I CLOSED MY EYES on the flight, just for a moment, but found myself drifting into a light dreamscape. None of us had slept last night, not really. This morning we left early for the airport for our flight to Florida. The Center for Missing Children had arranged all the details. It was as if our lives had been in slow motion for the past few years, and now everything was happening all at once.
The detectives came over just hours after Mom got the call and the photo. Then Mom’s friends from the center. Everyone was pacing around, taking over different rooms, talking on their phones. A flight was arranged. A car at the airport. The detectives spoke with the doctor at the children’s shelter in Florida. More photos were sent. More questions. Did Sarah ever break her arm? No. Did she have burns on her back? No. Did she have a scar under her chin? Yes, yes, she did! Yay for the scar under the chin! From falling off the monkey bars at school when she was five. I could tell my parents were so afraid to hope, afraid that with every question this was going to unravel like so many other leads had.
Something felt really different this time, especially when we woke to find a news truck parked outside our house. They hadn’t been around in years, not since the early days of Sarah’s disappearance. And even then, the media had seemed a little halfhearted, questioning whether this fifteen-year-old girl was a runaway or a victim. They had lingered for a day or two, then vanished as quickly as they had come. Now, as we walked out to Detective Donally’s car, they swarmed in with cameras. Mom and Dad pointedly ignored one reporter as she asked, “Do you think you’ve finally found your daughter, after four years? Is it her? Why do you believe it’s her?” I glanced at the woman, her face caked in thick makeup, black liner around her eyes. She probably had to do that for the camera, but it made her appear witchy, her face tight and intense. “Where has she been? Do you know anything about who abducted her?” She never took her eyes off Mom, even when the cameraman switched off the bright light on his camera and lowered it to his side, watching us drive away.
In the car on the way to the airport, Detective Donally went over everything, handing Mom a folder. “Don’t be too disturbed by what you see in there,” he cautioned, turning around in his seat. “Some of those injuries the doctor asked about may have been sustained while, uh, she was . . .” He trailed off as my mind went to the list of things my sister never had: cigarette burns on her arms and back. Broken bones. Missing teeth. The Sarah we lost had had a scar under her chin, but otherwise she had been perfect. If this girl really was her, she was coming back altered, broken.
In the car, there had been a lot to review. The detective wasn’t coming with us—we were on our own until we touched down in Florida—so he told us what we could expect, something about a type of amnesia, how to act when we saw her. I listened, but only halfway. I didn’t want to believe anything, not yet. I looked out the window, watching my familiar neighborhood roll by.
After the flurry of the previous afternoon and the ride to the airport, we were quiet on the plane ride. It was just like that day in the car, going to see the body. Would it be her? What if it was her? What if it wasn’t?
Mom had taken something, a pill the doctor gave her to calm her nerves, and she collapsed in her seat, still holding Dad’s hand tightly, even as she slept with her mouth hanging open. I looked out the window again, my eyes drifting shut, trying not to think about the last day I saw Sarah. How mad she had been. I couldn’t play that old movie in my head. Not again. But the memory came anyhow. I had borrowed her gray, soft cashmere sweater without asking. I thought she would never notice. I had put it back into her closet, hung carefully.
“What did you do to my sweater, Nico?” She stood in the doorway of my room, holding the sweater in one hand. It looked limp and shapeless. Had I done that? “Did you tie it around your waist? Yes, you did.” She held it up so I could see the sleeves were now somehow too long. “I told you not to do that, didn’t I?”
I didn’t remember her saying that—although she did say I wasn’t allowed to borrow any of her clothes.
“You’re fat, and when you tie something of mine around your fat waist, it gets all stretched out—got it?” she said.
“I’m not fat,” I countered, eyeing her lean frame in my doorway. “Mom says you were the same when you were ten.”
“Well, you’re not ten. You’re almost twelve. And, sorry, but I was never as fat as you. So do me a favor: Stay. The fuck. Out. Of. My. Closet.” She stepped forward with each word until she was standing over me. I waited for it: the slap, the shove, for Sarah’s eyes to rove around my room and find something precious to me and destroy it. But she kept her eyes locked on mine and didn’t move or reach out to hit me.
