IT WAS ALMOST A relief when the detectives showed up later. I used to dread them coming to the house. I would actually hide out in my room or the den when I saw their unmarked Ford pull into our driveway. But today, the sound of the bell was so welcome, I raced to the door to get it—anything to get away from the table and my family just sitting there looking at one another.
I let in Detective Donally and Detective Spencer before my parents could reach the door, but I could hear Mom complain, “They didn’t say they were coming today.”
“Maybe they’re just here to keep reporters away, you did ask for that,” Dad pointed out.
As soon as the men were in the house, Dad came to shake hands. He led them into the kitchen, murmuring under his breath about the amnesia and how tired Sarah was. I stood in the archway to the kitchen and watched.
“Sarah, I’m Detective Donally, this is my partner, Detective Spencer; we’re with the state police. We sure are glad to see you home, safe and sound. The children’s shelter in Florida is sending us over some files as well, just to follow up on your release.” He pulled out a chair and motioned to my mom as if asking permission before sitting down.
Mom nodded, but said quickly, “We’ve just gotten home and were having something to eat, I think Sarah might need time to rest.” She wiped her hands on a dish towel. “Can I offer you a cup of coffee or anything? I’m afraid I only have instant.”
Donally shook his head. “Oh, no worries, we won’t be long, just wanted to check in and introduce ourselves. Set up a time for Sarah to come down to the station for a talk.” He undid his jacket and I could see the black gun strapped to his belt.
“Why does she need to come to the station?” Dad asked. He went to stand behind Sarah’s chair while Detective Spencer circled the table and stood on the other side, looking around the kitchen. He was always the quiet one, letting Detective Donally do the talking.
“Well, because she’s a crime victim and we need to talk to her about that crime.” He smiled over at Dad as if he was talking to a child.
“She can’t remember anything. We’re going to take her for an MRI to see . . . to see why.” Mom caught herself before saying what they mentioned at the shelter—the possibility that Sarah had brain damage.
“We’ll still need to ask her some questions—that okay with you, Sarah?” Detective Donally asked.
Sarah met his eyes warmly and nodded. “Sure.”
Everyone else in the room seemed to let out a sigh. We were all waiting to see how Sarah would react, how she would handle questioning. None of us had asked her yet what she remembered, as if we were hoping it was all a blank and things could just go back to how they were. But now that wouldn’t be possible, the police had to have their answers: Where had she been these past four years? Was she kidnapped? If so, who was responsible? I wasn’t sure my parents really wanted the answers.
“Why don’t we pick you up about nine tomorrow morning, okay?” Donally asked, standing and buttoning his jacket over his gun.
“We can just bring her over,” Mom said quickly.
“You don’t need to bother. Sarah’s an adult now, isn’t that right? You’re eighteen now?” Detective Donally asked her.
Sarah looked over at me in the doorway as if I held the answer, not at Mom or Dad.
“Her birthday is in March,” I said. The memory of Sarah’s birthday, the actual date, the dread of that day, of what we had done on her birthdays while she was missing, caught in my throat as I added, “She just turned nineteen.”
Sarah nodded. “March eleventh,” she said mechanically. “That’s my birthday.”
“Well, look at that, she does remember some things.” Donally gave Sarah a tight smile and pushed his chair in. “She won’t need you all to come in with her. But if you want to send your lawyer, that’s fine.” Before Mom could respond, he turned back to Sarah. “See you tomorrow, Sarah, and welcome home.”
Dad shot Mom a look behind the detective’s back as he went to walk them to the door. When he came back into the kitchen, Mom and I were still silent. “Why would she need a lawyer there?” I asked.
“I’m sure it’s just how they do things,” Mom said cautiously. “Sarah, if you’re not ready for this . . .” The way she said Sarah’s name hung in the air.
“It’s okay,” Sarah said, again a little lilt of the South in her voice. “I just don’t know how much I can help them.” She was so quiet, she sounded like a little girl.
“I’m sure you’re anxious to see your room and get some rest,” Mom offered, starting to lead her back through the front of the house to the stairs. When Sarah walked into her room, I held my breath, waiting for her to jump on the bed or run to her closet, so happy to be home. But she looked around as if she had never seen the place before. She moved across the carpet to the bulletin board by her mirror. She fingered the silky cheerleading award ribbons and glanced at the photos pinned there as if searching for something she knew.
