Authors: Francesca Lia Block
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October 9, 1932–September 24, 2010
Did you cry, did you scream, did you try to run? Was it dark, did you stumble, did the leaves skitter and claw, ratlike at your feet? Could you see the moon; it was full, that much I know. And that you were alone, wearing a striped T-shirt and jeans that hung too big on your hips, carrying your Hello Kitty purse when you left the dorm—we saw on the surveillance camera in the lobby. But when it happened, did you speak in your soft voice, with the lisp of the S, trying to persuade? Did whoever took you notice the flash of your lashes, the dimples when you smiled, the way you ducked your head when you laughed? Did you smile, did you laugh, before you knew? Were you with someone you thought you could trust? You were too trusting, always too trusting. Did whoever it was know you were smart, much smarter than me, did better in school, though I used the bigger words, spoke up a bit more? (Not anymore.) Did they know you worked at a dog rescue center on weekends, that lost animals made you cry? Did they know that you had no idea how pretty you were? That you couldn’t really see why people were so drawn to you? That you would shrug and duck your head at compliments, even from me, even though you told me not to when I did the same? But when it happened, whatever happened, later, what did you think of? Did you think of your mom and dad? Did you think of the eyeliner-and-music boys you never made love to? Did you think of me? Did you think to yourself,
Ariel won’t give up. Ariel will keep looking. Ariel will find me.
I wanted to; I would have done anything to go and look for you, Jeni. But my parents said no.
“How can we sleep at night with you there?” they said.
I couldn’t explain that I would never sleep at night unless I went to the city where my best friend disappeared and did all that I could to try to understand what had happened to her.
But then, and not the way I wanted it to, everything changed.
1. Death is one of them
There are certain things you have to accept. Death is one of them. But when you are seventeen and your mother sits you down and says what my mother said it is really hard to accept death. When you are sixteen and your best friend vanishes without a trace it is hard to accept death. You keep thinking there has been some kind of mistake. Or that you can do something to stop this thing that is so much bigger than you are. Or that, at least, you can make it go away by pretending it isn’t there, like a child who covers her eyes and thinks she is invisible to everyone else.
But death is stronger than that and when you cover your eyes you are the one who can’t see the dark. The dark still sees you.
* * *
My parents hadn’t agreed to let me go away to Berkeley the day they sat me down on the couch in the living room to tell me my mom was sick. We never really used that couch because we liked to hang out in the kitchen, or sit in the den and watch TV together. The living room couch was overstuffed and pale enough to show stains. We saved it for company and important talks. It is where we sat when my parents told me that Jeni had not come back from the school trip to UC Berkeley, the trip I should have gone on with her. It is where the detectives showed us her image from the dorm surveillance camera as she went out alone. It is where we sat the day my mom told me she had cancer.
“We have to talk to you about something,” my dad said. His eyes looked puffy and he was holding my mom’s hand too tightly.
“What’s wrong?” My heart beat faster. It’s like your body always knows before you do.
“I got back some test results,” my mom said. “There is a problem but we’re going to do everything we can to take care of it.”
When I was little I used to ask them how long they would live and my mom always said, “We plan on being around for many, many years.” I realized, then, for the first time, at seventeen, that it was the perfect answer because I could never accuse her of lying to me, just in case. Now she hadn’t said, “We’re going to take care of it.” She had said, “We’re going to do everything we can…”
My right hand fumbled with the bracelet on my left wrist. Jeni had made it for me with baby block beads, and one for herself that said my name. I never took it off. Besides the postcard that arrived after she disappeared, it was the most important thing of hers I had left. “What’s wrong?” I didn’t really want to know but I figured that was what I was supposed to say.
“I have a small growth.” My mother was looking directly at me and she wasn’t crying. She sat up straighter, smoothed back her hair and then leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. I wanted her to hold me and also I didn’t. Mostly, I wanted to run.
“A tumor,” she said. “It’s not benign. They have to do some procedures.”
“I think I have to go.” I swallowed back the huge lump of sand that was getting bigger every second at the base of my hourglass throat.
“Okay,” my dad said. “But if you have any questions, we’re here.”
Part of me wished they had made me stay. I wanted them to grab me and hold me down and reassure me, but they didn’t. They were looking at each other with so much love, sealed up in this bubble where no one could touch them. It was the first time I hadn’t been in there, too.