“Fine,” I said, feeling my eyes fill with tears. My weight had been a problem since fourth grade. While I used to be able to wear my sister’s old clothes, suddenly, around when I turned nine, they no longer fit. Sarah went through puberty and sprouted up, growing four inches in one year. Her legs went from short and chubby to lean and shapely almost overnight. Her waist cinched in, and hours of cheerleading practice toned everything in all the right places. Her hand-me-down jeans were too tight and too long. The button-up shirts barely closed over my round tummy.
“Sarah was exactly the same way at your age,” Mom said, taking me through the plus-size racks at the mall. “Don’t even worry about it—you’ll get your growth spurt and you’ll shoot right up, like Sarah did.”
Mom had been right. Of course, the irony was it had happened after Sarah disappeared. I didn’t eat—couldn’t eat—for what seemed like weeks. And no one slept. Gram came to stay with us then, to help out Mom and Dad. She did the cooking and cleaning, took me to school when I finally went back. She was the one who scraped my full plate into the garbage can every night before doing the dishes, who noticed that my lunch box came back still filled with uneaten sandwiches, cookies, and chips. All the foods I had once loved, the foods that Sarah told me were making me fat, now made me feel sick. Bagels, pizza—the things she denied herself to be thin I now denied myself as if in her memory.
Gram finally took me aside. Held me in front of a mirror, showed me my own face. “You have to eat,” she said quietly. “And get some sleep.” She patted my shoulder as I looked at myself, what I had become. Sarah had been missing for three months and the weight had slipped away from my face, the roundness of childhood was suddenly gone, and in its place I saw cheekbones. Sarah would be so proud, no longer embarrassed by her fat little sister. I also saw dark purple smears under my eyes, a pale chill on my skin, and a coldness to my expression that hadn’t been there before.
In those first weeks, it was Grammie who took me to school every day and, I think, waited outside in her car at the gate until school let out. She was always parked in the same place, a small smile on her face like she was relieved to see me, as if I too might just one day disappear if she didn’t keep an eye on me at all times. And then I started to grow—inches, it seemed—overnight, looking more like my missing sister every day. My school uniform pants were too short and too big in the waist, sleeves pulled up to the elbows. Mom was so lost in her world of searching for Sarah she didn’t notice.
One night, sitting at the dinner table, while I picked at my salad, she looked over at me and blinked, as if she had seen a ghost. “Have you grown, Nico? Your top doesn’t seem to fit.”
I shrugged, not wanting to acknowledge that she was right. I had just turned twelve. I needed a bra. I needed new clothes. But somehow admitting that would be wrong—it would mean that months had gone by, it was turning from fall into winter, things were changing, including me. And Sarah was still gone.
Before bed, Mom came into my room, carrying clothes on hangers. It took a moment for my mind to register what they were: Sarah’s uniforms, her perfectly pressed navy skirts and tailored white tops with Peter Pan collars and cuffed sleeves. “Why don’t you try these until we can take you shopping?”
I said nothing until she was out of the room, then I carefully picked them up. I couldn’t help myself, I held the shirt to my face and breathed it in, but there was no scent of Sarah left—not even fabric softener. Then I walked next door to my sister’s room and hung the clothes back in her closet, just like they had been before—the skirts all together on one side, shirts on the other. If Sarah came back, I wanted her to know I hadn’t touched her things, that I hadn’t worn anything, not even her best stuff. I would never make that mistake again.
SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH my arm. Very wrong. It hurt so bad where he twisted and pulled on me, and I couldn’t really use my fingers. My face hurt too, but that wasn’t so bad. After a day or two, my eye opened back up and I could see again. At night, it would swell up and the headache would come back and I would have to lie on the bed in the dark and be still, very still. I would just listen to them. Fighting, always fighting. And other voices too.
After a few days, I didn’t want to complain, but my arm just wasn’t working and when I moved it, I hurt so much I felt like I might throw up. When she saw what he had done, she was so angry. “What happened to her arm?”
