thousand miles away, and while she wept, telling her it was because he had won a scholarship even though the award was small, merely enough to pay for books and fees. He had convinced himself that he couldn’t turn it down. At first, he wrote several times a week, called her, then, gradually, stopped. She stopped too. Later he believed it had been his decision, she stopping because he had.


With the list of lost classmates Libby Merchant had given him, Roger deliberately avoided seeking Lauren, giving himself time to ponder what he would do when he found her. He did his hunting at work, in the privacy of his office, entering names in his search engine, learning that some of the results gave ages. That’s how he identified two of the men. The women were more difficult because of maiden names, but Libby had provided clues from others in the class, the vague memory of a married name, the states they had moved to. He was able to narrow down possibilities, sending emails and, after receiving several replies of sorry, not me, tracking down two more. They didn’t recall him but remembered Libby. Everybody knew Libby.


Roger had seen Lauren once in the time since high school. Just weeks after he missed the tenth reunion, deliberately, not knowing what he would have done if she were there, Lauren called him at his office in a city five hundred miles from their hometown. He recognized her voice immediately, in his surprise blurting, “How did you find me?” She had laughed, telling him it was easy, a mutual friend, but wouldn’t give the name, teasing him to guess. No, no, she kept saying with each person he suggested, shaking her head, and finally changing the subject.

“I was hoping to see you at the reunion,” she told him.

“I couldn’t make it.”

“Neither could I. But it made me wonder about you.”

He thought before answering. “That’s nice to hear.”

“Guess where I am?”

“Back in our town?”

“Hardly. I’m two blocks from your office.

Her own job, running training sessions for a large company, she said, had brought her to his city for a convention. Her evening was free. Could they meet? Roger found himself pretending to cough, forcing the words out. Of course he could. It would be great to see her. Then he sat for a half hour, his hand clutching the phone, trembling, before he could make himself lift it to tell Evelyn something came up. He’d have to work late. As usual, she didn’t ask for an explanation.

Lauren reached out to shake Roger’s hand when they met in the lobby of her hotel, then laughed and gave him a quick hug. He tensed, hands barely touching the back of her jacket, stepping away to take her in, nod appreciatively, spot the wedding ring on her finger, a narrow gold band. “You’re looking great.” Wonderful, he wanted to say. Spectacular. Incredible. “You too,” she said, squeezed his hand, gave him an intense gaze that he told himself was a professional trait, wouldn’t let himself believe was for him alone.

“I’ve reserved a table.” He let her lead him into an elevator that rose to a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city. Despite the decade he had lived there, he had never been in this hotel.

When they sat, Lauren was still staring at him, mouth turned in what seemed a secret smile. Roger broke the contact and looked past her to the glowing lights beyond the wall of windows. It’s a game, he thought. She’s playing with me. But when he turned back to her, she was studying the menu.

To make conversation, he told her, “You certainly travel well.” He gestured toward the room, the lights, the chandeliers, the linens. “Is this typical?”

“Hardly.” She smiled openly. “I spend my days in a cramped office or a windowless classroom.”

“And your nights?” The words jumped out of his mouth. He rubbed his face as if he could erase them, not looking at her hand on a wine glass, the ring reflecting candlelight.

“Our house is quite ordinary. Cluttered. All those toys the boys won’t put away.”

“You have children.” He felt a sinking of disappointment, then relief. She was encumbered, could never be more than a fantasy, a creature in his fiction of an alternate life, someone else, not the real Lauren.

“Two boys. Six and four. With my job they spend hours in day care.”

Lauren opened her purse and pulled out a loose photo of posed children, boys, the older standing, the younger on a chair, the print in a brown tone, the paper stiff, like the photos that come with the purchase of a picture frame. Neither boy resembled Lauren. “Handsome,” Roger said.

“Taken by a professional. I can never get them to sit still.”

“What does your husband do?” he asked.

“Vic? Not much.”

Roger’s expression, the quick snap of his head, brought another laugh from her. Short, abrupt.

“I meant not much with the boys. His hours are longer than mine. We hardly see each other. Even weekends.”

“Where did you two meet?”

“We were a college romance. You know how those go.” She raised her eyes.

“Not really. I never had one. Just dates.”

“So where did you find your wife?” She gestured toward his ring. He looked too, surprised to be wearing it, though he had been for almost four years.

