Doe | Ali Bryan

32 mins read

A blue backpack, filthy, open. Five-year-old Liza was miles from the campsite—metres? What was a mile? Minutes. It had taken her roughly five to get here, to this tree with its fat Santa trunk and bony roots. Mushrooms all around. And to this backpack. Maybe longer.

The deer had zig-zagged and bucked and hip-hopped trying to lose her. At one point, crossing the river, she wondered if she hadn’t lost the original deer and was now in pursuit of an imposter. How many deer were out here in this mom-forsaken forest?


Liza, now in her early forties, is on a bus scrolling her phone. She is crammed between a holy man and a mother with a hot lumpy baby strapped to her chest when the backpack comes across her news feed. Vintage, LL Bean, blue. It had been recovered by hikers. She clicks on an arrow to ‘read more.’ Found in a swamp. It had been photographed on a white table, the straps spread out and stretched like limbs. Exhibit A.


The backpack was unzipped, the top gaping like a black mouth, just enough to stuff her small fist inside and explore. Liza scanned the forest to make sure no one was watching. She’d been grounded last week for touching her brother’s Hot Wheels. She’d almost gotten away with it but she’d put them back wrong. The Stingray went between the Seville and the Citation, not the Porsche. They were both orange. It was an easy mistake. No TV and no dessert for three days. No more races round the bathtub walls.

Her finger grazed something hard, a handle, smooth as a hammer. She thought of her dad’s workshop, the plank of wood and the coffee can of nails he’d set out on the floor when he was expecting company. “Have at ‘er,” he’d say, “don’t whack your thumb,” and ‘er she’d have, pummelling nails into the board until the company left and he unlocked the door and carried her to bed, her nightgown smelling of toolbox and weekend.

She peered inside. It was an axe, similar to the one her dad used back at the campsite. At least this one had a cover on the blade. She pushed it aside and fished out a sack of M&M peanuts. Open. This was going to be hard. M&Ms were her favorite. Also forbidden. She only got to eat them at the laundromat when she was being babysat by Washer and Dryer.

She ate the nuts with her eyes closed, mimicking the way her father drank beer, especially the first can of the night. She liked how his eyes fluttered and his shoulders unbuckled as if everything was right with the world. Hot Wheels correctly shelved, money in the bank, a mother in the kitchen. Except there was no mother in the kitchen. Just a driver’s license of one who’d ‘run off’ before Liza could even walk.

Holy hell, the deer was watching her! Its ears twitched from where it stood beside a log. She could see it through the ferns and alders, quivering, spying.


Liza nudges the holy man’s wheelie suitcase, which has come to rest against her knee. He doesn’t notice because he’s reading an unholy book. Liza had glimpsed the cover: chalk outline of a body, black background, matte paper, no title.

Space is in short order. Passengers stand in the aisle and the baby, warm as a coffee pot, brushes against her arm at every stop. The mother balances a bottle of milk on her lap. Occasionally it tips and Liza watches it drip, soiling the mother’s skirt.

She zooms in on the image of the backpack, specifically, the front pocket zipper. She distinctly remembers the pull tab had been missing, because she had to use her fingernail to pry it open and she barely had nails back then. Her father kept them clipped. He’d said too long of nails would attract the wrong kind of men.

It’s through zooming in that she also recognizes the LL Bean patch. Someone, probably the backpack’s owner, maybe a classmate or younger sibling, had coloured the Ls with yellow highlighter. Something Liza used to do to the rims and toes of her Converse sneakers. Something that also got her grounded and spanked. Destruction of property was a greater crime than the displacement of property, even when it was your own. God knows what the punishment would have been if her father had found out she’d killed the goldfish. It wasn’t her fault she overfed them. She could stay home alone, but hadn’t yet learned to read.


No one would miss a few M&Ms in a bag this size. It was the kind of bag a dad would buy for a ferry ride or a family road trip to the woods. Not her dad, because he was allergic to peanuts, but same idea. On this trip it had been pretzels, which Liza was not a fan, but they’d arrived too late at the Bulk Barn and it was already closed.

“Please don’t tell,” she’d begged the deer, which was now standing on its hind legs, front hooves drooping like oven mitts. “I’m only having a few.” That was untrue. Once she started, Liza couldn’t stop. She sat down on a stump to stabilize herself. She’d already dropped three nuts trying to eat standing up. She was only going into grade one after all, and her motor skills needed practice. She needed more time in the workshop.