“Max,” she said, pointing to one. “And Polly . . . no, Paula?”
“That’s right, your friends,” Mom said. “Do you recognize anyone else?”
Sarah looked closely at the images. “Sort of, but not really. It’s like it’s right here”—she pointed to the front of her head—“but I can’t get at it.”
“Might be because you need these.” I laughed, handing her the glasses on her desk. She only wore them at school and for reading, but I wondered if she even remembered them.
“I wear glasses?” she asked, looking confused. They were light purple frames and went great with her blond hair.
“Just sometimes, like to see the board at school,” Mom explained.
She put them on and squinted at the photos again, stepping back, clearly unable to see anything. Her prescription had obviously changed over the past four years, and she didn’t even know it.
I looked over at Dad, standing in the doorway, and saw a sad look cross his face. His daughter was home, his little girl, but she wasn’t really Sarah—not anymore.
I HAD BEEN IN the room for two days with nothing to eat. This time, he had a special treat for me: a package of two cupcakes wrapped up in cellophane. Chocolate cupcakes with a white swirl on the top.
“You say anything to her? You tell her anything?” he asked me. He held the cupcakes just out of my reach.
I shook my head. Of course I didn’t say anything to her. Why would I? This was our special time, when she was gone and he was supposed to be gone too but he was here and watching TV.
Sometimes when she came back and I was in the room, I could hear her asking him, “Why’d you smoke all my cigarettes?” or “Where’s the beer?” And then I was nervous that she would know what he had done. But he always had an answer for her and then they would laugh and I would hear music and voices all into the night. I knew I must be doing good, because no one had hurt me in a long time.
THE NEXT MORNING, SARAH was up early, just like me and Mom. The Curse of the Morris Women, Mom called it—we always woke early. Sarah had never needed an alarm clock, and this morning was no exception. She came out of her room wearing the same dirty clothes from the shelter: jeans and a white tank top with Mom’s borrowed sweater over them. She was even wearing the grubby flip-flops.
“Don’t you think you want to wear something else today, at least some warmer shoes?” Mom asked, serving us toasted bagels.
“These are fine,” Sarah said quickly. But Mom headed up the stairs to Sarah’s room, talking to herself. I looked over at Sarah and realized it was the first moment we had been alone together since yesterday, since she’d come home. The first time in four years. I found it hard to take my eyes off her face: sharp, pointy angles I didn’t recognize as “Sarah” yet. I waited for her to speak, to say my name the way she used to, drawn out, like when she was angry with me. So, Nee-co . . .
But she didn’t say anything, instead she seemed totally focused on eating her bagel as quickly as possible, like someone might come and snatch it away from her.
“You, uh, sleep okay?” I asked, breaking the awkward silence, then felt stupid. That was a question for a guest, not for your sister. And also, how could she sleep? She had a back covered in cigarette burns and didn’t know where she had been for four years—no one with a past like that could possibly close their eyes and feel safe ever again.
“Yeah,” she said quietly. She looked up at me with an open expression on her face that I didn’t recognize at all. “But I’d kill for some coffee—do you guys have any?”
“I think Mom might have some around.” I stood up to check the cabinets. “You know, when Gram comes she likes it.” I found instant coffee and held it out to her, raising my eyebrows.
“Better than nothing.” She smiled. “They’ll have some real stuff at the station—you know how cops love their coffee.”
She picked up a second bagel and I put the kettle on the stove, wondering how Sarah knew that cops loved coffee. Mom had offered it to the detectives yesterday.
Mom came back in with an armful of clothes. “Maybe this?” She held up a black dress, but Sarah just shook her head. “This?” She showed us a tailored wool jacket. “At least cover your feet, it’s chilly out.” She put a pair of leather ballet flats beside Sarah. “Why is the stove on?”
“I’m making some coffee, for Sarah,” I said, and Mom looked over at me quizzically. I watched as Sarah slipped off her flip-flops and put her feet into the flats, or tried to. They were too small, and she pulled at the back to try and cram her toes in.
The doorbell sounded and Mom left the kitchen to get the door just as Sarah stood up. I brought her the coffee mug. “Those fit okay?” I asked, motioning down to the shoes. The front was crammed with her toes, shoved in like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters’.
“They’re a little tight,” she admitted. “You know, if you don’t wear leather shoes for a while, sometimes they shrink up.”
“I’ll grab you a pair of mine—hold on,” I told her. I could hear Mom talking to the detectives on the porch as I raced up the stairs. I wore a size 8 now; Sarah had been a size 7 before. I walked by Sarah’s room, and stood outside the closed door for a moment. Should I grab another pair from her closet for her? Maybe she was right about them shrinking. A minute later, I came down with a pair of flats from my own closet.
Sarah took them gratefully and pulled them on fast, swigging coffee from the mug in front of her—black, no sugar. “These are perfect. Here goes nothing, huh?” She smiled at me as she headed for the door.
Mom had convinced the detectives to let Dad accompany Sarah, so we watched from the front yard as they drove off all together in an unmarked police car. I learned to recognize these cars early on after Sarah’s disappearance, when they were parked outside our house most days: dark blue or black Ford four-door sedans with no registration sticker on the plates.
“I almost don’t want to let her out of my sight, you know?” Mom admitted. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked on the verge of tears.
I knew how she felt. The night before, I had been tempted to steal into Sarah’s room, just to look at her asleep, just to check that there was a real girl in Sarah’s bed.
“You know, her shoes—” I started to say, then stopped myself.
“What about her shoes?” Mom asked.
“Nothing, just that they don’t fit anymore.” I kicked the frosty dew off some blades of grass as we went back up the walk to the house.
“I was thinking that we need to take her shopping. I’m sure all her old stuff doesn’t fit, and frankly I don’t want to see her in any of those clothes. It would be like seeing a ghost.”
I thought of Sarah’s beautiful clothes—a closet full, untouched, unworn, the clothes I had once coveted. The clothes that Mom had preserved for the past four years, hanging neatly in her closet, the room kept just as it had been when Sarah was fifteen, waiting for her. Now it was all out of style, wouldn’t fit, wouldn’t work for the Sarah who had come back to us.
The last time I’d been in the room was when Tessa stayed over one night after Christmas break. I hadn’t wanted to go in there; I never did. But Tessa wanted to see. We’d been best friends for three years, but still, she had never known Sarah. She met me as “the girl whose sister disappeared” and had become friends with me knowing only that. Of course her parents knew the whole story, and at first they wouldn’t let Tessa come over to spend the night. I guess they were worried someone might come back for me—or one of my friends. Whoever took Sarah. Or, if Sarah ran away, there was always the question of her influence on me. Was my sister bad? Was I too?
There was a dark cloud over me, over our whole family. But slowly, as the years passed with no leads and no news about Sarah, most people in town, and most of the parents at school, forgot. We were no longer that family with the missing daughter. Other scandals replaced ours—a single mom having an affair with the married PE teacher, or the pretty teacher’s aide who had a secret porn background. Sarah’s disappearance seemed less tawdry and salacious than those stories. And I proved myself to be good, reliable, not a runaway, not a bad girl. Sarah’s disappearance was not our fault—Mom always reminded me of that. It was not something we had done; it was something that had happened to us. She was the one to call Tessa’s parents and get their permission for the sleepover—my first since Sarah’s disappearance.
Tessa and I had been up late, in my room, trying to take some good photos on my phone. They were supposed to look casual—oh, hey, just hanging out at my friend’s house—but also cute and somewhat sexy. The plan was to post one or two on Tessa’s Instagram. We knew her crush, Liam, had been checking and making comments, so the pics were really for him. But we would never admit it, especially because he already had a girlfriend in our class, Kelly.
I’d done Tessa’s makeup and styled her hair, but still the pics weren’t anything fabulous. She threw open the doors to my closet and let out a sigh. “You’ve got like five hundred uniform tops in here and nothing else. Don’t you ever wear anything but a uniform?”
I shrugged, not willing to admit that I actually liked the navy skirts and white tops that we wore for school. It made getting dressed really easy; I didn’t have to think. I had a few pairs of jeans and T-shirts for the weekend and some summer dresses, but not a lot else. I never could figure out how to put cool outfits together, so I just stuck with simple. Nico, you look like you got your clothes out of the lost and found bin at school. Mom, please don’t let her go out like that.
Tessa pushed the hangers to one side and looked at what was left—a couple of sundresses and jackets. “What about your mom or your sister—do you think they might have anything? I mean, just to wear for the pictures,” Tessa added quickly.
I didn’t know how to respond. Next door was a room full of beautiful things—shoes, sunglasses, jewelry, clothing. All carefully selected by Sarah, who wouldn’t settle for anything but the best. She created outfits based on images torn from magazines. She was the one in the family who appreciated fashion—in fact, Mom often said that she was going to grow up to be a designer. Before she disappeared, she had taken a sewing class at school and made a few things—a dress and a sleeveless top—and had easily gotten an A+, the teacher noting that she had a real talent for “line,” whatever that meant.
“I’m sorry, that was . . . I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Tessa sat next to me on my bed. “Nico?”
I stared off into space, suddenly coming around. “No, it’s okay. You’re right. Sarah has all kinds of stuff that’s just sitting in there, we might as well use it.”
I nodded and opened the door to the dark hallway—my parents had been asleep for hours. We walked to the room next door and I turned the knob, opening it, probably for the first time in months. But when I flipped on the light switch it was clear that nothing inside had changed. Everything was just as Sarah had left it that morning, or at least how the detectives left it after they had gone through everything. The room even smelled like Sarah still, of the perfume she wore when she started dating Max. The cleaning lady came in to dust sometimes, but otherwise the room was untouched.
Tessa moved to the bulletin board covered with awards and ribbons. “Wow, impressive.” She fingered one of the cheer awards. “Cheerleader extraordinaire, huh?”
“She did gymnastics and dance too,” I pointed out. I didn’t want her to think that Sarah was just a cheerleader. She was so much more. She was good at everything she did. Not just good—the best.
Tessa moved to the double doors of the closet and swung them open, looking over the dresses and tops that hung there, carefully arranged by color. “Wow—even more impressive!” She pulled out a pale pink top and held it up to her chin, moving over to the mirror to see herself. “This is beautiful—what do you think?”
I could only nod, seeing my best friend with her curly dark hair holding Sarah’s pink shirt. It was a beautiful color for Tessa. She should have it. I knew she should, but part of me, deep inside, screamed: No. Don’t. Put it back.
“What was she like, your sister? I mean, I get that she was really good at school and cheer and everything.” Tessa walked back over to the board, looking now at the photos of Sarah and her friends that were pinned there. She leaned in to look at one closely, of Sarah and Paula. “But what was she really like?”
I stood in Sarah’s room and looked at all her perfect things that went with her perfect life. She was perfect, I wanted to say. She was beautiful and smart. She always won. She always got what she wanted.
“She was awful,” I said. “She was really awful.”
WHEN WE CAME BACK into the house, Mom reminded me that later in the day, a counselor from the Center for Missing Children would be over to meet with us. “Just to help us all get used to this. It’s a lot to handle.” She delivered the news with a sense of glee and lightness in her voice as she cleaned up the kitchen from breakfast. She lifted Sarah’s coffee mug from the table and cradled it in her hands for a moment, gazing at it as if she didn’t know if she should put it in a museum or into the dishwasher.
The last time we’d had a counselor over, it was to help us deal with Sarah’s disappearance. He had come over every day at first, then once a week, and then the sessions stopped. Those were dark days for me, for all three of us. I didn’t remember a lot of it. How we got through it. I remember being told I had to eat, and Mom’s doctor giving her some pills that she shared with me so that I could sleep. The nightmares were terrible. But, like everything else, those stopped too. Now we would be meeting a counselor under very different circumstances, and I could tell that Mom was thrilled to be a success story—to need help welcoming her daughter back into the family instead of dealing with a devastating loss.
“Tessa is going to bring by your homework assignments this afternoon, but I think Monday is soon enough to go back to school, don’t you?” Mom asked.
I nodded and picked up a bite of bagel that was left on my plate, eating it before Mom could clear it from the table.
Mom touched my arm and looked into my eyes. “I know it’s a lot, Nico, all of it. Sarah being gone, Sarah being back. I don’t want you to ever think that Daddy and I have lost sight of what’s important in all of this. Of how important you are to us. You and Sarah.”
“Mom, I know.” I shrugged. We didn’t have a lot of heart-to-heart emotional talks in our family—it made me uncomfortable.
“I mean it, Nico, I really mean it. The past few years have been hard on you—on all of us.” She hesitated. “Sometimes I think we didn’t handle Sarah’s disappearance right.”
When she said that, I shook my head. What was the “right” way to deal? What did she think she had done wrong?
Mom went on. “I know you suffered, we all did. I just . . .” She stopped for a moment before finishing her thought. “I want to handle her return right—does that make sense?”
“It is going to take some time. It’s all just so strange, every little thing, I mean, look—I’m doing breakfast dishes for two girls, my girls—” She broke down, her face crumpling in before she turned her back to me and busied herself at the sink. “I’m so happy to be doing just the ordinary things, the simplest things.” She let out a light laugh. “I know I’m a silly woman.”
“No, I get it,” I agreed, thinking of how good it felt to make Sarah a cup of coffee, to grab her a pair of shoes. “I do.”
I went upstairs to my room, where I noticed my closet was still open. I pushed the door shut, thinking about how Sarah was, right now, at the police station, wearing my shoes. It gave me such an odd feeling, like I was connected to her somehow.
I went into the hallway and stood outside her door for a moment, the room that had been empty for four years. I turned the knob and went in, noticing first that she had carefully made the bed. Neat, as always, everything in its place.
On the bedside table was a book from Sarah’s shelf: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, one of Sarah’s favorites. She had made us all watch the old black-and-white movie years ago when she was working on a book report. The story was dull and forgettable—something about a guy who had killed his wife because she was cheating on him. That was the big reveal. Sarah had read the book several times, and now it looked like she was reading it again.
I moved to the desk and opened a few drawers, finding everything the same as it had been for years. The closet too was untouched. I looked at Sarah’s shoe rack, trying to decide if Mom had given her the flats from here or from her own closet, but it was hard to tell. I hadn’t memorized every pair of shoes in the closet and where they went, but now I found myself wishing I had.
I ran my hands over the desk, finding nothing, not even dust there. What was I looking for in this room? I turned and caught my reflection in the mirror over the dressing table: the very image of Sarah when she went missing.
I knew what I was looking for, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I was looking for something that would prove to me that this girl really was Sarah, that this stranger was my sister.
SOME NIGHTS I WOULD lie on that bed in the dark and stare at the ceiling, thinking about food. I wasn’t missing anyone or anything, or wanting to go home again—I just wanted something to eat. I thought about fried chicken and mashed potatoes. And fast food, like French fries. My stomach hurt so bad, I felt like it was turning inside out. Sometimes I would drift off to sleep and wake up grinding my teeth, thinking about eating.
One of my teeth, a big one, got loose and wiggled around and I was scared it was because of my dreams and thinking about eating too much. Every day I put my fingers on it and moved it around more and more until one awful day the tooth just totally fell out. Right out into my hand, covered in blood and spit. I sat there and cried for what must have been hours and then I fell asleep with the bloody tooth in my hand and blood on my pillowcase.
When she came into the room with a tray like she did some days, I sat up and she saw the blood. “What have you done now?” she said, and I had to show her even though I didn’t want to. I opened my hand and she saw the tooth and she just laughed.
“You’re such a crybaby, everybody loses a tooth now and then. That’s nothing to cry about.” Then she left me there with the dried brown blood on my hand and a small plate of food to eat: some pretzels and yellow cheese in plastic wrappers and a soda that was warm and a weird flavor. But I ate it all; I just chewed on the other side.
BY THE TIME DAD and Sarah were done with the police interview, the news media had also somehow gotten the word. Mom called Dad’s cell and left a message to pull straight into the garage when they came home, that the cameras and vans were waiting outside. I knew what she was trying to avoid—and what they all wanted: a photo of how Sarah looked now, and Mom was not about to let them have it.
At Mom’s request, the detectives had sent over a couple of uniformed cops, who kept the reporters off the lawn, but they hovered on the sidewalk, where their shouts could be heard as Detective Donally’s car turned into the driveway. I watched from my bedroom window as Mom pushed the button to open the garage and he pulled in, the door quickly sliding down behind him as the reporters called out, “Who took you, Sarah? Did you run away?” and “Where have you been?” “Were you kidnapped?” “Did they hurt you?”
I went downstairs as soon as I heard them come in, but Detective Donally never even got out of the car. When he pulled out of the garage a few moments later, the yelling started again. The reporters couldn’t see into the car’s tinted windows and followed the car out of the driveway, microphones in hand, cameras at the ready, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was inside.
I rounded the corner into the kitchen to see Sarah standing there next to Dad. She looked up at me and met my eyes, and for a moment, it was as if she didn’t know me. I got that same sick feeling I’d had at the shelter in Florida, tingling and numb, a whooshing sound in my ears as my heart beat hard. What did she tell them?
Then she smiled, like she was actually happy to be home, to see me. Relieved. I searched Dad’s face, looking for an answer to the questions I didn’t dare ask. We all stood there, unsure of what to do next.
“So?” Mom finally said.
“Well, she tried, but she couldn’t give them a lot,” Dad said. “I don’t really know why they insisted on questioning someone with amnesia, seems like a waste of time to me.”
Even though it was early afternoon, Dad moved into the den, leaving the three of us in the kitchen, and I heard the sound of his glass clinking against the bottle as he poured himself a drink. By the time the counselor from the Center for Missing Children arrived at the front door, under another intense attack from reporters, Dad was already on his third.
More answers about Sarah’s visit to the police came out during our first home counseling session. Sarah hadn’t been able to tell the detectives anything. She didn’t know where she had been or what had happened to her—nothing. It was all a blank.
The police had asked about her bike, the one she rode on that last day. It had been found, carefully locked at a bike rack at the entrance to the park, about half a mile from where she was supposed to meet Max. When they dusted it for prints, all they found were Paula’s and mine (aside from Sarah’s, which were expected). But those were easily explained; I might have moved Sarah’s bike in the garage, and Paula said she had borrowed it once or twice. Sarah couldn’t remember leaving her bike there, or even where in the park she was meeting her boyfriend.
They asked about Max and showed her photos of her other friends. But most were a blank too—she remembered names, but nothing about them. Who she got along with, who she didn’t. If she had been fighting with anyone. Dad said she just shook her head, saying almost nothing.
“Did you run away, or did someone force you?” they asked her. “Were you kept in Florida? How long had you been there?” Her first memory was of waking up on the beach, in the jeans and tank top, with no shoes on. A police officer found her there and took her to the children’s shelter. From that point, her memory began again, but everything before that was lost or foggy.
The counselor from the center, an older woman named Dr. Levine, told us not to push Sarah. “The memories will return on their own, or they might not. Sometimes this kind of forgetting is a gift from the brain. It allows us to remember what we can handle and forget the rest.”
What the counselor said rang true for me—those first days and weeks after Sarah disappeared, they were all a blur now. What did I eat, what did I wear, what did I say to the detectives? It was like a dream, a terrible dream. My brain, trying not to deal, forgetting what I couldn’t face.
The counselor looked from my parents over to Sarah and spoke to her directly. “You might remember some things next week, next year, or maybe even ten years from now,” she said. She seemed like a young grandmother and spoke slowly and soothingly. “I had a client who suffered terrible abuse and was only able to recall her childhood when she had a child of her own. And by then, quite honestly, she was older and more stable and able to handle the memories.”
There was a moment of silence in the living room until Mom spoke. “What about seeing friends and relatives? Of course everyone wants to come and visit Sarah—Uncle Phil, the cousins, her grandmother—but we don’t want to overwhelm her. Would that be pushing things?”
Dr. Levine nodded and wrote something in the notebook on her lap. “That’s a good instinct you had there, exactly. It can be very overwhelming to see all these people you are expected to know but can’t quite recall.”
I looked over to Sarah to see if she had any thoughts to add, but she was just staring at Dr. Levine with a blank expression, slightly bored. Or maybe she was just tired.
“Sarah, do you feel ready to see people—maybe a relative or two? Some old friends?”
She blinked, then quickly answered. “I’m not sure. Maybe, just to see how it goes.”
Dr. Levine looked over at Mom. “A welcome-home party is certainly out of the question, as I’m sure you understand.” She smiled.
“Max emailed me—he wanted to drive down this weekend. If that’s okay,” I offered, looking from Sarah to Dr. Levine, trying to gauge their reactions.
“Well, your Gram also wants to come, and I think it’s family first,” Mom said.
“The answers to all of these questions are right here—with Sarah,” Dr. Levine pointed out. “Give her some time to think about what, and who, she’s ready to handle, and you’ll know when the time is right.”
That night, after Dr. Levine left, Sarah went to her room but left the door ajar, so a sliver of light shone into the hallway. I knocked gently and heard her say, “Come on in.”
She sat on the bed with the copy of Rebecca in her hands. It looked like she was reading it really slowly, for some reason—the bookmark had hardly moved. “That’s one of your favorite books, you know. You’ve read it a bunch of times.”
“Really? I’m loving it so much. But I don’t remember ever reading it before,” she admitted. She let out a little laugh. “The story does seem familiar, now that you mention it.”
“I guess that’s one good thing about amnesia, you can redo all kinds of stuff—books and movies, roller coasters . . .” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt weird for joking about it. I looked at her face to be sure I hadn’t offended her. She pulled in her legs and patted the end of the bed, inviting me to sit down. I hesitated. I had never sat on her bed in my life.
“Sit,” she finally insisted, tilting her head to one side.
“Naw, I’m sure you’re tired, I really just wanted to say good night.” I moved to the door.
I met her eyes, suddenly having a terrible feeling she was going to say something like, Don’t ever come in my room again.
“Can you leave the door a little bit open? I don’t like to be closed in.”
“Sure.” It was hard to believe this was the same Sarah who had always insisted on privacy, who had a habit of slamming her door, hard, behind anyone foolish enough to leave it open. As I left, I dimmed the hallway light, then I went into my own room and closed the door behind me.
That night, I woke to the sound of screaming. “Let me out!” I jerked awake, my feet on the floor before I even knew where I was. In a moment I was at Sarah’s door, panting for breath. “Stop, stop!” she yelled.
Dad stood in the hallway, in the dim light, and whispered to me, “It’s okay, Sarah’s just having a nightmare, go back to bed.” I peered into Sarah’s room and saw Mom on the bed next to her, holding her and rocking her back and forth as she sobbed and gulped air.
“It’s okay, you’re home now, you’re safe, you’re okay,” Mom said over and over again.
“Nico, back to bed,” Dad commanded.
Before I turned back into my room, I whispered to him, “Leave the door open a little, she doesn’t like it closed.”
I went back into my room and lay in bed, just staring at the ceiling. I heard Dad go downstairs and hit some buttons on the panel for the alarm system next to the front door, probably checking to be sure it was armed and the door securely locked. I could hear him pacing, his slippers on the hardwood floor, checking the windows and doors, like he sometimes did before we went on vacation. But I wasn’t sure who he was protecting us from. The damage had already been done.
THERE WAS ONE BOOK in the room, oversized with a puffy front cover, like there was padding inside it. It was white and felt like leather to the touch. It was an illustrated book of Bible stories for kids, big pictures with everything from Adam and Eve to Moses parting the Red Sea.
They never said I could look at the book, so I only did it in secret, when I was alone in the room for a long time. When I heard the key in the lock, I would quick put it back.
The next time I got in trouble, I thought it was maybe because I had been looking at the book. But that wasn’t why. It happened because she washed some clothes that had been sitting around. I only had two or three things to wear then and I just wore them over and over.
She said she saw something. “Has he been messing with you?” she asked me, and I didn’t know what to say so I just shook my head.
She sat on the bed and looked at me for a long time, then pulled the blanket up around my shoulders and tucked me in. She had never done anything nice like that before.
That night, the yelling was so bad I could hear it even though I pressed my hands hard over my ears. If only they had neighbors, they would hear and call the police, but from what I had seen out the little window, we were too far away for anyone to know what was happening. I couldn’t see another house or car anywhere. I just sat on the bed and rocked and rocked for hours. Sometimes I would get out that old Bible book and look at the pictures, but not now. There was noise and yelling and things being thrown. It was not a time for Bible pictures.
MAX AND GRAM WEREN’T the only ones who wanted to see Sarah. My friends were all dying to come over, suddenly, and everyone wanted a photo of how she looked now. She had been gone for four years—was she still the same pretty girl? Or had she been tarnished in some way that could never wash off? Even Tessa, who stopped by with my assignments from school and lingered in the doorway, her mom’s car idling in our driveway.
“Can I stay for a little bit? Mom said I can, if your mom says it’s okay,” she said breathlessly, looking past my shoulder. I couldn’t help but think back to just a year or two before, when Tessa hadn’t even been allowed to come over or spend the night. Now we were suddenly celebrities, and everyone wanted a piece of us.
“It’s not a good idea,” I said, though I didn’t fault her. I wanted her to come in so we could talk—really talk—about what was going on. Tessa would know what to do.
I nodded. “Yeah, she’s reading a book right now that she read before, and she doesn’t even remember that.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt I had betrayed my family, my sister. Mom and Dad had been very clear: no media, and no talking to anyone about Sarah. We didn’t know how the facts about her having amnesia had gotten out, but Mom suspected it was a leak from the children’s shelter in Florida. We hadn’t released anything: no photos, though the papers and magazines had been clamoring for them. Mom had fielded calls from news shows like 48 Hours and Dateline and also magazines—even People. But she turned everyone down.
“I want to give other people hope, the families of missing children—to tell them to keep believing and that maybe it will happen for them too, but not at the expense of my own daughter’s mental health.” That was the statement she gave to most sources.
“Can I see her?” Tessa whispered, leaning in, and I had to shake my head.
“Don’t even tell anybody what I said about the book, okay?”
Tessa nodded seriously. “Okay.” She lingered for a moment. “You know Liam is having that party tomorrow night? I feel weird going without you.”
“So you don’t think your parents will let you? My mom will drive us.”
I looked out at Tessa’s mom in the car. She was usually on her phone, but not today. She was watching us, waiting to see if Tessa was going to get inside. If I was going to come out. If Sarah was going to make an appearance.
“I dunno, I have to see.” Really I knew that we already had plans for the weekend. Max was coming into town, but I couldn’t tell Tessa that.
“Okay, well . . .” Tessa met my eyes. “I guess just let me know, okay?”
I felt a weird detachment from her, as if I was lying to her. We usually told each other everything. I didn’t like how it felt to keep secrets from my best friend—if that’s what I was doing.
After the family session with Dr. Levine, we talked about visitors and let Sarah decide who she wanted to see first. She had agreed to let Max come for a visit over the weekend, but she was nervous—not about her amnesia, but about something else. At dinner Friday night, she said quietly, “I’m mostly just worried what people will think of how I look now.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mom laughed lightly. But I knew what Sarah meant. She could see from the photos all over the house how she used to look. And she didn’t look like that anymore.
Sarah sighed and stared down at her plate. She didn’t want to say the words. “They might think I’m different now. Ugly.”
“You are not ugly, Sarah,” Mom was quick to say. “You are a beautiful girl, and I want you to see that. Whatever it takes to make you feel better, we’re going to do it, right, Nico?” Mom looked over at me.
“Yeah, of course,” I agreed. But Sarah was right. Max was going to be shocked to see her—older, so thin and drawn. That glow, that whole “Sarah” thing, was gone, and I didn’t know how she could possibly get it back.
“How about this? Tomorrow, before Max comes over, we go see Amanda at the salon—makeovers all around. Then shopping—you need new clothes, shoes, everything. Okay?”
Sarah smiled. “I’d like that,” she said, taking a bite of pasta from her plate. “I love this pasta.”
“It’s gnocchi,” I told her. “Your favorite, but you almost never ate it because you said it had too many calories.”
“Nico!” Mom snapped.
“What? It’s true, she used to say that.”
Actually, what Sarah used to say was that I shouldn’t eat pasta, because I was so fat already. I wish we could order pizza, but Nico can’t have any, she told her friends who were over one night. My mom had to put her fat ass on a diet, so now we all have to suffer. Thanks, Nico.
I looked over at Sarah now and tried to marry her words from the past with this person sitting at the table. She smiled at me and took another bite, this washed-out version of my sister. Deep down, part of me still hated her, even though I knew that was wrong. I had tried so hard after she was gone. Tried to remember only the good things about her, but it was nearly impossible.
On her birthday every year, Mom and Dad left white roses at the entrance to MacArthur Park, and they made me come, too. March 11, early spring, and almost always raining or damp. A dozen white roses, wrapped in a yellow ribbon, wasted, left to rot on the brick wall at the entrance arch. We never actually set foot in the park, just stood outside the gates. Mom made us each say something—something good we remembered about Sarah. The first year, I said something about how she was so awesome at cheer. That was easy, a good thing, a true thing. The next year, I mentioned how she always kept her room so neat. Mom had laughed at that, through her tears.
And this year, just a month ago, it was easier for me to say something nice about Sarah as the memory of her cruelty faded. I was more forgiving. I said she always wanted the best for me, which was true, sort of. She wanted me to be thin and pretty like her; she wanted me to care about my appearance, to work out instead of constantly reading. To have more friends, be more popular. All the things that had happened for me after Sarah went away. Without Sarah’s shadow over me, I became what she wanted me to be. And now she was back. But that didn’t mean that I had forgotten.