“At my company. In another building. We were on the same mailing list.”

“Ah, a corporate romance.” She smiled again, and Roger doubted that she meant it. Despite the look on her face, her air of enthusiasm, he didn’t believe she was happy, then wondered if that was only what he wanted to believe.

He risked a statement, squeezing an edge of tablecloth in his fist. “College and corporate. Both more substantial than high school.”

For a second he thought she was going to reach out for his hand, but she just brushed something he couldn’t see from the tablecloth. “Oh, we had our moments.” He couldn’t tell if her tone were genuine.

They disputed the check, playfully, Lauren arguing that she was on travel expenses, Roger that he wanted to treat her. She won by giving the waiter her room number while he sat with a credit card in his hand.

They were silent while a busboy cleared the dishes, still not moving when the table was empty. “Would you like another drink?’ Roger asked her, knowing that he should have gone home an hour ago, that Evelyn was there, alone.

She nodded. “But let’s move to the bar.”

He pulled her chair back, standing close, breathing in the scent of her hair.

In the bar, Lauren did most of the talking, they way it had been when they dated, but never referring to the past, just going on and on about people at work, her two dogs, shopping for children’s clothes, working out in the company gym. Roger sensed an evasion in all she was saying, filling space to avoid confronting her real reason for being there. Once again, he felt a desperation about her, a need much more complex than he had realized as a teenager. He wished he could touch her face, comfort her.

He tried to change the subject, asking about people from their town. But Lauren knew nothing, had lost touch with almost everyone.

He looked at the clock over the bar and realized he didn’t have more to say, nothing that was safe. “I’d better be getting home.”

“Walk me to my room,” she said. “It’s just around the corner from the elevator to the garage.”

Roger followed behind her, Lauren rattling on about how great it was to see him, how happy she was that he was happy, though he had never told her that.

He took the room card from her hand and unlocked the door, pushing it open for her. She stood in the doorway. “Well.” She reached out the same way she had for the formal hug when they first met. He moved toward her but just touched her sleeve, convinced that if he held her she would have fallen into his arms, the two of them plunging toward the bed, wild for each other.


Often, in the years that followed, Roger relived those few hours, along with the scenes of adolescent desire, trying to reconcile the two Laurens, as if hoping to see beyond the blur of a double exposure. The more he searched his memory, the more certain he was that the evening had all gone wrong, that he had missed obvious clues, that Lauren had summoned him for something he failed to provide. It wasn’t just sex, perhaps not sex at all, though that would have been a fulfillment, at least for him. But she wanted more, something he was unable to understand.


Libby sent him an email message, not like the five a day she turned out for a group list, filled with exclamation points, about people who were coming to the reunion, attached photos, links to web sites, details of families and career. Usually Roger just skimmed them; he didn’t really care. This was addressed to him alone, titled GOOD NEWS!!!!

Libby was one of those people who had to describe each step of a process before she got to the main point. Roger had done so well in finding others that she thought he deserved help with Lauren. The exciting news, Libby reported, was that she had discovered a Simon Duryea in Philadelphia. Not a common name. It must be Lauren’s brother. She gave Roger an email address. Surely, Simon would know. “Success ahead!!!” Libby was pushing to achieve one hundred percent identification of class addresses. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came? “Imagine!” she wrote. “Thirty years!!!”


He tried to picture Simon and remembered that as much time as he had spent with Lauren in those months, he rarely saw Simon, a scrawny twelve-year-old, with knobby elbows, big feet, and thick, oversized glasses. The boy would come thumping down the stairs to rush into the kitchen to paw through a cutlery drawer and then run back up to his room with a knife or a scissors, oblivious of his father’s fierce glare of disapproval, of his sister, and, certainly, of his sister’s date.

One time Roger had asked Lauren about her brother, how it was to be an older sister, curious to understand how his own sister might have felt about him. “He’s a nasty little thing.” Lauren had said, laughing in such a way that Roger couldn’t tell whether she were serious.

“Does he annoy you?”

“Hardly. He acts as if I don’t exist.”

“I’d find that impossible,” Roger had said and pulled her into a kiss that left the two of them trembling.


