YOU wake up one April morning thinking about Scout Finch. You started reading To Kill a Mockingbird last night for English class, expecting to be bored. Instead you stayed up reading until your mother knocked on your bedroom door and stepped in to turn out the light. “Next week,” she said, “at the beach, you can stay up as late as you want.”
Now there’s no time to read. You hit the snooze button too many times, and you have only minutes to pack your lunch and hurry out to catch the bus. Your father rushes by, grabbing an apple from the fridge as he yells up the stairs at your sister, “Don’t be late tonight, Annie Lynn. Don’t keep me waiting again.” Her muffled response doesn’t placate him. “I mean it. You’re late tonight, and I’m going to rethink whether we go to the ocean.” It’s all bluster though. You can see it in how your mother shakes her head over her coffee, feel it in the light touch of his hand on your head as he passes you on his way out.
After the door closes behind him, Annie comes down and grabs an apple of her own. You’re no longer sure who she’s become, this sister of yours, grown into long legs and long, straight hair and snug shirts that hug her perfect breasts. Everyone watches her, not just boys but men as well: old men who smile at her rosy cheeks, young men who shoot her questioning grins, middle-aged men who should know better and yet still stare at the smooth curve of her ass when they think no one’s looking.
“I won’t be late,” she says to your mom, apple tucked beneath her chin as she tightens the elastic band holding back her coppery hair. “Gotta go. Jess is picking me up. See ya, Sparkie.”
You don’t say goodbye. No one picks you up. No one watches you, fourteen and clumsy and covered with acne in the places she has freckles. You’ve given up asking if you can ride with her and Jess to school, given up trying to hold her attention. Last year, when you had mono, she made a tent over your bed by pinning sheets to the ceiling, and you huddled together in it, her hands working your snarled hair into smooth strands, which she then braided.
“You should try some of my conditioner, Sparkie,” she said. She smelled of the rose soap she bought at the mall. Her hands were cool as she stroked the tips of your fingers. “We should paint your nails. I wish I could stop biting mine.”
Now you desire the hazy slowness of that fever and fatigue, that last enchanted stop in the year 1992 before she stepped onto the express bus out of childhood and left you standing in the fumes.
YOUR father went to the mall to pick Annie up from work. He waited thirty minutes in the parking lot before he went inside to look for her. You know because he shouts this in the living room, cracking the night into pieces. Your father does not yell. He is a quiet man, tall and lean. He gave up cigarettes for running years ago, when you were four, and you’ve ridden your bike alongside him for countless hours, timing your pedaling to the steady rhythm of his breath, not a word passing between you. At the dinner table he prefaces his statements with a soft clearing of his throat. You’ve heard his fellow professors at the university joke with him about it, tell him he speaks quietly to force his students to sit in the front rows so they can hear him.
But he’s yelling now, his face red. “I was there on time! I waited for a half-hour. I had my eyes on the mall entrance the whole time. When I went in looking for her, this girl —”
“Patti,” your mother corrects him.
“Patti, whatever. She said that Annie left forty-five minutes ago. I asked her if Jess came by, if Annie went with someone, and she said no, she didn’t.” His voice hits an awkward note, strained and tight. “She knew not to be late tonight.”
THE police come to your house, a young man and a middle-aged woman. They seem to believe that the whims of teenage girls lead them down unexpected paths. The male officer catches your eye and smiles softly, his front teeth just visible beneath his mustache. “You know about some plans your sister had that maybe she didn’t want to tell your folks about? It’s not going to get her in any worse trouble now. Might as well tell us.”
You shake your head. You stand there in a giant orange T-shirt and red leggings, the sort of outfit you wear at night when you don’t expect anyone to come by. You’re wearing your headgear as well, the rubber bands taut against the corners of your lips. To Kill a Mockingbird lies open on your bed upstairs, where you were carefully underlining something Atticus Finch says, something that only twenty minutes ago was the most profound thing you’d ever read.
The two officers talk with you until you begin to think they are right, that you must know something you are unwilling to share. They talk to Annie’s friends as well, Jess and Patti and Beth. All of them claim not to know any reason for her to have left.
The police talk with your parents, discussions you are not privy to that leave your mother’s eyes even more swollen. Whatever they say to your father, it erodes him, his body weathering before your eyes.
The next day the police go through her room. They inspect her drawers and notebooks, ask about names they find, search for secret spaces in which she might have kept drugs or money or a diary. They go through the kitchen and the garage and the basement and examine the backyard and the neighboring woods.
They collect recent pictures of her smiling at a Christmas party, and those pictures appear in the papers. Eventually her face is on the TV news too, along with a phone number to call for anyone who’s seen her. She’s also on posters, with details in small print, amount of reward in bold. You hate the posters, hung everywhere as if your sister were a missing cocker spaniel, vying for space on the sides of bus-stop shelters with fliers for concerts and cheap apartments.