“I dunno—maybe she fell down or something, she’s clumsy.”
“Goddamnit, now we have to take her to a doctor—her arm’s broke, you stupid shit!”
Then the arguing. That went on for hours, it seemed like. It was night when she came back. She wrapped up my arm tight in a bandage. Then she tied a scarf around my neck and made a sling that my arm could rest in. The scarf was pink and soft. “Now you’ll eat something, won’t you? Be a good girl.” She gave me a white pill for the hurt and a peanut butter sandwich. The bread was brown and very dry, but I didn’t want to make any more trouble, so I ate it and took the pill with the milk. In my dreams, I was back home again, and everything was like it used to be. Even the feel of the soft blanket on the bed was the same, as if I was drifting back in time, back to that place, where I was little and I felt safe. As if I could.
I HAD NEVER SAID the words I love you to Sarah. And I was pretty sure she had never said them to me. We weren’t a family like that. There were not abundant hugs and cuddling on the couch, like I had seen at friends’ houses. There was an occasional light hug from Mom, maybe just a loose wrap of arms around your body after a tennis match or getting a lead role in the school play. But usually it was a shoulder squeeze or a hand on the back to say good job or you are loved.
As we were ushered down the linoleum-lined hallway of the children’s shelter, lit overhead by bluish fluorescents, this was all I could think about: How would my parents greet this person? Would they embrace her? Would I be expected to hug her, this girl who looked like my sister but who I had probably never hugged in my entire life. Would we all rush to her and pull her into our arms?
Inside, the building was cool and had a slightly metallic smell, not like the wet heat outside that had hit us the moment we were off the plane. Back home, it was still early spring—damp and green, with clumps of snow melting and plants sprouting everywhere. Here, the air was hot and heavy, and the sun so bright I felt an instant headache the moment I walked outside the airport. I had never been to Florida before.
I wanted to believe it was just the heat, the humidity, that made me feel light-headed. My fingers were tingling and my mouth was dry and felt pasty. Once at the shelter, we were again taken to a nondescript office, almost like at the police station, and asked to sit in green vinyl chairs and wait.
Mom and Dad were silent until I turned to Mom and confessed, “I don’t feel good.” Then she jumped into action.
“What’s wrong? You feel sick, like, to your stomach?” She put her hand on my forehead, my neck.
I shook my head. “I just feel funny, a headache, sort of, but . . .” I put my hand to my stomach. I couldn’t put the feeling into words. Fear? Nausea?
“It’s probably a migraine, you know I get them all the time.” Mom opened her purse and I could see the file from the detective tucked in there. The sight of it made bile rise up my throat. What were we doing here? What was about to happen?
Mom took a small brown prescription bottle out of her bag and opened it.
“Don’t give her one of those,” Dad murmured, shaking his head. I thought about his Scotch bottle, in the den on the drinks cart. The first thing he did every night when he got home was put down his briefcase and pour himself a drink.
“Just a half.” Mom tipped a broken white pill from the bottle and handed it to me. I swallowed it, dry, just as there was a quick knock on the door behind us. We all turned, startled, expecting to look up and see her—Sarah in her cheer uniform, her thick blond hair braided in a side pony, squinting at us with that look on her face: What are you doing here? as if we were an embarrassment to her.
But it wasn’t Sarah; it was a tall woman in a gray dress, holding yet another file in her hands. She sat at the desk across from us and introduced herself. “You must be the Morris family. I wanted to review a few things. . . .” She opened the file.
Mom seemed to vibrate, crossing and uncrossing her legs, adjusting her purse, first on one side, then the floor, then the back of the chair. She had been waiting almost four years, now this delay? This conversation? Couldn’t we just see her, talk later?
“Sarah has what we believe is a type of amnesia called retrograde amnesia,” the woman explained. “Her memory loss could also be from a TBI—a traumatic brain injury—or simple lack of nutrition. We have not had a chance to run an MRI on her here, but I recommend that you do that, as soon as you get her home. . . . It could give you some answers.” She passed Mom a few papers from her file.
Lack of nutrition. Brain injury. The words washed over me and my stomach lurched. I could feel the scratchy trail of the pill down my dry throat. I swallowed hard, willing it to work, to make me feel better somehow.
“Can we just see her now?” Mom asked. I glanced over at her and noticed that her hair was all flattened in back, still messed up from sleeping on the plane, but the pills seemed to have worn off. She was rubbing her hands together and leaning forward in her seat as if she were about to bite this nice woman on the face. “Please.”
“Of course, I know how anxious you are,” the woman replied, and I could see Mom’s blood start to boil. There was no way this woman could have any idea how anxious we were. None. “I just wanted you to be prepared, so that you aren’t too disappointed. What I’m trying to say is, Sarah may not recognize you. She knows her name, but she’s . . .” Here she trailed off, shaking her head in a sad way.
“Please, can we just see her, we’ve come all this way.” Dad finally spoke, surprising us all.
The woman put her hands on the desk and stood up, nodding to the men by the door. We were led down the hallway, taking every measured step. I saw Mom clasp Dad’s hand without a word. We stopped outside a closed door, and, with a quick knock, one of the men swung it open. And just like that, a room appeared, a sunny room with a cot in one corner and a sink and a little desk, a room for a child. And on the simple pink bedspread sat a teenager, all angles and straight dirty-blond hair that fell to her shoulders. She wore a white tank top and a pair of jeans, cheap plastic flip-flops.
The girl looked up. She was so thin, sitting like a little girl, but her skin and expression showed that she was older. Was she nineteen, or was she thirty? It was hard to tell: her face was pale and drawn, skin pulled tight over bones. She looked like Sarah, but in disguise.
Her eyes skipped over me. “Mom?” she said quietly.
I tried to hear, in that one word, if she sounded like Sarah, and then realized, with an awful jolt, that I no longer remembered what Sarah sounded like. What she had sounded like. Before.
“Sarah!” Mom cried. She pushed past me into the room, falling beside the girl and wrapping her arms around her waist. I looked over to Dad and saw what looked like tears on his face.
“My God,” he said. “It’s her, it’s really her.” He shook his head and moved to embrace Sarah too as I stood in the doorway, hearing his words over and over again in my head: It’s her. It’s her. It’s really her.
“ARE YOU TRAVELING ALONE?” the flight attendant asked. I glanced up at her, then shook my head. “Those are my parents and my, um . . .” I trailed off. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say the word.
“We’re together,” Dad said. They hadn’t thought to book four seats on the return flight, so this was the only way we could all travel home together from Florida. The shelter had released Sarah to my parents with no DNA tests, no fingerprints—she was over the age of eighteen, an adult, and could leave at any time, with anyone she wanted. Now she sat between Mom and Dad, and I was a row ahead and a few seats over.
Sarah. It felt weird to even think her name connected to an actual person. I was used to Sarah meaning an empty spot, a blank space, a bottomless pit of anger and hurt.
The flight attendant glanced at my parents, probably wondering why their older daughter sat between them while I sat alone, but of course she couldn’t know. Sarah also looked a bit rumpled and worn, in the same clothes she’d had on at the shelter. Mom gave her a sweater to wear over her tank top.
The last time I saw Sarah, she was wearing her white sleeveless dress. It had been a favorite all that summer. She’d dressed it up for her date with a brown leather belt, worn loose around her hips, and she’d paired it with slouchy brown suede boots. It was the day she’d yelled at me for borrowing her gray sweater.
Later, I was so thankful that she had come into my room, stood over me as I lay on the bed, curled up with my paperback romance novel. Screamed at me. Told me I was fat. Because otherwise, when the police asked “What was she wearing?” we wouldn’t have been able to answer.
I knew where she was going too: to meet Max at the park. The summer had not been easy for them. First our parents forbade Sarah to date him, then Max’s parents also decided things were getting too serious, too fast. But no one could seem to keep them apart; they were constantly finding ways around the rules, meeting at other people’s houses, skipping school to be together. Finally, our parents relented and let Sarah see Max, on the condition that she complete her summer school sessions with a tutor. But Max’s parents stepped in and put an end to Sarah’s hot summer plans: they sent Max away to work as a counselor at a camp in Maine for two months, saying he needed to earn money for college. Worse: there were no phones or internet access allowed at the camp. Sarah stormed around the house with a gray cloud over her head, the only bright spot an occasional letter or postcard from Camp Cumberland. Then, finally, in late August, he was back and Sarah was dying to see him.
“Can’t I blow off Mr. Page for once?” Sarah had pleaded the night before at dinner. “I haven’t seen Max all summer and he’s about to leave for school.”
Sarah usually got what she wanted, and what she wanted now was to skip her weekly session with her summer tutor. Without twenty-four hours’ notice, I knew he would charge for the missed session, and it wasn’t cheap—I had heard enough grumbling from Dad about how much Mr. Page’s tutoring cost. Mom glanced at Dad across the table, and his mouth was set in a firm line. “Your junior year is around the corner, you’ve got to be ready. This is serious, Sarah. Your grades this year mean college—”
Sarah finished his sentence for him. “And college means the rest of your life, I know, I’ve got it. But I’ve been going three hours every week, all summer. I did what you guys said. Come on.” She tilted her head and met his eyes.
Dad relented. “A compromise.” He looked over at Mom, getting a nod of approval from her, as if they had already discussed this. “If you promise to study for a few hours here at home, we’ll cancel Mr. Page. Then you can go to the park and meet your friend.” It was not lost on anyone that Dad pointedly referred to Max as Sarah’s “friend” and not her boyfriend.
A smile spread across Sarah’s face—too fast, because Dad kept talking. “But you can’t leave Nico here by herself, so you’ll have to take her too.” He stabbed a tomato on his plate and ate it like he hadn’t just dropped a bomb on us.
As Sarah took in this news, I could feel the icy chill of her anger move across the table. Her eyes landed on me, but I just focused on my plate, moving salad and pasta around.
“Are you kidding me? I can’t take her—she’s . . .” Sarah stopped herself just in time. She’s what? I wanted to ask. Fat. Not cool. A sixth grader. A loser. An embarrassment. There were so many words she could use to fill the blank.
“Nico’s only eleven, and I’m just not comfortable with her being here alone all day,” Mom chimed in. “Part of our agreement was that you would look out for her this summer.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t say I would have to let her ruin my entire life! I’ve taken her everywhere with me. I’m done.”
“Hyperbole,” Dad intoned, reaching for the bread.
I knew what they were doing, and Sarah did too. We weren’t stupid. If I went with Sarah, there wouldn’t be anything “inappropriate” going on between Sarah and her eighteen-year-old boyfriend. I was a de facto chaperone, at age eleven.
Sarah stood suddenly, even though we weren’t allowed to leave the table without permission. “Fine, then I won’t go. If I have to take Nico, forget it.”
Mom and Dad finished their dinner in silence. I hated the scratching sounds of the forks and knives on the plates, with no words spoken. We could hear Sarah’s door slam upstairs, then her moving around in her room. Finally, Mom said, “You know she’s not mad at you, right? She’s mad at us.”
Mom and Dad exchanged another look, and I knew they would continue talking about this later—how to handle Sarah. How to keep her calm. It was all they ever talked about. Sarah.
“I’m okay to be here by myself,” I said, even though I really wasn’t. After an hour or two in the house alone, I usually got spooked by something: the mailman ringing the doorbell, a weird hang-up phone call. One time, Mom had left the dryer in the basement on wrinkle guard, which meant it went on by itself every fifteen minutes. Sarah was home with me then, and I went to her, not daring to enter her room but standing in the doorway to tell her that I’d heard something downstairs. She grabbed one of her cheer batons from the closet before heading into the basement to see what was going on. I cowered at the top of the stairs, waiting for her to come back up.
“Sarah? What is it?” I called down timidly. Of course she pretended not to hear me for the longest time. When she finally came back up, she put her finger to her lips, telling me to stay quiet. “What? What is it?” I asked anxiously, terrified that there was someone—or something—waiting for us in the dark corners. She came up the stairs quietly, then slammed the basement door behind her and locked it, looking over at me with big eyes.
“Nico . . .” she said, her voice shaking.
“What?” I could feel a cold wave wash over me. I was ready to run. We were about to be murdered, like on reality news shows.
“It’s . . . it’s the . . . dryer!” She burst out laughing. “Oh man, Nico, you should see your stupid face right now! I need my phone, I’ve got to get a picture of this—did you just pee your pants?”
When Mom came home I told her what had happened, how scared I had been, but she brushed it off. Just Sarah being silly, a joke. But—not so funny—Mom remembered it, and ever since then she brought it up as a sign that I wasn’t old enough to be left home by myself. Like now. “Nico, remember what happened when the dryer was on wrinkle guard,” she said, standing and clearing Sarah’s plate with her own.
“That was, like, last year,” I pointed out.
Mom acted as if she didn’t hear me. “If Sarah really wants to meet Max, she’ll take you along. And I think she wants to see him. She’ll calm down.”
But the next morning, she hadn’t calmed down. She didn’t speak to me for hours after Mom and Dad left for work. Then she came in with the sweater, the one I had worn and stretched. She stormed out, slamming my door behind her, more chips of paint cracking from the doorframe. I still didn’t know if I was going with her or not. About an hour before she was supposed to meet Max, she was still home primping, leaning in to the bathroom mirror with a mascara wand. I heard her cell phone ring, then tense words. I thought at first it was Mom checking in, but then I heard Sarah call the person a “fucking bitch,” and I knew that even Sarah wouldn’t say that to our parents. When they checked her phone records later, at that exact time Paula had called. Her best friend. Her former best friend.
Waiting for her in my room, I put on what I thought was an okay outfit for hanging out with high school kids: jean shorts and a black tank top. I was going to wear something else, a T-shirt that had the name of my middle school tennis team on it, but I knew Sarah would make me change. Your team came in third place this season. If that was my shirt, I’d burn it. I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and sat on my bed, reading a paperback from the library until Sarah was ready. But Sarah never came back in my room that morning. Moments later, I heard the garage door open, the tick-tick-tick of her bike wheels below my window, then the garage closing as she rode off.
When the cops kept asking us where she was supposed to be, or where people had seen her last, my parents could only vaguely tell them MacArthur, a vast park that spread for over five miles on the edge of our suburb. It was only about a mile from where we lived, easy to bike to. It didn’t really matter, though, because when they interviewed Max, it turned out that she had never made it past the bike racks. No one had seen her. He had waited for over an hour, calling her cell about ten times.
So it was easy to figure out who was the last person to see Sarah.
It was me.
And I knew right away to keep my mouth shut about what she had said to me. I almost told the detective, as he sat at our kitchen table. He seemed so warm and so relaxed, calmly asking questions while Mom sat wringing her hands. “Did your sister seem anxious or upset about anything that day?” he asked.
Sarah’s angry face flashed through my mind. She leaned over me where I sat on my bed, cowering. She held the stretched-out sweater in one hand, but her other hand was free. Free to hit, free to slap. I knew she could make me sorry. I answered the detective: “No, she seemed fine.”
“How about her tutor, Mr. Page, do you know him?” Mr. Page was a grandfather’s age, a retired high school chemistry teacher.
“I don’t know him,” I had to admit. “But he seems really nice.”
“Was Sarah excited to go meet her, uh, friend?” I noticed he looked down at the notebook in his hand as if to check their names one more time. “Did she mention anyone she was having a problem with—another boy, maybe, or a female friend?” He tapped the list with his pen.
I shook my head. Sarah would kill me if I told them about the situation with Paula and Max. Besides, that wasn’t really a problem, it was just how Sarah operated. Paula had liked Max, had had a crush on him for over a year. And Sarah got him. She won. Plain and simple. If Paula was mad about it, or jealous—“tough titties.” That’s what Sarah would say. Like when they both went out for cheerleading and Sarah got on the A-squad. She had worked for it, it was earned. And she would be right, but I knew it still hurt Paula that Sarah was always a little bit better. A little thinner, her hair a little blonder and longer, her cheer jumps a little higher. It wasn’t fair, but it’s just how things were. Until Max.
“Would you like something to drink?” The flight attendant leaned over my seat, pulling me from my memories.
“I’m okay,” I answered, turning to look back at my parents, and Sarah, as she raised a glass of something to her lips. Orange juice. Sarah said orange juice gave her cankers. That it was full of empty calories. But maybe she had outgrown that. I guess she had. Or her amnesia made her forget. She seemed to remember us, our names and our faces, but we hadn’t asked too many questions at the shelter. Mom and Dad were just anxious to get her home again. To have Sarah, their daughter, back.
Before I could stop myself, I flipped up my tray table as soon as the drinks cart moved by me and headed down the aisle. I leaned over their seats and said quietly, “Sarah, orange juice gives you cankers. You might not want to drink that.” I nodded to her half-empty glass.
Mom instantly shot me a look full of daggers, but Sarah kept her eyes down, her face an unhealthy pale, saying nothing. I walked on numb legs to the bathroom and slid the door lock behind me. I leaned against the wall and looked into the mirror, seeing only Sarah’s old face looking back at me.
THE NEXT TIME, IT wasn’t really my fault. She had yelled at him for hurting my arm, and he was mad about it. So he decided to break her rules. He let me out, just for a little bit, just to watch TV with him while she was gone. It was my first time out of the room except to use the bathroom. And even then, they would watch me. “Come sit with me,” he told me. “A little closer.” It wasn’t like a question, so I did what he said.
My arm was still in a sling. He touched it gently and asked me, “That hurt?” I shook my head and he cracked a smile. I could tell I had made him happy and then I just wanted to see that smile again, to know that I was doing the right things. If I was good, I wouldn’t get hurt again.
I guess he saw my eyes looking at the door, at all the locks there. He put his cigarette out. “Don’t even think about trying to run off—that arm is nothing compared to what you’ll get.” He took off his white T-shirt, stretching it over his head. His chest had lots of hair and, under that, tattoos marked his skin. I sat with him and did everything he told me to do until he heard her car in the driveway and then he said to run, run back into the room, and I better not say a goddamn thing or I would be so goddamn sorry.
The door locked behind me. When I heard the voices later, they sounded happy. They forgot to bring me anything for dinner, but that was okay. I was happy—as happy as I could be in the small room with the dark window. I thought the hurting had stopped. But I was wrong.
THERE WOULD BE NO interviews, no media. My parents decided that right away. Sarah was too fragile, she needed to see doctors. And that wasn’t the only reason. The detectives in Florida had told us something terrifying: Whoever had taken Sarah might not have let her go. She might have escaped. If she had, they might come back for her—worried that she would remember. Worried that she was only pretending she had amnesia. They told us we weren’t allowed to say anything to anyone, even family, about her ordeal and what she could (or couldn’t) remember. This suited Mom perfectly. “Our family is our priority, not People magazine,” I heard her say into her cell on the drive home. We rode in a black SUV on the way home from the airport, Mom next to Sarah while Dad and I sat in the back.
“A press release is fine, as long as I have approval over it, but I really don’t want reporters and media calling the house or coming by,” she explained. “How can we keep our address out of print?” The years that Mom had spent helping others to get their children back were coming in handy now: training for how to handle everything that might come our way.
Sarah looked out the window at the scenery rolling by and I tried to see it through her eyes. As we left the city and came into Mapleview, the suburbs sprawled. Golf courses, playgrounds, and parks surrounded by turn-of-the-century homes on streets with names like Spring Oak and Fern Dell.
When finally the car pulled to a stop in front of our gray-and-white house, she moved to the door and looked out at the carefully manicured lawn, up at the second floor. “Do you remember this?” Dad asked cautiously.
Sarah nodded, her lank blond hair bobbing. She had barely spoken since we’d left the shelter, but now she offered up one word, “yes,” in a whisper.
The news van was gone and, while I didn’t quite know how Mom had managed it, there were no reporters waiting in the bushes for us. We simply got out of the car and went into the house. Once inside, the three of us stood and watched as Sarah moved, silently, through each room, laying her hands on things and looking out the windows. Mom couldn’t help herself and had to ask, “Do you remember this? How about this? Any of this look familiar?”
In the front room, she stopped at the piano and slowly picked up a framed photo of our family—the one that had been used on the news after Sarah went missing. “I remember that dress,” she said, running her hands over the image.
“You do? Oh, that’s so great.” Mom practically clapped and Dad was beaming. I tried to see our home as she must see it now. Two floors, spacious and decorated with Mom’s flair for beautiful antiques. The money to live in this neighborhood hadn’t come just from Dad’s work, though he made tons. Some of it was from Mom’s family too—she had grown up this way. I looked around at all the nice things we had, the beauty of our home that I took for granted. The den with a surround sound system, the kitchen full of expensive appliances and chef’s oven. What the counselor had said about Sarah being starved floated into my head as I watched her run her fingers over the fruit bowl on the marble counter—apples and pears, carefully polished. They weren’t really ever eaten, not by us anyhow. The cleaning lady just shined them up and replaced them when they went soft.
“Would you like something to eat?” Mom asked.
Sarah nodded, her eyes still darting around the room until Dad said, “Let’s sit down.”
Sarah pulled out the chair closest to her and sat down at the table while we all froze for a moment. That was my seat. Sarah’s chair was on the other side of the table, Mom and Dad on either end. That’s how it always had been since Sarah and I were little.
“Well, um, Nico, why don’t you sit here?” Dad said, pulling out the chair on the other side. The chair that had been empty for four years: Sarah’s chair.
I sat down with a stiff back, as if I didn’t really want the chair to touch me, while Mom busied herself at the counter, putting together a sandwich for Sarah. “We don’t have the kind of cheese you like,” she said, almost talking to herself.
“Anything’s fine, really,” Sarah said quietly, that slight southern twang drifting into her voice, something that hadn’t been there before. When Mom slid the sandwich in front of her, I held my breath, waiting for the old Sarah to show up. Swiss cheese? Really? It smells like sick, I can’t eat this. Or: Is this turkey the low-sodium kind? You know I can’t bloat, we’ve got a game on Saturday.
But this girl just sat and ate the sandwich in big bites, chewing with her mouth slightly open and murmuring, saying “So good” between bites. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her face as she ate.
When you see an old friend or a relative who you haven’t seen in a while—maybe over summer break or a few months or a year even—and then you see them again, it’s the little things you pick up on. What’s different from how you picture them in your mind. How you last saw them. And at first, it’s jarring. Maybe they gained weight, like my uncle Phil did one year, and when we saw him again, Dad said he looked like someone had taken an air pump and stuck it up his butt and gave it a few hard pumps. Sarah and I had a good laugh about that, and it was true. He looked the same, just like Uncle Phil, but inflated somehow.
As I looked at Sarah now, all I could think of was how deflated she looked. Hair hung limp to her shoulders, brittle and too yellow, her face was thin and pale. Her eyes seemed to have fewer lashes. I studied her hands on the sandwich. Her nails were smaller, bitten down and ragged, cuticles torn.
To be fair, I looked different too, now so much taller and thinner. I wasn’t the chubby little eleven-year-old sister Sarah had last seen, with braces and a forehead covered in pimples.
She glanced up from her plate and took a long drink of water. Dad said, “Well, that disappeared awful fast. You want another one?”
Mom was in the kitchen already fixing more sandwiches. “It’s no problem at all, I’ve got one right here.”
Sarah caught my eye and I flinched, waiting for her to snarl, What are you staring at? Instead she gave me a small, sincere smile and nodded. “Sure, I’ll take another one.”