What else was inside the backpack, besides the axe? Liza exes out of the image and goes back to the accompanying news story. Under a “CONTENTS” heading, the axe is listed, a sweatshirt—she remembers that—green crew neck with some kind of landscape motif on the front, a few tent pegs, a guitar pic, and OMG, the red-foil Thermos! She drank from it, even though it was filled with dirty black coffee. Same brand has her dad’s. She could tell by the smell – smoky and foreign. Like Casablanca, her father had said. She hated that coffee. It was still hot enough to burn her tongue. But she had to wash away the peanuts. Her father said he could smell them a mile away. It’s why when they did shop at the Bulk Barn, with its never-ending bins of nuts, it was her bother who went in with a grocery list and a ten-dollar bill.

There is no mention of rocks under the list of contents.


Liza searched for the dropped M&Ms. She crawled around the forest floor, brushing away debris, peeling back ferns. She scraped her knuckle on a rock, paused to lick the blood that tasted like old screws or nails.  Ants clambered over her arms. Two M&Ms had rolled into a crevasse between a gnarly clump of roots, another landed by a mushroom. She brushed them on her shirt, gently so she didn’t leave behind the scent of peanut, and ate them. That’s when she remembered about her breath. That’s when she went for the Thermos.


The baby beside her begins to fuss. An arm shoots up. The mother wraps her hand around the baby’s, gently tucks the tiny fist back inside the cloth sling and whispers “shhh,” her voice so soft and compelling that Liza finds herself holding her breath only exhaling when the holy man disrupts the silence by turning a page.   

She glances out the window. They are passing a Denny’s, which means there are still five more stops to the hospital. Back to the article. “His wallet was missing.”

True story. She hadn’t found a wallet, only a penny in a seam at the bottom of the backpack. Pennies were everywhere back then. Liza had found a few at the campsite’s playground and they were always around the schoolyard or inside her dad’s plush recliner. Bills were different. Her dad seemed to oscillate between having hundreds: stuffed in the freezer, jammed in a tin, sometimes spilling out of the bread basket on the kitchen counter, to having none. Sometimes for weeks at a time.

Liza’s kindergarten teacher had told her that dead people sometimes left coins behind for their loved ones to find. Liza was enamoured with the idea. Since her mother never came back after running off, she assumed the pennies must have been from her. Only later did she learn most mothers sent dimes; heaven’s coin of choice.


With her back to the deer, Liza dumped the rest of the coffee in the river. It took a few tries to screw the lid back on the Thermos. Now, what to do with the backpack? She’d already gotten in trouble twice since the camping trip began. Once for not collecting enough kindling, (she and her brother had been told to each collect a big pile, but she’d gotten distracted by ladybugs and her pile was deemed ‘not big enough’). And a second time for coming out of the tent last night after she’d been put to bed. Just like at home, bedtime for her was adult time for him.  But she had to pee. Her father softened slightly when she explained this. He couldn’t be too mean because he had company around the fire, someone with a guitar—the neighbor?—and he’d let her have cream soda before bed. He still grounded her, but only from the TV and only for a day and only when they got home.

She was probably already in trouble a third time. She was supposed to be playing at the playground. Her dad had dragged her and her brother out of bed early and sent them off so he could deal with some stuff. She noticed he smelled funny, like the nails in his workshop and he didn’t make pancakes like he promised.

She’d been on the swings when she’d spotted the deer and followed it into the woods. At least no one had come looking for her. Yet. Her brother was supposed to be watching her but there were other boys at the playground. Other boys with Hot Wheels and they took turns racing them down the aluminum slide. The orange Porsche always won. Maybe he’d be the one to get grounded this time.

Liza slipped the Thermos back inside the backpack. Her knees were dirty. She’d have to clean them before she went back. The playground was built on gravel, not dirt. The empty M&M package hung out of her shorts pocket. She scrunched it in her fist to make it small, poked it down deeper. She could burn it in a fire. The neighbor had one going this morning. She could smell it over the coffee, over the nails.


A man in a collegiate sweater boards the bus. Liza wonders what he’s studying. Criminology? Math? Phys-ed? 

It was a biologist counting ticks on the northern Appalachians moose population who found John Doe. He was a skeleton by then and his bones had been scattered. The handiwork of a scavenger or two. The back of his skull had been partially crushed, but the artist had still managed to reconstruct his face. She had him fair, with a full head of hair, styled and well-groomed. No clothes had been found with the body so she put him in a navy K-way jacket.

That was back in 2003, a time of nightclub fires and hurricanes. The US was invading Iraq, everyone was joining the EU and the first cloned horse was born. At twenty-five, Liza had just moved out and no one was thinking about John Doe. He didn’t match a single missing person case in Canada or the US.  

Liza moves her foot and the wheelie suitcase begins to roll. The mother tries to stop it with her knee, stirring the baby, but the case keeps moving. The college student, standing in the aisle, jumps into action, halting the luggage with his boot. The commotion causes Liza’s phone to slip from her lap. She bends to retrieve it before anyone can view the story of the backpack projecting from her screen. The holy man leans in to recover his wheelie bag. Liza notices a dime wedged into the seat bracket as she and the holy man clash heads.


Liza had noticed the swamp when they’d first arrived at the campsite a few days earlier. She and her brother had been following a bike trail in the woods when they’d taken a wrong turn. They didn’t make it very far, one couldn’t in training wheels, but that didn’t stop them from exploring. There was a massive rock in the distance that her brother wanted to climb. He was always throwing his Hot Wheels off things to see which one best survived the damage. They ditched their bikes and marched through the knee-high woods when it started to get wet. Real wet. Her bother was in flip flops. Those could dry off, but Liza was in sneakers because she couldn’t pedal in flip flops. Her dad would get mad if she got her sneakers wet even though they were two sizes too small. So, they headed back, her brother pushing her most of the way, angry that he couldn’t prove that the Baja Breaker with the separate plastic opening hood wasn’t the toughest truck in his collection.

Liza tried to find her bearings. She looked to the deer for direction, but it must have fled when she was cleaning her face with the crewneck. To get to the swamp, she’d have to cross back over the river, follow it toward the bike rental hut and hang a left, but she’d have to do all that under the cover of the trees. Why couldn’t the backpack be green or camo, like her dad’s? She took off her sneakers and crossed the river barefoot.


Liza holds a tissue to her forehead, keeps her phone close to her face. The article says his name is Elliott Claassen. Of course, she already knows this. The double “A”s and double “S”s in his last name remind her of the two “L”s on his backpack. She’d found his wallet a month ago when her father was transferred into hospice care. Her father’s house, her childhood home, nestled on the right street in a now gentrified neighborhood, was popular amongst real estate agents. Whenever Liza went to visit, there was always a new flyer in the mailbox. Thinking about selling?

Liza was.

When her father first got sick, her brother wanted to keep the house. Being three years older, he remembered their mother. Her soft arms and long hair. The way she slept in his bed when he heard noises at night. When he heard the company. He remembered the night she ‘ran off’ too. “Milk,” he’d told her. “She was going to get milk. For you.”  

To him, selling the house meant forgetting her. As long as he could run his fingers across the empty Hot Wheels shelves, trace the cigarette burns in the linoleum, smell his childhood sheets, her memory would stay alive. Unfortunately, he was crushed by a crane before their father even had his first chemo treatment. The trades had been a bad idea. Not enough practice. Shortly after the camping trip when she’d found the backpack, they were banned from the workshop. Company didn’t come around as often and their dad got a job in a plant.

Liza cleared out the house herself. Mornings, evenings, between shifts. Her father’s possessions were meager. He still had the same plush recliner they’d had growing up. Same toaster, same wallpaper, and the only other picture of her mother besides her driver’s license, taken in the hospital after she’d given birth to Liza. Her arms did look soft. Light as milk.

The bus pulls up to the terminal and the mother stands, moves to the rear door. The holy man stuffs his book in his wheelie case and expands the retractable handle.

Liza’d left the workshop for last.


“What are you doing?” Her brother had caught her. Actually, she’d caught him peeing behind the bike rental shed. “What are you doing with that guy’s backpack?”

Had there been a guy? Liza hadn’t seen one. Not this morning.

“Don’t tell,” she begged.

“What’ll you give me if I don’t?”

“I’ll buy you a Hot Wheel.”

“Bullshit,” he said, “You’re just a baby. Babies don’t have money.”

Not true. Their mother had been sending Liza pennies all summer. A few more and she’d have enough for not one, but possibly two Hot Wheels.

“Pinky promise,” Liza said.

They joined fingers and her brother ran off. From the edge of the road, the swamp beckoned.