They talk to you again, this time two female officers who question you gently but persistently. Did your father and sister share any secrets? Did they spend a lot of time together? Has he ever touched you in a way you didn’t like or made threats against you or your sister?
The questions make you sick. They’ve made all of you sick.
Your mother’s friends come in shifts, filling the kitchen with their food and their perfumes and their plump arms and their hushed tones. Her tears neither start nor stop but simply pause from time to time.
Your father’s friends come to the door and talk with him on the porch. They clasp hands and speak optimistically and leave again. You cannot help but wonder if they know the ugliness of what the police have insinuated. You want to tell them what you said to the two female officers, describing the time your father sat with you over the body of a dying kitten you’d found. He touched the tiny body with his long fingers and spoke to it, to that fragile creature whose life was trickling away. And when the furred ribs sank in a final sigh, he pulled you onto his lap and let you cry until his shirt was damp.
THE woman sorting through donations at the Salvation Army wouldn’t have noticed your sister’s clothes had it not been for the necklace that fell from the back pocket of the khakis. Jess had given it to her for Christmas. The pendant was a gold butterfly with enameled wings. It had been on the news and on the posters, along with the tan pants and white polo shirt her job at the mall had required. Anything to make it easier to recognize her, your mother said. Recognize isn’t the word the police use, which you see as one more reason to hate them.
The clothes had been washed and folded before they’d been dropped off. It’s not until this day, with that detail, that you understand how much you needed to believe she ran away. Just as you wish you could go back to that last morning you saw her, to the hurry and the apples, and stop everything, you now also wish her clothes hadn’t turned up. A selfish sister you can hate. A selfish sister can come home. She can return from wherever she ran off to and be forgiven, and everyone can know that your family did nothing wrong.
But what teenage girl stops on her way out of town to launder the clothes she was wearing, fold them neatly, and put them in a plastic grocery bag before tossing them in a Salvation Army bin?
FEBRUARY. It’s been ten months. You have become a ghost. At the beginning everyone watched you. The teachers who stopped you after class had mournful eyes and would touch you on the arm or shoulder and ask how you were doing. Everyone asked how you were doing, but you heard curiosity as much as kindness, and you shied away from all of them — not just your friends, but hers as well, older girls who pulled you into unwanted tearful embraces in the hall and called to you from cars and offered you rides as you waited for your mother to pick you up.
Your house is full of strangers now. Your mother’s old friends circle, but at a distance, like comets whose trajectories have brought them as close as they will ever be in this lifetime. There are new friends, victims’ advocates and members of missing-and-exploited-children groups, women who hold your mother’s hand and say, “They just can’t know what it feels like. No one can, unless it’s happened to them.”
They have other children too, these hand-holding women, and sometimes they bring the younger ones along. You’re encouraged to play with them, to talk with them, but you do not. The things in your head cannot be said out loud, not in an open space, where they could fly through the air like spears. The only place you speak those thoughts is in your therapist’s office.
Your therapist. It feels weird to say it. The only people your age with therapists are the loud, fat girl everyone knows was adopted and a boy famous for driving a pencil into another boy’s hand in the library for no obvious reason. You’ve become one of them, another teenage oddity in a freak show.
She is small, this therapist of yours. She sits in a large chair, which makes her seem even smaller, like a child. Her hair is gray, and she wears neutral colors and speaks gently. You whisper to her, afraid to break the spell of the calm she exudes.
Her office is on the top floor of an old Victorian. Through the window you can see a stoplight, and you often watch the traffic stop and start, stop and start. You feel safe in that room. You come to understand that you can say anything and she will absorb it, transform it into something that will not damage anyone.
So you tell her your secrets. You tell her that some days you hate your sister more than you can stand, yet you lie awake nights and watch out your window for her to come home. That you imagine you can communicate with your sister and tell her things all the time. That the world has ceased to be what you thought it was. That the people you once knew have become strangers. That you watch everyone for secrets, for the secret of where your sister might have gone, for whether they might have done something to her. Could it have been Mr. Goldman, the unmarried art teacher who complimented her pastels? Or Mr. Brown, the father of the hyperactive four-year-old she baby-sat last spring?
You tell your therapist about hating the police for what they did to your father and for not finding your sister. You tell her that you lie on your sister’s bed and smell the pillow for the scent of rose soap, and that the scent is fading away. You tell her you are afraid your sister will fade away too, that you must think about her at certain times of day to keep the memory of her fresh.
IT’S been one year. Your mother’s new friends help her organize a vigil. They bring candles with paper-cup holders to keep the wax from running onto everyone’s hands. Jess comes. Seeing her, you realize how long a year can be. Jess is no longer sixteen. She’s left school and now works the night shift at the 7-Eleven out past the mall. Her hair is short and spiky. She wears a heavy flannel shirt and cries through the whole vigil, silently at first, but eventually she begins to make broken, guttural noises. Your father puts his arm around her. Your mother reads a story your sister wrote years ago, something she’d tucked in a shoe box somewhere, never expecting it would be found.
Jess comes up to you afterward. “God,” she says, “I still miss her all the time. You know? Like I think about things I want to tell her, a great big list of things, and I can’t, and it just —” She gulps, and you can smell alcohol and grape gum. “It’s so fucked up, you know?”
“Jess.” Her boyfriend waits for her. He’s older, a man, not a boy. He spins his keys on one finger. “Come on, we’re going to be late.”
“Fuck.” She throws her arms around you, trapping you against her bony shoulder for a moment. “We should hang sometime. Catch up.”
“OK,” you say. But as she walks away, you can see she is traveling a road that will take her farther and farther away from you.
AFTER two years you turn sixteen. Your memory of your sister has become patchy far more quickly than you would ever have guessed. Her class graduated weeks ago. They have left high school — and your sister — behind. She is still sixteen, eternally leaving the house with an apple and her backpack, calling over her shoulder, “See ya, Sparkie.” She has assignments she still hasn’t finished, boys she hasn’t dated, summer jobs she hasn’t worked.
And now you have caught up to her in age.
In some corner of your mind is the belief that this is the year it will all become clear, that whatever happened to her will happen to you, and it will no longer be a mystery. In a way it will be a relief.
Part of what you have learned is that bad things can happen at any time. A sister can walk out the door one morning and never come home. Every time someone leaves the house you might lose them forever. It is a possibility that not very many people seem to realize.
There are a few though: The girl with the slumped shoulders who draws elaborate geometric designs on the brown paper covers of her textbooks and whose father died in a car accident just outside of town. The tall boy with pants that don’t quite reach his ankles whose little brother died of leukemia when he was twelve. These are your peers now. These are the people in whose eyes you see the truth, while the others hurtle through the world without regard to the disasters that wait at every turn.
Your parents know this truth, too. There is a hint of desperation when your father casually asks you to ride your bike with him while he runs. He always asks, and you always say yes. If you stay together, then no one can be lost. Your mother waits in the kitchen for you after school. She feigns nonchalance, but last month when you were thirty minutes late, her eyes were red, and the trash contained the broken shards of her coffee cup.
GRADUATION becomes another in the list of experiences you accrue without her, along with taking the SAT, applying to colleges, receiving the envelope with the thick cream-colored paper that says you’ve been admitted to your first choice, crossing the stage in the auditorium to accept your high-school diploma from the smiling superintendent.
Last night you added another accomplishment, completed between the musty sheets of your boyfriend’s bed. You were his first too; the day he called to say his parents would be away for a week, you knew what it meant, that long pause, that hum of excitement traveling through the phone line. He was too embarrassed to buy condoms, so you did. You drove two towns over, picked a CVS, grabbed the box, and rushed to the checkout, cursing the see-through bag the clerk gave you.
The actual act hurt more than you wanted it to, though less than you had worried it would, and it lasted under a minute. After you’d gone home, you sat in her room and looked in her mirror and tried to remember her. She hadn’t had a boyfriend that spring. There had been boys she giggled about, boys she talked to Jess about for long hours on the phone. There had even been boys who called, their voices breaking as they asked for her. She lives there still, in a world you’ve left behind.
But you continue to hope. Even when your mother and her friends packed up the clothes in your sister’s closet and the trinkets on her shelves, even when the store she’d worked at in the mall closed down and was replaced by a salon and then by a dollar store, even when you no longer remember what her favorite color was, you continue to believe in another sister, the one who removed her old clothes and dressed in new ones before hitchhiking away into a new life, the one you cannot know and must hope for all the same. She will have moved on too. She may look different, may curse or smoke or have tattoos. But you will accept whoever she is now. This is your one job: to believe she is still alive.
LEAVING your parents to attend college isn’t easy. If people can vanish in the fifteen minutes between when they leave one person and the next person arrives to get them, then you may well never see your parents again. You are leaving them for months at a time. You can see the concern in their faces in the final weeks leading up to your departure, in your mother’s persistent questions about whether you’d rather go to the university in town. Your father says nothing about it, just ends every run by telling you he’ll miss having someone to ride along with him.
You pack your boxes and load them into the blue Nova that you bought with graduation money, and you drive for three hours, your parents’ car in your rearview mirror as you navigate the highways. They help you carry the boxes to your tiny dorm room and shake hands with your new roommate, a languid girl wearing leggings and an Indian tunic and heavy silver bangles. You go out to dinner with your parents at a crowded restaurant. They cry. You cry. Your sister is at the table with you. She doesn’t speak, just watches, long hair in a ponytail, apple in her hand.
