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On July 13, cousins Elizabeth Collins, 8, and Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, decided, as they often do, to go for a bike ride together. This being a hot morning in Evansdale, Iowa, they poured two cold glasses of V8 Splash and set them on the kitchen counter in Elizabeth's house, at the ready for when they worked up a sweat. At 11:30 they took off, well aware that while many other kids are permitted to zip around the 4-sq.-mi. town on bikes, their family expects them to stick close to home. When an hour passed and the girls hadn't reclaimed their drinks, Elizabeth's mother, Heather Collins, 36, and the girls' grandmother Wylma Cook, 72, circled the town in separate cars, then anxiously reported them missing. At 3:40 p.m. firefighters found the girls' bikes and Lyric's purple purse by Meyers Lake.

In the month since then, local police and FBI agents have combed the streets of Evansdale (pop. 4,769) and drained the lake; townspeople have assisted in the search. Absent evidence to the contrary, investigators say they "feel strongly" the girls are alive. "There's somebody out there who knows something," says FBI Special Agent Sandy Breault. Police have repeatedly interviewed and polygraphed Lyric's estranged parents, Dan and Misty Morrissey, both of whom have served prison time on a variety of charges including burglary and theft for him, making and selling meth for her. Neither has been named as a suspect. Criticized for seeming emotionally detached while speaking with reporters days after Lyric's disappearance, Misty, 34, has stopped talking to the media. Dan, 36, who is facing new drug-related and domestic-abuse charges, told PEOPLE, "I may have done drugs, but I have a good heart."

With the girls' whereabouts still unknown, traffic along Evansdale's once-bustling bike trails and walking paths has stilled; at Meyers Lake the splashing and shrieks of summer have faded to silence despite hot temperatures. "You don't see a lot of kids out anymore," says local mom Rhonda Kioga, 37. "It's dead around here." Residents' fears escalated on July 31 after a man tried to snatch a bike-riding 5-year-old boy from a sidewalk in Cedar Rapids, 50 miles away. (The boy's dad yelled, sending the man and his two accomplices fleeing.) The FBI's Breault says, "We have no evidence the two events are related." But in the minds of many Evansdale parents, they are impossible to separate. "You can't let your kids outside alone," Kioga says as she watches her son Anthony, 7, play.

Elizabeth's and Lyric's loved ones, meanwhile, grapple daily with the girls' absence. "I just feel so empty and lost," says Cook, who's been the constant in Lyric's life throughout the years of her parents' struggles. Lyric has her own bedroom in Cook's house but prefers to sleep with Grandma, lining Cook's room with American Girl dolls, Barbies and bottles of nail polish. A few miles away, Elizabeth's mom isn't sleeping well. Their last morning together, Elizabeth climbed into Heather's bed, and they planned Elizabeth's birthday cake, a four-tier confection with a waterfall and a beachy theme. Now that 9th birthday has come-and gone. "There will be a cake when she comes home," Heather says. Dad Drew, 40, finds it impossible not to dwell on the girls. "You don't know whether they're being fed, whether they're being abused, if they're cold," he says. "It's scary."

It helps that townspeople are deeply concerned too. "Our friends check in on us and bring food every day," says Drew, who operates a tree service. "At the gas station, strangers hug me." Mostly, Drew says, "I just sit on the front porch and wait." These days the children of Evansdale are sticking close to home as well. "I don't know what vehicle is going to pull up," says Olivia Nichols, 12. "This could happen to me."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Truesdell/Evansdale,
  • Hilary Shenfeld/Evansdale.