The two white-haired boys vanished from their house on a Monday afternoon. No forced entry, no evidence of foul play, and nothing missing from their room to suggest they’d run away on a whim. Their mother, Miranda Shifflett, and her boyfriend, Byron Wilson, had gone bowling, leaving her two sons, ages eight and ten, home alone. When Miranda and Byron returned two hours later, they found the boys’ favorite video game, Super Smash Brothers, on pause, Link and the Ice Climbers frozen in mid-battle.
News of the disappearances plowed through Kelley Street like a bullet. Parents called children inside, hunted down teenagers and yanked them home, and shut their doors against the balmy September afternoon. In hushed tones, husbands and wives, grannies and nieces, play-cousins and stepsons said what could have easily gone unsaid: only four white people lived on Kelley Street, and with two of the four suddenly missing, the street’s racial tension would be thicker than the Virginia humidity. Blue and red lights swirled on their windowpanes. The Harrisonburg Police Department knocked on doors, interviewed everyone on the street, and afterward, thanked the brown faces behind the screen doors for cooperating. By the end of the evening, every man, woman, and child within ten blocks of Kelley Street had been questioned and there was still no sign of Miranda Shifflett’s boys.
Kelley Street slanted up a hill in downtown Harrisonburg. From the top of the hill, residents could glimpse Massanutten Mountain sloping toward the northeast and the city’s lethargic push toward the west. By dinnertime that day, the street was deserted. Older couples didn’t go for their evening walks. The Bottleman, who lived in a subsidized townhouse at the top of the hill, didn’t knock on doors asking for plastic and aluminum to trade in for coins. Reginald Yates didn’t yell for his seventeen-year-old to mow the got-damned yard. Bree Wilson’s chihuahua didn’t scramble from a window and go prancing up and down the street, his metal tags dinging like wind chimes. Even Don Crolley, who spent weekdays watching his television and the block from his porch, shut himself inside.
At Miranda Shifflett’s pink house, the yard’s dandelions were shocked to white, the gray roof sagged farther inward, and the rainbow windsock was faded and still. Police officers filed in and out, questioning Miranda and Byron for hours. Miranda was an assistant manager at a doll shop in the Valley Mall and sometimes brought home dolls with minor defects. In her living room: a blonde doll wrapped in Victorian lace, a feather-laden Cherokee doll, and a red-headed doll with a shamrock belt buckle and a leprechaun hat. Miranda sat on the sofa, twisting a napkin, while Byron rubbed circles into her back, his eyes closed. He nodded a little, as if in time to music. He was praying.