YOU were home two weeks ago for Thanksgiving. It was as unseasonably warm then as it is wretchedly cold now, and you played football with your cousins on the lawn. At night you went out with friends from high school who were home for the holiday, everyone slightly shocked by their new lives. You saw your old boyfriend with his new girlfriend, a short blonde with big breasts. You hated him then as much as you had loved him before.
Now you’re studying for finals. The thought of not doing well nauseates you. You know what your former therapist would say about this. She would tell you that you feel you must excel for the same reason you must keep your room spotlessly clean: because the world is a scary place, and you seek to control it any way you can. If you were pressed for an explanation, you would say that the least you can do is succeed at the things your sister did not get to do.
You are thinking about none of those things at 11:30 on a Thursday morning. You are thinking about your roommate’s pierced nose and how you like the way it looks, and that maybe you should pierce yours, even though you worry it would be sore whenever you had a cold. You’re wondering if you could get a terrible infection and lose the side of your nose. Then the phone rings.
Even as you pick up the receiver, you can feel your chest close in around your beating heart. It is the phone, there is no reason to fear it, but fear pours from your mouth with the word Hello.
“Hon,” your mother says, “they found her.”
For a profound instant the hope that you have held so tightly for years swells and soars upward. It bursts free of your body, racing toward the sky, and it carries the part of you that is true and alive. She is found, your adult stranger of a sister, and she is coming home.
But then you hear behind your mother’s voice the sound of tears already cried.
“Dad’s coming for you, sweetie. I just didn’t want you to learn about it from the TV. We’ll finally have her to bury.”
THEY did not find much of your sister. Scraps of a cotton blanket that she must have been wrapped in. Her skull, part of her jaw, enough teeth in it to permit identification. A pelvis and one femur. Found by a pair of deer hunters hiking through a stretch of state forest about fifty miles from your home.
Certain details connect her to part of a pattern. She was likely the victim of a man who raped and murdered other girls and young women, a man the police suspect traveled for work, leaving victims up and down his route. If she was, then they can make other assumptions. They can assume, for example, that she was dead within hours of when she stepped out of the mall. That during those days of reward posters and waiting by the phone and looking for leads on hitchhiking girls, she was lying dead, a blanket wrapped around her naked body. That her life ended shortly after you had last seen her, and all your searching of crowds and sending her messages and begging for her safe return, all of those things were just the lonely outpourings of your love into a vast empty space.
FOR some people life is effortless, like running as a child with no sense of the world turning beneath our feet. It is not that way for you. You will always be aware of the weight of your footsteps and the force of will required to move forward. Anger keeps you together, a mortar that begins to harden. You drop out of school for a while and live at your parents’ house, where you imagine again and again the final events of her life.
Jess stops by one day. She doesn’t come in, just stands on the porch, sunglasses partially hiding a black eye. “I knew,” she says. “I knew she wouldn’t have run away, not without telling me.” She reaches in her pocket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes, stops short of selecting one. “But a bit of me thought she did. Just this little bit that said she knew I wasn’t worth much, just like my folks thought, and she just left me behind.” She leans back and looks up at the washed-out sky. “We’d made plans to get tattoos together once we’d saved up enough. I wanted something cool, like a rose or something.” She shakes her head. “What can I say? I was sixteen. She wanted a word, Peace, and I thought it was hokey as shit.” The silence stretches out between you. “This world’s a fucked-up piece of crap. That’s all I can say.”
But at some point life draws you back into its current. You start school again, this time where your father teaches. You room with a pair of Chinese grad students and trade them English lessons for elaborate dinners. You work in the library part time and study sociology. You see your old therapist again, not as often as before, but often enough to say the unsayable. Small steps, all of them, each one a stretch held one breath longer than you think you can manage.
There are still times when you believe the world has fangs and no one you love will survive for long. The difference is that you slowly discover that you’ve survived, that this small patchwork quilt of a life you’re making is warm enough and strong enough for the dark and blustery nights you face.
You begin to tell people about your sister, about all the moments of her life before the last. Eating lunch with friends, you say, “My sister loved pickles. She’d ask people for the mushy ones off their plates.”
Talking with a chocolate-eyed philosophy grad student you met at a party, you say, “My sister wanted to go to Antarctica. We used to play explorers in the backyard in the winter. The idea of living in snow and ice all the time fascinated her.”
As he looks at you, you see in his eyes something that makes you want to tell him more, and you do, all of it, staying up through the night telling the story of your sister, knowing this man will become a part of your life, and will love you, and will never know her.
He’ll leave to go buy coffee in the morning. The rain that began in the night will run in rivulets down the windows, and while you wait, you’ll think of her — not of what was returned to your family, not of everything you’ve imagined since then, but of the feel of her fingers in your hair as you lay fever-drunk on your bed so long ago.