It was hard to move; it felt like there was a mass in my chest, weighing me down, and my arms and legs tingled as if they were expanding to the size of a giant’s, but I made myself stand. As I did, I felt the photographs watching me. My mom never put up paintings, just family pictures scattered among the rows of books on the bookcase. There were artsy black-and-whites of me as an infant and huge glossy prints from their wedding. There were all my silly school photos with the swirly blue backgrounds and our professional Christmas shots with the good lighting. There were photos of me in costume for my ballet recitals. A picture of me and Jeni, laughing as she held my waist-length braid under her nose like a moustache. In the pictures before the previous summer I looked hopeful and smiling and even pretty, I guess, as my mom and Jeni always insisted I was, but in the few taken after that, the ones taken after Jeni vanished, I looked pale and lost beneath my too-long hair, wraithlike you might say, fading away. But I realized that the girl in all the pictures—the ones before Jeni and the ones afterward—was different, suddenly, than the girl the pictures were watching.
I walked past all those eyes to the door and stepped outside. It was a hot late spring afternoon. The sky burned blue and the eucalyptus trees gave off a smell like medicine. One black bird strutted across the grass in front of our house. He paused and turned his head so I could see a cold black eye.
That was when I started to run. I ran and ran as fast as I could along the pavement. Sweat poured down my face, mixing with the tears that had started to come. I could run fast. But you just can’t run faster than time, not faster than death and, as I’d find out, not faster than love.
Les bienfaits de la lune
People didn’t talk about it much when Jeni disappeared. You’d think it would be all they talked about. But maybe it would have made them all insane—mothers and fathers chaining children to their beds even though it had happened in another city, girls clutching at each other wherever they went, waking at night thinking they saw strangers standing over them. Instead they went on as if things could somehow be normal again. They went over to the Benson home with casseroles and flowers. They greeted Jeni’s parents politely but nervously on the streets, as if to get too close would endanger them, as if Joanne and Mike were tainted in some way. That was the worst thing we did (I include myself in this)—not go up and hug them every time we saw them, not ask them to talk to us about her. If we did that, the whole thing would have been too real. We would have had to acknowledge that one day there was this girl making name bracelets or ones out of strands of colored thread for you to wish on, working the table at the pet giveaway where her voice went up a notch every time she spoke to the dogs, hugging you like you were her childhood teddy bear, and the next day—not. Some people helped put up missing-person posters but most figured the ones on milk cartons and flyers were more effective. At first we refused to believe she had been stolen away, kidnapped, or possibly worse. We wanted to believe she had run off, somewhere, or, if taken, that it was by someone who did not harm her, not really, someone who would one day leave the chain off the door so she could escape. At our worst moments we wished to hear that she had died, that her bones had been found, so that we could stop hearing her crying in the night, so that we could stand at a grave and put her to rest. And, slowly, everyone seemed to be giving up, except for her parents. And, most of the time, but not enough, me.
Now I had a chance to prove that I had not forgotten her.
After my mom found the lump she changed her mind about letting me go away to Berkeley, to the school where Jeni and I would have gone together. My parents told me they thought it would be good for me to be away while my mom recovered.
Maybe they were willing to let me have this one thing I wanted so much, after so many sad things had happened. Maybe they were too preoccupied with the illness to worry anymore. After arguing with them for months for this chance to get away, I had, with one word, been cast out of their protective circle. And that word hadn’t even been said aloud.
* * *
They drove me up north one late August morning, our Prius packed with my belongings. No one said much the whole way. We didn’t take the scenic route because we wanted to get there fast, so instead of blue-misted coastline we moved through the dry, barren landscape of I-5; the air stunk of manure and exhaust. It changed as we neared the Berkeley area. The sky was a clear summer cerulean and the hills were covered with green. The little town looked appealing with the Claremont Hotel, grand and white on the hill overlooking the grid of tree-lined streets, the athletic, tanned young men and women riding their bikes and the smell of good coffee in the air. You could see the campanile rising above everything, a white clock tower like a place where a princess would be imprisoned in a fairy tale, and as we drove into town we heard the heavy bells tolling three. One. Two. Three. I tried not to think of it as a sign. The loneliest number. The number in which bad things come.