Roger’s vague memory of the boy came from the few times he had visited Lauren’s home. Something about her family had made Roger uneasy, the strange silence, her father always in a suit, even on weekends, a tall lean man with a narrow mustache; her mother in a starched apron arranging flowers. That’s the only thing he ever saw her do, yet the house was pristine, the wood polished, the metal gleaming. Simon was always locked in his room building intricate models, a dizzying odor of airplane cement penetrating the thick floral scents. Lauren, unlike the others in the family, wasn’t eerily quiet, but only when she was away from home, laughing, chattering on, the words spilling from her. But in her home, her presence seemed vague. Or maybe it had been him, afraid to stand near the others, never close enough to touch Lauren, as if just touching would be a defilement in those rooms.


Roger sat at his keyboard for an hour before writing Simon, unsure how to word the message, whether to mention that he and Lauren used to date, that he had visited their house, that Simon might remember him. Should he be friendly, the way one is when getting in touch with an old acquaintance? If this first note were formal and businesslike, how would he explain himself if Simon responded with veiled annoyance at his impersonality? And what did it matter? All he wanted was information about Lauren.


When the Simon Duryea he had emailed did not respond in a week, Roger thought he had the wrong man, another person who was not even going to bother acknowledging a non-existent sister. Still, he thought he might resend. Email messages do get lost or deleted by mistake. Perhaps this Simon, fearing viruses, screened for anyone not on his secure list.

But the same afternoon Roger decided to try again once he read his messages, there was one from “duryeas.” Roger delayed opening it, checking the others first, those from people in his company, then deleting spam that offered low-interest loans or photos of bizarre sex acts.

He had to go over Simon’s words several times before they sank in, run together in one long paragraph, all lower case. Simon recalled someone named Roger, no more: lauren and i lost touch years and years ago. and she moved several times though I have no idea where she lives now. i don’t remember her married name. I don’t know if she ever had children. she might have gotten divorced. not long ago—i don’t remember how—i heard a rumor that she was very ill, may even be housebound, bedridden. but i have no information about her condition. i know nothing that would help you find her.

For the rest of the afternoon Roger sat with clenched fists, furious, wishing he could punch Simon’s face. How could a man ignore his only sister, not care about reports of a serious illness? That night he lay awake, Evelyn curled on the mattress, facing the wall with the fluted breathing of her sleep, imagining Lauren tight against him, so real he could taste her hair.


The next evening, Libby called, frantically curious. Roger could imagine her bouncing up and down in a chair. Tell me! Tell me! She groaned when he explained that Simon knew so little. Her disappointment, he sensed, wasn’t for Lauren but for a gap in her quest of locating all the lost ones. At that moment he decided he would do everything he could to find Lauren but tell Libby nothing.

“What was that about?” Evelyn asked.

“Nothing. Nobody who matters.”

He sent a short note to Simon, pretending to thank him and asking if he could think of anyone who might know more. Simon returned the email with just the word “no” over Roger’s original message. “What about old neighbors of your parents?” Roger responded and received in return, “they’re probably all dead too. people die.”

“Not Lauren,” Roger shot back. “Not so young.”

He waited several days, checking the first thing when he turned on his office computer, even getting up in the middle of the night at home. It was there he discovered that Simon had written to him at 2 a.m. “i don’t care if lauren is alive or dead.”

I DO. Roger pounded the keys, furious.

With a slam of his hand, Roger deleted Simon’s message. He sat staring at the blank screen.


Roger walked to the men’s room, splashing water into his eyes, staring at his face in the mirror and trying to imagine Simon standing beside him, grotesquely thin, one of his father’s old suits hanging loose on his narrow frame, a tie tight on his throat, his hair wild in wispy strands, his flesh pale, thick pink glasses halfway down his nose, the eyes crazed.

A scene took shape in his memory, his car parked in the street outside Lauren’s house, his hand inside her blouse rubbing her breast, her mouth against his ear emitting sounds of pleasure. Something made him open his eyes, look out through the soft strands of her hair. There at a bedroom window stood Simon, his glasses reflecting circles of moonlight. He had formed his hand into a pistol, aimed down at them, and squeezed. Roger was sure it had happened, that he had actually seen it, but never said a word to Lauren.

Roger wouldn’t imagine Lauren seriously ill. He could only think of her as healthy, still lovely. He wondered if she really ever had a career, children, a husband named Vic, but knew it didn’t matter. Her life had nothing to do with his.

Of course, he wouldn’t attend the reunion. He would tell Libby it was Evelyn. They would be staying home because his wife didn’t like crowds.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury