THE NEXT DAY, WE left the house with Sarah bundled up in a hat, sunglasses, and baggy clothes. If anyone was waiting outside with a camera, they would be disappointed. But I didn’t see any of the news media trucks that had parked outside those first few days. Perhaps they had moved on, forgotten us already, or the police presence had finally intimidated them into leaving. I noticed just one car that looked a little suspicious, probably an unmarked police car, but I didn’t get a good look at the plates as Mom drove out of the garage.
Mom checked the rearview mirror a few times on the drive, but saw nothing. And I knew that Amanda—her longtime stylist—had emptied the salon for us that morning. Amanda had actually done Sarah’s hair before, just a trim now and then, or for a big dance at school.
When we got to the salon, Amanda, a tiny woman with short spiky black hair and a light British accent, raced toward us and hugged us all, saving Sarah for last. I saw tears in her eyes as she held her. “You sit right here, we’re taking care of you first, guest of honor,” she told Sarah, wrapping a cape over her clothes as she sat down. Mom and I sat on either side and Amanda’s assistant started on Mom’s trim.
Amanda fluffed up Sarah’s lank tresses. “Looks like it’s just a little overprocessed . . .” she murmured, then caught herself. “Nothing that can’t be fixed.” She smiled and pulled a comb carefully through Sarah’s hair, parting it. “That’s your real color right there, sort of a light brown.” She pointed at the roots. “I’ve been coloring your mom’s hair for years”—she leaned in and whispered—“and that’s her real color exactly. Now, how blond do you want to go?”
“Well, Nico has the most beautiful hair. I’d love to have her color, if you can even get close to it,” Sarah said. She smiled over at me and I felt my neck get hot and red with embarrassment. I couldn’t remember a time when Sarah had given me a compliment. To call my hair beautiful—I was shocked.
“You’d be surprised what I can do, a few highlights and lowlights.” She combed through Sarah’s hair carefully. “You’ll have to lose a couple of inches to damage, but otherwise, you’ll look like twins.”
Sarah reached over and took my hand as Amanda started working on her hair, and our eyes met in the mirror. Her smile was sincere, relieved, happy. Feeling the small bones of her hand as she squeezed mine, I had to smile back.
Two hours later, we left the salon looking more like a family: all the same shade of blond and trimmed and styled to perfection. Sarah’s hair was a few inches shorter now, just above her shoulders, but the color was amazing: We did look like twins, just like Amanda had promised.
“Lunch at the mall, then shopping?” Mom said as we headed for the car. Sarah slipped on her sunglasses and, with her newly lightened hair, looked better than she had in days.
“I’m starving, and I think I’m in the mood to go shopping. How about you, Nico?” she asked me. It was probably her longest sentence since she got home.
I looked over at her, almost too stunned to answer. Was she really asking me how I felt, what I wanted to do—instead of just insisting we do what she wanted? “Yeah, sure, why not,” I said, climbing into the backseat. Sarah took the seat beside me instead of sitting up front.
“I feel like we used to do this all the time,” Sarah said, pulling on her seat belt. “Shop together, right?”
At first I thought she was being sarcastic, old Sarah, back with the digs. But there was no laugh, no as if! We never went shopping together. She always went with her friends, and I just didn’t go. I looked down at my boyfriend-cut jeans and old concert tee. An outfit that Sarah would have called “dumpy.” No way is Nico coming with us, we aren’t going to the store for fatties—oh, I mean plus-size. Isn’t that where you get your clothes, Nico?
Sarah kept her sunglasses on at the mall, but I wasn’t sure she really needed to—the place was mobbed, and I felt like no one took any notice of two blond teens and their mom eating subs at the food court or popping into boutiques. When anyone did do a double take at us, I reminded myself that there hadn’t been any photos of Sarah since she returned, and Mom looked so different from the old press photos they were using, no one would recognize her.
After Sarah went missing, for a few months at least, we couldn’t go anywhere without people coming up to us. They just wanted to say how sorry they were, or that they had seen us on the news. Once, at the grocery store, a teenage boy bagging Mom’s groceries asked, “Aren’t you that family where the girl ran away? Whatever happened to her?” Mom completely dissolved into tears, sobbing so loudly the manager had to come and walk us out to the car. After that, every time someone recognized us as “the family of that girl,” I felt my anxiety meter creep up. I didn’t want anyone to say something stupid or in haste that would hurt Mom or Dad, but usually they were just sympathetic and kind. Still, it was one benefit of the passage of years—people forget, someone else’s story replaces yours on the front page, and you just go on with your life.
We went into a couple of stores, but Sarah didn’t find much that she liked. “Too preppy,” she’d say, passing up racks of outfits that she would have pounced on a few years ago. She finally picked out a couple of pairs of jeans and a few casual tops to try on. Some of the stuff looked more like nightclub wear than clothes for everyday, but Mom wasn’t saying no to anything.
When we went to the dressing rooms, Sarah linked arms with me and almost pulled me in with her. “I’ll wait out here,” I said, uncomfortable with her new physical displays of affection.
“’Kay,” she said, closing the door behind her. “I’ll only show you the stuff I think looks decent.”
She opened the door a minute later, coming out in a bright printed top and skinny jeans that revealed how thin her legs had become. The top had a T-back and showed off her slender shoulders, the bones knobby under the skin.
“What do you think?” She was facing me but I could see in the mirror behind her the circle of a pink burn on her shoulder blade. I knew she had lots of small burns on her back from the report that Mom was given, but I hadn’t seen one before. Now that I did—the spot where someone had pressed a burning cigarette into her fragile skin—I caught my breath.
“You have—you can see—”
Sarah turned around and looked at the reflection of her shoulder. “Oh.” She scowled. “Too bad, it’s a cute top from the front.”
Before thinking, I reached out and put my fingers gently on the scar. It felt soft and smooth, almost plastic. “Does it hurt?” I asked.
Sarah shook her head. “It was a long time ago,” she said, stripping off the top and dropping it on the floor.
I registered what she had said before she did: A long time ago. How long? I thought she couldn’t remember.
When she saw my face in the mirror she caught herself. “I mean, it has to be, right?” She smiled, slipping another top over her head.
It was a long time ago. The words kept ringing in my head. Did Sarah remember more than she was telling us?
“Nico, is this one too tight, you think?” she asked me now. Our eyes met in the mirror. “Come on, be honest.” Suddenly the smile left her face and she added, in a low tone, “You know you can be totally honest with me.” We stood like that for a moment, neither of us saying anything, an electricity between us that I didn’t fully understand.
Then Sarah smiled her earnest smile, something that I still wasn’t used to. The Sarah of my memory had a downturned mouth, unless she was with her friends or with Max. “You could pull this off. Why don’t you try it?” she added, unbuttoning the top. And that was perhaps the most jarring thing of all: her niceness. Her sweet way with me. How she reached for my hand at the salon. Her open heart, her love. Gone were the sarcasm, the biting insults. I had almost stopped bracing for acid comments every time she opened her mouth. Almost.
I looked at her in the mirror, thin and washed out, even with her expensive new color and cut. The fitted pink top making her skin look even paler, her body smaller. This girl was broken and scarred. Something horrible had happened to her, that was certain. Somehow, she had come out of it, survived, and become the person she was now—someone wonderful. But she wasn’t my sister.
HE BURNED ME THE next day. In the morning, he opened the door and came in while I was asleep. I felt his weight on the bed next to me and I rolled over. He smelled like old beer and cigarettes and sweat. He was smoking and didn’t look at me. Just said, “You fucked up real good this time, kid.”
I didn’t know if he was talking to me or to himself.
When he looked over at me, he said, “Don’t give me that face.” Then he reached over and pressed his cigarette onto my back. At first I didn’t know what was happening, then I felt it all at once, right through my nightgown, a sting and burn and sizzle. I jerked away, and quick, he was on me, holding me down, my face into the pillow with his arm on the back of my neck. And another burn and another. I screamed but the pillow filled my mouth. I couldn’t hear myself screaming, even in my own ears. He pressed harder on me and I couldn’t breathe. Then he burned me again and I felt myself drifting from the pain. It didn’t hurt anymore because I was just floating up, like there was a big wave under me, carrying me far. Carrying me far.
I GOT THROUGH THE afternoon of shopping, woodenly saying “yes” or “no” to items she picked out—clothes my real sister would never wear, fabrics she would never let touch her body. When we walked back through the atrium to the parking lot, she suddenly stopped, shying away from a guy who bumped her accidentally. “Sorry,” he said under his breath, and kept going. Mom put her arm around Sarah’s waist and guided her to the door as I walked behind them, trying to make sure no one else came too close.
We got home without any problems—no one following us, no news crews outside. I could tell Mom was relieved as she pulled the car into the garage. If she had her way, Sarah would never leave the house again. When we got into the kitchen, Sarah took one look at the clock and her face blanched. “I’ve only got an hour before he gets here?”
“You look wonderful, what’s wrong?” Mom asked.
Sarah rolled her eyes, exasperated with Mom, and I thought I saw a glimpse of something, the old Sarah. You don’t get it, none of you. Maybe I just wanted to see it, to convince myself.
“Nico, you’ve got to help me.” Sarah raced upstairs, carrying her bags of new clothes.
I followed her into her room, where she dropped the bags on the floor. Sarah sat in front of the mirror and dumped out her old makeup bag, poking through it. “This stuff . . .” She shook her head and started to say something, then caught herself. I saw her pick up the metal eyelash curler and set it to one side. The rest of the old makeup—eye shadow, powder, lip stain—she pushed off the side of the table with the back of her hand into the garbage.
She pulled over a small white bag and started unpacking the new products Mom had just bought at the department store: a really expensive face cream, foundation, eyeliner, and lipstick. All of it came in fancy-looking boxes, which she lined up on the side of the dressing table, her eyes as big as a kid’s on Christmas morning. “Well, it’s showtime.” She opened the lotion and smoothed it over her face carefully as I watched, noting the small pocks where pimples must have left scars. “Maybe this stuff will do the trick.”
This stuff will do the trick. Sarah would never say that.
“You’re in charge of music.” She nodded to the speakers on the bookshelf. I pulled my phone from my pocket and plugged it in, scrolling to a playlist. Nico, I heard you listening to that stupid boy band. What are you, like, seven or something? You really like that crap?
“Nice,” she said, bobbing her head to the first song as it played. I sat on her bed, uneasily, and watched as she expertly applied a thick layer of eyeliner.
“I’m thinking the skinny jeans and the black top, the one that ties up here?” she said. “Can you dig those ones out for me and cut off the tags?”
I did what she asked and laid the clothes on the bed, then started to leave so she could dress, but she stripped off her pants and slid into the new jeans before changing her top, giving me a glimpse of how empty her bra was, stretched over her ribs.
She leaned into the mirror and fluffed up her hair. “You’re so quiet—is it because I look terrible?”
“No.” I shook my head. She actually looked good, almost like Sarah used to, although with a bit more makeup than she used to wear. “You look really great.”
She smiled at herself in the mirror, as if I wasn’t there, a perfect imitation of the Sarah pictures on the bulletin board—head tipped down just a bit, eyes narrowed. “Do you think he’ll look the same? Just as cute?” She moved over to the photos and studied them closely.
After Sarah went missing, we had been in close contact with Max for a while. Mom and I had both repeatedly defended him to the cops, making sure they knew that we didn’t suspect him, that he couldn’t be responsible. He loved Sarah—probably more than we did. Still, they questioned him over and over, searched his house and his family cabin, and they found plenty. Her hair was everywhere. Her fingerprints. Yes, she had been there, but they didn’t find what they were looking for: Signs of struggle. Blood.
Just when it seemed like the looming suspicion of guilt had lifted, two years ago, a local paper had done an article about Sarah, looking into her disappearance again. There were photos of Max and Paula. And, of course, the talk started up again. Mom spent a lot of time on the phone with his parents after that article was published. It didn’t seem to matter how many times our family gave statements about his innocence or Paula’s, people still thought Max had something to do with Sarah’s disappearance, probably right up until she returned.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Sarah asked, running her finger over the photo, touching his face.
I had bumped into Max last winter, when he was home for Christmas, shopping downtown. It was startling to see him and we had an awkward hug. Neither of us even said Sarah’s name. And he looked just as handsome, if not more.
“Not that long ago, and, yeah, he still looks pretty good,” I admitted. “You know, he went through a really bad time—” I started to tell her, but then the doorbell rang downstairs.
Sarah turned to me, grabbing my hands. “Oh my God!” We went down the stairs. Dad had already opened the door to Max before we got there, so we saw him standing in the front hall. Tall, dark, and handsome summed it up—now with the broad shoulders of a man to go with it. He turned to look at Sarah. It felt like time stood still as I watched his face, waiting to see his reaction. What would he say? I waited for him to say the words that were running through my head: That’s not Sarah.
Max stood still, rigid, his jaw muscles tense. He didn’t seem to blink, looking at her. The air felt charged with something: electricity, fire, metal, static.
“Wow,” he said quietly. Finally, a slow smile. “I didn’t want to believe it until I saw you, but just, wow!” He moved to lift her into his arms in a bear hug.
I felt myself breathe—I hadn’t realized until that moment that I’d been holding myself rigid, waiting. What was he seeing? I looked at her, the blond hair, the smile, and the clothes. It was Sarah, of course it was Sarah. I thought back to how I had been feeling in the dressing room at the mall, watching her, detached, like she was a stranger. Holding myself apart from her. What was wrong with me?
“You weigh nothing!” he said before he could stop himself. And then, in the doorway, I saw someone else—short dark-blond hair, a black coat. Paula.
“Oh, Paula,” Mom said, taking her eyes off Max and Sarah for a moment. “We weren’t expecting you—what a nice surprise.” I wasn’t sure if anyone but me could tell that her tone was decidedly not happy. We all sat in the living room and awkwardly stared at Sarah between conversation and the crudités Mom had set out. My parents asked about college and Max and Paula gave the stock answers about what they were studying.
“We’re going to help Sarah take her GED, once she’s settled, so maybe she’ll be joining you both soon,” Mom offered. Sarah’s face was unreadable at the news.
Paula sat close to Max, their thighs touching, and put her arm around him as she asked, “Do we look much different to you?”
Sarah smiled a little, then admitted, “Well, Max has a beard now.”
Everyone laughed, except Paula, who corrected her. “Not a beard, he just hasn’t shaved for a couple of days.” She looked over at him and I could feel the affection between them. They had bonded over Sarah’s disappearance years ago, but now they seemed to be really in love—at least, Paula was. Max never took his eyes off Sarah.
Sarah’s face was somewhat ashen, seeing them together. We hadn’t thought to tell her that Max and Paula had been together for a few years. Mom thought it would be best for Max to tell Sarah himself, but now it was too late.
“Well, you sure look different,” Paula said, and when Mom shot her a look she added, “You look great, just older, I mean, we all do, right?” Max looked down at his shoes and rubbed his hands together. She went on talking, awkwardly, as if trying to cover what she had said, bury it under more small talk. “And I cut my hair. Remember? It used to be as long as yours, Nico.”
Her last few words hung in the air, as if no one knew what to say next, how to get into a conversation that meant anything. I felt that funny rushing sound in my ears as my heart started to beat fast. I closed my eyes just for a second and willed myself to be calm. None of this is going to be easy, the counselor had told us. She was right.
I looked over to Sarah and saw that her mouth was set in a thin line. Part of me wanted to be happy, to see Sarah not get her way—for once. To have Paula sitting there with Max, claiming him as hers. But this wasn’t Sarah, even though she looked like her—not the same Sarah from before—this girl did not deserve to be hurt by her friends. The image of that little round scar on her back flashed into my mind.
Mom broke the tension by asking if she could get drinks for everyone. “I’d love a beer, if you’ve got any,” Max said. At first I thought he was joking but then quickly remembered that he was over twenty-one now.
“I’ll check. Nico, care to help me?” Mom gave me a look that told me it wasn’t really a question.
The moment we got into the kitchen, Mom slammed open the fridge. “Who does that girl think she is to come here—this was supposed to be for Sarah and Max.” She moved some bottles around and found one of Dad’s beers.
“Mom, they’re a couple, they’ve been together for years.”
“Still, she couldn’t let Sarah have half an hour with him alone—an hour? That’s too much?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure they were so excited to see her that they just didn’t think about it. They were all friends, remember?” I said, but my mind kept replaying Paula looking over at Max, that little smug smile on her face. She didn’t have to do that.
“You’re right,” Mom said with a sigh. “I’m just thinking of Sarah—I wish we could make everything like it was for her. But that’s not going to happen, is it?”
I shook my head and went to pick up the tray Mom had fixed. What had happened at the mall was still haunting me. It was a long time ago. “Don’t you think it’s weird how she’s so . . .” The word wouldn’t come to me. “How Sarah’s so different now?”
Mom tilted her head. “Different how?”
Was it possible that she hadn’t picked up on everything I had, all the things I was seeing? “Just, the clothes she wanted to get, and well . . .” I thought of the other things: her hair being darker, her shoes too small. When I really thought about it, they were all easily explained away. The shoes were Mom’s. Or her feet had grown. The hair—someone dyed it an ashy blond, trying to disguise her. All of those little things were not as strange as how she was acting: Nice. Loving. Like a real sister. And how I was feeling about her: Protective. Defensive.
“We all wish our old Sarah was back, that everything was just like before, but this is the Sarah we’ve got,” Mom said. “And I am so happy that I just don’t want to compare things to how they were before.” She added some ice to the water glasses on the tray. “Yes, she’s different. She’s older, for one, and we don’t know what she’s been through. But she’s back, she’s with us, she’s safe, and that’s what’s important.” Mom stopped moving and talking for a moment. She put her hands on her hips and took in a deep breath. I watched as she arranged her tense features into a more pleasant face, a small fake smile replacing the line of her lips.
Her eyes met mine and I knew. Of course she had noticed the differences, all the strange little things that didn’t add up. But Sarah was back now, the black hole in our family had been filled. And that was all that mattered.
AFTER PAULA AND MAX left, I helped Mom clear the living room. “Your phone was buzzing,” she said to me, fluffing the pillows on the couch. She arranged them so that everything was perfect again, as if the short, awkward visit never happened. “You had a bunch of text messages. Not that I was looking at your phone—it was just in the kitchen.”
I put Max’s empty beer bottle and Paula’s glass on the tray. I knew that Mom checked my phone. She had the pass code, she probably scanned through it every night. I could tell, sometimes, by what had been left open—the photos or my email was the last thing looked at—when I had closed those apps. It didn’t bother me because I knew what she was looking for. It wasn’t coming from a place of distrust or her concern that I was going to disappear like Sarah had. She wasn’t suspicious about secret boyfriends or if I was doing drugs. She and Dad were worried about something else, in the opposite direction: that I wasn’t having a normal teenage life. That I didn’t have friends. That I didn’t go out, wasn’t invited to things. They both worried—well, mostly Mom—that Sarah’s disappearance had ruined any chance for me of being a regular teen girl. And while Mom always reminded me that what happened to Sarah wasn’t our fault, I know she blamed herself for how they handled it and how much of my life had been lost in that mix.
I brought the tray into the kitchen and picked up my phone, scanning through the text messages from Tessa. Mom came in and started loading the dishwasher. I knew she was dying to ask who the messages were from.
Finally, I broke the suspense. “It’s just Tessa, some party tonight . . .” I started to say.
Mom instantly brightened. “Oh, a party? At Tessa’s house?”
“It’s at Liam’s. It’s his birthday.” I shrugged and leaned back against the counter. I didn’t go to many parties. There had been a few, mostly birthday parties where my mom would stay to help out. Only in the past year had she let me go to someone else’s house unaccompanied, and that was a big deal. She or Dad had to drive me there and pick me up, checking in with the parents to be sure an adult would be there the whole time. “It’s tonight—seems strange to go.”
I didn’t say anything, just looked down. “What am I supposed to say to people? It’s weird.”
Mom nodded. “I understand. But I bet after about five minutes of asking you questions, everyone will drop it and move on. You should go, sweetie.” She smiled. “You’re back to school Monday anyhow—it might be a good thing to just see everyone and get it over with, right? Plus, you just had your hair done and it looks so good. Don’t you want to show it off?”
I couldn’t believe that Mom was pushing me to go to a party, practically shoving me. Her sudden desperation for a normal life for not only me but for all of us made me feel a little sorry for her. If I went to the party, it would be for her, not even because I wanted to.
“What about Sarah?”
“She’s exhausted, I’m sure—both physically and emotionally. That was a lot today.” Mom pulled a frozen lasagna from the fridge and unwrapped it, preheating the oven. “Go on, tell Tessa you can go. Really, Nico, I think you should.”
As I went upstairs with my phone in my hand, I realized that maybe she wanted me to go out for another reason—to have some time alone with Sarah. I hadn’t considered that. Since Sarah had gotten back, we’d done everything together. Even when Dad wasn’t around, I was.
I walked by Sarah’s door and noticed that the light was off, even though it was starting to grow dark outside. Maybe she was asleep. I stood outside the door for a moment, listening, but heard nothing.
In my own room, I turned on all the lights and slipped my phone into the speaker, playing a new song Tessa had recommended. I dumped the shopping bag from the mall onto my bed and looked over the stuff I’d picked out—nothing that special: a new pair of skinny jeans in a soft gray that Sarah had proclaimed “awesome” and a simple white T-shirt in a slouchy boyfriend fit. “You can wear a dark bra under, with straps showing,” Sarah had offered. It wasn’t exactly my style.
I slid off my top and put on the new white shirt, letting the shoulder fall to one side, showing the thin strap of my pink bra. Sarah was right, it looked kind of good. I pulled on the new jeans and added a silver belt. I had only one long necklace—a gift from Tessa for my last birthday, a silver chain with a set of white angel wings dangling from it. I put it around my neck and let it fall long over the soft shirt.
I picked up my phone and texted Tessa back: When can you pick me up?
I ate dinner with Mom and Dad, lasagna and a quick salad Mom threw together. Sarah’s room was still dark and Mom said not to bother her, to let her sleep if she wanted to. “I think it took a lot out of her, seeing those two,” she said, sipping her second glass of wine.
“Maybe she needs some new friends,” Dad proclaimed.
“I’d say so,” Mom agreed. “Paula—that girl has some problems, serious issues still with Sarah. It’s so unhealthy and immature. I mean, considering . . .”
I pushed the food around on my plate, not willing to pile insults onto Paula. They didn’t understand, fully, what she had been through with Sarah. How she had been treated. Their complicated history. How strange it must be for her to now be back. I could relate. It didn’t excuse Paula’s behavior, but it did explain it.
Mom went on: “As if no time had passed, as if Sarah hasn’t been through absolute hell. I mean, can you imagine, asking her to go running tomorrow morning? You should have seen Sarah’s face.”
It was comical, the idea that this thin, anemic version of Sarah would leap from bed tomorrow wanting to run to the track with Paula just like they used to. I thought, for a moment, when Paula suggested the idea of running at the track that Sarah would burst out laughing. But she seemed to consider it carefully, saying instead, shyly, I’ll think about it.
A car horn sounded from the driveway and we all startled. “That’s Tessa.” I grabbed my bag and a sweater and headed to the door. “I won’t be super late or anything.”
Both of their faces turned to me, fragile smiles and eager eyes. “Just have fun, kiddo,” Dad said, sounding like a father on a sitcom.
“Call us if you need a ride or anything, anything at all, okay?” Mom looked like she was ready to walk me out to the car and kiss my cheek but held her seat.
“’Kay, bye.” I tried to be casual as I closed the door behind me. I could feel their watchful gaze on me as I climbed into the back of Tessa’s mom’s car. Music was blasting, the heat was on high, and the car smelled of Tessa’s fruit-flavored lip gloss.
Tessa threw her arms around me, yanking me to her. “I’m so glad you decided to come! This is going to be crazy!”
Her mom turned down the music for a moment and backed the car from the driveway. “How’s it going, Nico? We have been thinking about you. Tessa says you didn’t make it to school all week.”
I took a deep breath and said the words I had been preparing in my head. “It’s been pretty strange, but good. We’re just really happy to have Sarah home.”
“I bet.” Tessa’s mom met my eyes in the rearview mirror. “How is she?”
I paused, wondering how to answer that. She’s different. “She’s really, really good. Still adjusting, but she’s really good.”
“Mom! I told you Nico isn’t allowed to talk about it. Can you turn this song up?” Tessa rolled her eyes at me and mouthed the word sorry.
“It’s okay,” I said. I looked out the car window at the lights in all the other homes we drove by, the flicker of TV screens. I longed to be sitting in the den at home, with my parents, watching a movie like we usually did on Saturday night. Just the three of us. I wondered if they would be doing that with Sarah tonight.
“. . . this could be good or it could be bad, because you know I always thought Alex sort of liked Kelly and acted like he didn’t just because she was with Liam, but I guess we’ll see tonight, huh?” Tessa was talking but I could barely keep up.
“Wait, when did Kelly and Liam break up?”
“Last week, you were out. I was going to call you, but, I mean, you were dealing with way bigger stuff.” Tessa pulled out a lip gloss and smeared it on just as her mom pulled in front of Liam’s house. Lights seemed to glow from every window and I could already hear a low bass line of beats escaping from the open front door.
Tessa’s mom said quickly, “You know the rules,” before unlocking the doors. “Text me when you’re ready to be picked up.”
“We’ll be good, promise. Love you, Mom!” Tessa called as we tumbled out of the back and up the rounded driveway.
“You’re almost a foot taller,” I had to point out. Tessa, usually tiny, was suddenly statuesque, matching my height.
“New boots.” She pointed down to her heels. “They kill! You don’t know how lucky you are to be tall.”
“Tess, are your feet, like, still growing, or are you the same size?” I asked as we reached the door.
“What?” Tessa pulled a funny face. “I’m a size six, have been for years. Why? Do these make my feet look big?”
I shook my head.
“No, tell me, Nico. Do they? You need to tell me now because I’ve hardly worn them and I can still take them back . . .”
“They’re good.” I couldn’t tell her the real reason I was asking. “Really.”
Tessa looked like she didn’t believe me as we went into the foyer and saw a group of kids from school in the living room. I had never been to Liam’s house, and was surprised to see how big it was. I knew he was an only child and lived with just his father. What did the two of them do in this place?
“Ladies!” Liam’s best friend, Miles, came over and flopped an arm around each of our shoulders. He turned to me. “Very surprised to see you here.”
“Leave her alone,” Tessa said, sliding out from under his arm.
“Not because of the whole ‘kidnapped sister returns’ thing, but you just never go to parties,” Miles pointed out.
“Whoa.” Idina walked by and did a double take. She grabbed both my hands in hers. “How are you?” She pulled me in for an uncomfortable hug. “I called you a few days ago, but I didn’t hear back—and that’s totally cool—but, oh my God, Nico!”
“Yeah, I know.” I nodded. “Sorry I didn’t call you, it’s been . . .” I shook my head, suddenly feeling tears in my eyes. Don’t lose it. Don’t cry, you fat stupid baby, you always cry about everything.
“So crazy, everybody has been talking about you, but you’re okay? Right? And your sister?”
I took a deep breath and willed myself to stay calm. “Actually, everything is really good. I mean it, like, excellent.” I tried to convince myself it was true. It was true.
“Of course she’s awesome, her sister is back.” Tessa looked over at me. “She’s not allowed to discuss it—ongoing investigation,” she added quietly. I could tell she loved being my official spokesperson, and I was happy to let her have the job. She ran her fingers through her curls. “God, is there anything to drink at this thing?”
As if a switch had been thrown, Miles pulled his arm from my shoulder and put a finger up to his lips, whispering, “Shhhhhhh, come with me, my pretties.” He led us through an arched doorway and down a flight of stairs into a cozy den with leather couches, a massive flat-screen TV, and a pool table. He pulled a couple of beers from a small fridge under the bar. “Liam’s dad and his girlfriend are upstairs, but they’re cool. Just don’t put any cold drinks down on the pool table—leaves a mark.”
He popped the cap off a bottle and handed it to me. “For the girl who needs it most.” He grinned. He offered beers to Tessa and Idina as well. I took a long swallow and let the cold bubbles travel down my throat. I didn’t love the taste of beer, but there was something about this one that felt right: I liked holding it, the shape of the bottle, and being in Liam’s perfect house with my friends. It felt normal, for the first time in a long time.
We found ourselves on a big leather couch talking to Miles and a few other guys from school. Some people asked, at first, about Sarah, or said things like “That’s so crazy!” but then, as Mom had predicted, the conversation moved on quickly: who was trying to get with Kelly, the freak-out that Idina had in chemistry when she got a 60 percent on her exam.
I scanned the crowded room for Max’s little brother, Gabe, knowing that seeing him would be the strangest part of the night, but it looked like he hadn’t shown up, and I was happy for it. The beer made the muscles in my neck relax and I felt warm, safe.
I stood up to head to the bathroom and was surprised to feel my legs loose and wobbly, as if I had played tennis for hours. I’d never had a whole beer before, and this one tasted strong. Under the dim light in the bathroom, I could see my cheeks were pink, my eyes glassy. No one had noticed my haircut, not even Tessa.
I washed my hands and the water came out really hot, almost scalding. I tried to remember everything I’d said. Had I answered with the right words? Was I acting the way I was supposed to? Everyone seemed okay with what I had told them about Sarah, but now I wasn’t so sure. My brain felt foggy, unreliable, like it had after Sarah disappeared and Mom gave me those pills to help me sleep and I couldn’t trust my own memory. There was a knock on the door. “I’ll be right out,” I said. I looked at myself one last time.
When I came out, I practically crashed into the chest of a guy standing right by the door. “Sorry,” I mumbled, not even looking up. A hand grabbed my arm and I spun around, alarmed, until I saw who it was: Daniel, a senior who worked on the school paper and yearbook staff with us. He was tall and cute, and had probably not actually spoken to me in the two years I’d been on the paper.
“Nico,” he said, looking down at me. A little smile crossed his face and I noticed he had a dimple on one side. “I didn’t know you were friends with Liam.”
“I’m not, really, I mean—” I fumbled for something to say. “My friend Tessa is friends with him. And I guess I am too.” I sounded like an idiot.
Daniel didn’t seem to really be paying attention to my garbled answer. “I heard about your sister, I had no idea—you never talked about it,” Daniel went on. “That’s crazy.”
I just nodded, not pointing out that I never talked about it because I’d never talked to him before. He had gone to a different middle school and probably didn’t connect me with Sarah by the time we all got to high school. I tried to think of a response, something witty and light, but I was suddenly jostled from behind as a guy pushed past me into the bathroom, holding a hand over his mouth. The door slammed and we could hear retching inside. “That doesn’t sound good,” Daniel joked. He put his hand on the small of my back and guided me away from the door.
“So how is she, your sister? She okay?” He took a swig from his beer bottle and leaned against the wall. It all felt so casual, I almost blurted out a reply.
“Yeah, she is okay, she’s doing good.” I tried to give the same answer I’d been giving everyone all night. But something about the way Daniel was looking at me made me want to tell him more, to reveal something to him. To impress him.
He leaned down close to my face, as if to hear me better, and I could see the dark stubble on his cheeks. He reached down to touch my necklace, taking the wings delicately in his fingers and turning them over. “What happened to her anyhow?” I could feel his breath on my cheek.
“I don’t know,” I said, my mind still feeling a little foggy. “I mean, we don’t really know yet. . . .” I wanted him to lean in closer, I wanted to keep him interested. I looked over to the couch and saw Tessa staring at me, her eyebrows up like a question.
“Listen”—he took another sip from his bottle and slid his hand to my waist—“I just wanted to say if you need someone to talk to, like, anytime, let me know.” I looked into his eyes—a deep chocolaty brown. “And if you ever need to skip a yearbook meeting, no worries, I’ve got you covered, okay?”
I swallowed hard. “Thanks, I . . .”
Miles suddenly appeared in front of us, holding out another beer. “I’m good.” I started to wave him away, but he took my palm and pressed the cold bottle into it.
“Drink, and be merry,” he said, trying to do a regal bow and almost falling down. “This girl has had a tough week,” he said to Daniel.
Daniel just nodded, as if willing him to leave us alone. Miles got the message and went back to the girls on the couch.
“Cheers.” Daniel clinked his bottle against mine. I put the cold bottle to my lips and took a long, deep swallow. It would feel good to drink it, to go deeper into that place, the place where it was easy to forget. But I didn’t want to say—or do—the wrong thing. Not tonight. Not here.
When I brought the bottle down, Daniel was studying my face. “Nico, Nico, Nico.” He shook his head with a slight smile.
I had no idea what he meant and I didn’t know how to answer him, so I just stood there, nodding and looking stupid. I didn’t do a lot of flirting, and didn’t know how to start now. The only guy who had shown any real interest in me before was Max’s little brother, Gabe, and I could never go there. No.
Daniel leaned against the wall as if he was just getting comfortable. He was about to say something else when I heard a voice from the other side of the room: “Hey, D, you in or what?”
I looked over and saw one of the senior guys holding up a pool cue. Another voice called, “Stop talking to that sophomore!” and the guys all laughed as they set up the pool table for a new game. I felt the blush on my cheeks creep down my neck and chest, making me blotchy with embarrassment.
“Yeah, I’m in,” Daniel called over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on mine. “See you at school, Nico, ’kay?” I liked how my name sounded from his lips.
“Okay, yeah. Great,” I said, too eagerly, as he walked away from me. My words hung in the air between us, playing over in my head and sounding worse each time. Okay, yeah. Great. Ugh.
I went back to the couch and squeezed in next to Tessa. “Daniel Simpson: so hot,” she whispered. “What did he want?” She nodded toward the pool table, where Daniel now prowled, holding a cue low over the green felt like he knew exactly what he was doing.
“Nothing, just asking about Sarah.” I took a drink of the beer in my hand, though I knew I shouldn’t. I willed myself not to drink any more, just to hold the bottle like a prop so no one would try to give me another one. Get yourself together. Nico, Nico, Nico.
I tried to rejoin the conversation around me, but I couldn’t help replaying what Daniel had said in my mind. My eyes kept going to the pool table, watching him, even as he finished his turn and joked with his friends—all of them tall and older, seniors like him. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and quickly slid it out. For some stupid reason, I thought it might be from Daniel. But it was from Mom: Having a good time? followed by a smiley emoji. I pictured her and Dad sitting there, worrying, waiting to see if I was okay. Suddenly, that sick feeling washed over me again and I was floating out of the room, the noise around me turning into a blurred hum. Tessa and Idina went on talking, laughing. Their voices cut through my head like a hot knife. I closed my eyes, but saw Sarah, that burned circle on her back. Who did that to her? Why?
I told Tessa I was ready to go.
“It’s like ten,” she scoffed. “Seriously?” Idina had gotten up and crossed the room to show some kids from school something on her phone. I saw Tessa eye the group with envy. “We just got here.”
“I’m super tired. My parents don’t mind getting me, you can stay,” I told her. I almost wanted Mom to come, to give her something to do, to let her feel like she was saving me.
“Don’t be wack, of course I’m going with you.” She pulled out her phone and sent a message to her mom. “She’ll be here in fifteen. Let’s see who’s upstairs, quick.” She pulled me behind her, with a wave to our friends; I looked back down the stairs, but couldn’t catch Daniel’s eye at the pool table before we were out of sight. See you at school, wasn’t that what he’d said?
I dumped the half-drunk beer bottle in a bin as we circled the upstairs and met Liam’s dad in the kitchen. He seemed crazy tan for this time of year, and too fit to be a dad. Then he introduced his girlfriend, who didn’t look much older than we were. “She’s in law school right now,” he proudly announced, squeezing her waist. Watching them, I could still feel the weight of Daniel’s hand on my back, what that was like, to be claimed by someone. They were both drinking glasses of red wine and seemed not to care too much what any of Liam’s friends were doing. I was happy that he didn’t notice who I was—no recognition of being “that girl’s sister,” no questions.
We finally saw Liam on our way out and he grabbed Tessa in a hug, lifting her off the ground. “Where have you been—did you just get here?”
“We’re leaving!” She giggled as he put her down.
“Okay,” I started to say, then I realized he didn’t really care, he wasn’t even looking at me. He seemed super drunk already.
“Don’t go!” he said to Tessa, holding her hand as we went to the door.
Tessa’s cheeks burned red but I could tell she loved it. “My mom’s already here,” she said. “Sorry we didn’t get to really hang.”
Liam put on a fake pouty face, long blond bangs flopping over his forehead. He really was kind of adorable, I thought, as he watched us climb into the car from the doorway.
“Who’s that?” Tessa’s mom asked.
“That’s Liam! Oh my God, Mom!” Tessa yelled.
“Oh, so that’s Liam,” she murmured. “Cute.”
The whole ride home, Tessa only wanted to know if she had done it right—hanging out and being cool with the best friend, playing hard to get with Liam when he actually noticed her. “I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think he really wanted you to stay,” I reassured her.
“Right? He seems to be totally over Kelly. But still, have to wait a week at least,” she pointed out. When we pulled up outside my house, it was still before eleven.
“Thanks for getting me to go and everything.” I leaned into Tessa and hugged her.
“Tessa, leave her alone, would you?” Tessa’s mom joked.
I laughed and thanked her mom for the ride and went into the house. Mom and Dad were in the den. I could hear the TV on.
“Home so soon?” Mom asked. She pushed her reading glasses up on her head and closed her book. Dad was watching some sports coverage.
“Where’s Sarah?” I asked quickly.
“She came down and had a little dinner, then back up to bed. She seems okay though,” Mom said. “Did you have fun?”
“Yeah, it was good.” I leaned in the doorway, not willing to sit down and let them get a good look at me, even though I was feeling pretty normal already—the effects of the beer had almost worn off. “You were right, people were really cool about . . . everything.” I remembered Daniel’s face, so close to mine.
“I’m going to bed,” I said as Dad’s eyes went back to the screen. On my way upstairs, I thought about the car ride home. Tessa and her mom never mentioned Sarah again; they had already moved on to other things: Liam, the party. And Mom and Dad, would they have mentioned her if I hadn’t? I stood outside her silent door in the dark hallway, thinking about her inside. The room wasn’t empty. Sarah was in there. My sister.
I had gone out, to a senior party, just like a regular fifteen-year-old. I had been in Liam’s huge house, seen how he lived with his father and that “girlfriend.” That was normal for them. This was normal for us. Maybe we were slipping into being just another family again—maybe a regular life wasn’t that far off for us.