Most of the stuff went to Goodwill, some to the dumpster by her brother’s old apartment. Liza kept the picture of her mother and the GMC Motorhome Hot Wheel she’d paid for with pennies that summer and had given to her brother to keep quiet. It had gone missing not long after the school year started and its disappearance almost unravelled their deal. She stole a dollar from the school librarian’s desk drawer to buy a replacement, but the store was all out of motorhomes and she had to settle for a silver van instead. Inside Story was its name. 

Liza found the motorhome Hot Wheel when she found the wallet, both of them buried in a rusted can of screws and exploded batteries. Acid had dripped through the mass of metal painting everything a sour green. The motorhome’s plastic hood was cracked, the wallet soiled and delicate. There was nothing inside but Elliott Claassen’s driver’s license. Twenty-three years old in 1983 and the artist had it wrong. His hair was black as coffee, like his guitar, not blond, his nose, handsome, maybe even a touch feminine. Why hadn’t anyone reported him missing?

The bus jerks and the doors open. Liza gathers her backpack, follows the holy man down the stairs and heads south towards Baker Street. The hospice is a block away. She catches a glimpse of the holy man’s dark robe before he ascends the steps of a blackened sandstone church and disappears inside. The mother and baby are nowhere to be seen.


Liza figured she must have had soft arms like her mother, because when she first tried to hurl the backpack into the swamp, it didn’t even make it off the bank. She had to chase after it, try again. She spent the next twenty minutes gathering rocks, loading them into the backpack until it was full. After she zipped it shut, she kicked it off the bank and watched it sink. When it was gone from her sight and nixed from her imagination, Liza crossed her heart. She didn’t know if that would help anything but her brother did that before he jumped off the shed on his BMX and he never got hurt. Or found out.


The male nurse with the long braids greets her on the seventh floor. He is kind and tattooed with a gait not unlike her father’s when he was still mobile. Wide and heavy-footed. Today he treads lightly. Liza doesn’t need to ask him how her father is doing because when they reach his room the door is closed and a carboard nightingale has been pinned to the door. The nurse quietly ushers her inside and tells her to take a few minutes.


It took a few minutes to register what was happening when Liza returned to the campsite. At first, she thought she’d gotten lost. Where was their yellow tent? Then she realized her father had already taken it down. She could see the edges of the canvas poking up from the back of the pickup. The fire was out, the camp chairs had been collapsed, and the picnic table had been wiped clean, at least by a shirt sleeve. No one had bothered to remove the lump of ketchup.

“Get in the truck,” her father snarled, collecting bills scattered around the ground. He picked up her bike with one hand and threw it in the back. She flinched when it landed with a crash and the front wheel twisted. Her brother watched from the back seat, his hands wrapped around the vinyl. When her father went to load the cooler, Liza ran to the neighbor’s campsite. His tent was open, empty. She dumped the M&M wrapper into the fire’s angry middle. She watched the package unfurl. When she turned away, she could it hear  it wheeze. That’s what it sounded like to disappear.

No one spoke on the way home. It was a three-hour drive and they only stopped once for her father to wash his hands. He was in the bathroom for a very long time.


Liza sits beside her father’s bed. The sheet has been pulled up around his shoulders. Even now he smells like nails. Like blood. She contemplates tugging the sheet up over his face. She contemplates ripping it off entirely.

There’s a small cabinet in the corner containing her father’s personal belongings. She removes Elliott’s wallet from her backpack, stuffs it inside her father’s ancient robe and ties off the bag. A light knock on the door.

“You okay in here?” the nurse calls from the doorway.

“I think I’m done,” Liza whispers. She hadn’t expected the tears.

An orderly enters the room, another nurse, someone resembling an administrator.

An attendant wheels her father away. Liza watches from the hallway as the man loads him onto a distant elevator. She observes until the doors wheeze shut and the elevator clunks into motion.

Back inside the room, the orderly holds up the bag. “His personal effects?”

Liza flees. Outside, she stops on the sidewalk to catch her breath. A deer grazes in the greenspace behind the hospice. She moves towards it. Amidst the dandelions and mushrooms, a dime. Liza picks it up, examines it in her palm and then pushes it deep into her pocket where it won’t fall out.  


Ali Bryan is an award-winning novelist and Pushcart Prize nominated creative nonfiction writer who explores the what-ifs, the wtfs and the wait-a-minutes of every day. Her work has been published in literary magazines in North America and the UK and she has three novels forthcoming in 2023. She lives in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies on Treaty 7 Territory, where she has a wrestling room in her garage and regularly gets choked out by her family.