Gently flipping her curly, sand-dune inspired hair, Nicole Brumgardner opens a soda with her long red nails and curses as she breaks one. "I KNEW that was going to happen, and yet I did it anyway! It's like I have to test the universe to see if it's really going to follow the laws of physics," she laughs uneasily at herself and settles back into the couch. "The universe wins every time."
"Audrey and I were best friends from the day we met. I'd never met anyone like her, and haven't since. Everyone in the town called us sisters, although we looked night and day apart. Audrey was pale with blonde hair so light it looked almost holy. I was taller and dark and often was mistaken for her shadow."
Audrey and Nicole first met when Audrey's family moved to Darmstadt outside Frankfurt just down the middle class street from Nicole where many of the army families were stationed. Both girls were nine, both liked dolls ("We both hated Barbie, because Barbie was everything that neither of us were; we preferred Hollie Hobbie as there was something so earnest, so crafty in her,"), hated boys, and adored their fathers. Audrey and Nicole both had brothers who liked to tease them mercilessly, but neither girl ever fought back, nor did they cry.
"I never saw Audrey cry. No, I take that back, I saw her cry once. She cried when we had to dissect fetal pigs in school. She ran out and wouldn't come back in the room. I think it's because she was never allowed to have a pet."
Audrey's father showed up every day to pick Audrey up from Nicole's house where they were spending after-school time, as they always did, and Nicole's father always greeted him at the door with a hearty welcome. Both men liked each other. The mothers were cool to each other but realized that both their lonely daughters had made a fast friendship and were polite. Nicole's father called up the stairs, "Audrey, your cowboy father is here." She called him Stetson because he always wore cowboy boots.
She would come running down the stairs, "Daddy daddy daddy!" Her father laughed as he picked her up and said "How is my lovely rose between two thorns today?" She laughed back and they walked home hand in hand. Nicole likes to think that they held hands way beyond when was normal for a daughter to still want to hold hands with her father because Audrey had a tendency to meander, "She couldn't walk a straight line if her life depended on it." So her father held on to her, to keep her from blowing away.
"See, he called her his rose between two thorns because both of her brothers, one older, one younger, were 'perfect' children - good looking, athletic, popular, teachers' pets. Me and Audrey," Nicole pauses while considering her words, "were not." She leaves it at that.
Nicole and Audrey stayed best friends through the swamps of middle school, the prickly roller-coaster of high school, and went to colleges close by where they could visit as often as possible. A friendship that weathered first sets of heels ("Mine were Mary Jane black, hers were red!") first kisses, first fumbling sex acts, graduations, jobs, marriages and kids. They talked on the phone at least three times a week and their families often took vacations together.
"Audrey got married first. I was SO jealous! She had kissed a lot of toads and found a real prince in Emory, so I couldn't begrudge her. I actually met my future husband at a military function she and Emory dragged me to, so I couldn't complain."
Both were by then firmly married into the military life. They settled in neighboring towns, both deciding to stay in Germany and remain peripherally attached to the army through work. Audrey had two children, Nicole had one and multiple miscarriages. "No matter what time of day or night, no matter what happened, it was never too big or too small for Audrey to care." Nicole becomes visiblyupset and takes a minute to compose her warbly voice. "You don't find friendship like that very often. Ever."
Nicole got a phone call one night from Emory, who was panicked. "All I really remember about that night was thinking that she was off doing something - she was always wandering off - and that he shouldn't worry, that Audrey would be home soon."
Emory called back several more times over the course of the following hours and finally Nicole had to relent that something wasn't right and urged him to call the police. He did, and as the story always goes they can't do anything until she'd been missing for 24 hours. Emory and Nicole both started dialing the phones ferociously - calling acquaintances, the hospitals, the morgue, the firefighters. There hadn't been any accidents reported, and no one had seen her all evening.
Nicole told her husband what was happening and he urged her to go stay at Audrey's house.
"I drove so fast to get there, I should have been in an accident, or ticketed. At least the weather was clear or I might have...."
Nicole spent the night with Emory and Audrey's two children, trying to comfort them and reassure them that their Mommy would be home soon but her terror was rising. The morning light brought the harsh reality that something terrible had happened. "Audrey would NEVER leave her family. Family meant everything to her. That wasn't an option."
The police came and started taking down information for the missing person's report. They asked all sorts of intrusive questions of Nicole and Audrey's husband separately, then questioned each of the children alone. Afterwards there wasn't much to do but wait. All they could piece together was that Audrey had gone to the gym after work as it was Emory's turn to pick up the children and she was supposed to pick up dinner and be home around 7pm. Nothing unusual - a routine she'd done a thousand times. Emory paced and picked up the phone to call someone - anyone - but put each time put it back down quickly in case someone was trying to get through with news.
The police and detectives on the case said it quickly went cold. There was no sign of her or her car, no activity on any of her finances - she simply had disappeared. One detective insinuated that Audrey had run away for a new life. Emory fell apart. Audrey's parents had to fly in and take the children back to the United States. Nicole also disintegrated mentally and physically. "I can't explain it; it's like a piece of my lung, or my heart maybe, was just cut away and left on the winter stoop to perish. I couldn't BREATHE, I couldn't think. I had to quit my job. My marriage started to fail, my children suffered. I couldn't stand myself. I wanted to get out of my skin. I was going crazy with not knowing. We all were."
The winter months took their toll with the formerly happy families torn apart in grief, guilt, confusion. Then one day in the Spring, Emory called Nicole. "I didn't even recognize his voice any more. He sounded... defeated."
"They found her," his voice was quiet.
"What do you mean - they found her? Where IS she?"
"They found her body, her car." He went on to explain that some hikers had found a car that had apparently gone over a steep incline and crashed at the bottom. Vegetation and the trees growing out from the embankment had hid it for months. The street was not near anything that Emory nor Nicole had any reason to understand WHY Audrey would be there - it was miles from her home and the gym, not near work, not near anyone they knew.
After the funeral, Nicole demanded that Emory drive her to the spot. He was reluctant, asking her what good could possibly come of it, telling her "You're not going to find any answers there."
They drove there and Emory stayed in the car while Nicole got out and peered over the steep ravine, trying to understand. She squinted at the road, pictured Audrey's blonde head peering over the steering wheel.
"The worst part is, I just don't know. Did she do it on purpose? Or was it an accident? See, in my mind, both scenarios can work to stop the endless voices that whisper in my mind - wondering, asking, waiting, disbelieving still, even after all these years. I want to find her, ask her, or ask God or someone what really happened. Just so we can put it in some logical sequence and make SENSE of it all. That's just the worst part really - it simply doesn't make sense."
Nicole sometimes drives to the point where Audrey's car went over the embankment and just sits, looking over the ravine at the bend, at what would have been Audrey's last view. "I don't know why I go there. I've simulated accidents in my mind, trying to understand trajectories, if she was forced off the road, if she gunned it like Thelma and Louise, only without Louise - which'd be me," she laughs wryly. "I want to feel her, but I don't feel her there. I don't feel anything, just emptiness."
Audrey Patagonia was thirty-one years old when she died in 1994.
Thank you Nicole, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2008 by Antje Wilsch and Story of My Life ®