Authors: Jillian Cantor
And in loving memory of my grandfather
Milton J. Schechter
WHEN I’M CALLED OUT of my tenth-grade advanced English class…
MY HOUSE SITS on the corner of Shannon Drive and…
BECKY’S HAIR WAS straight, dirty blond, and just past her…
IN THE WEEK AFTER my father went on television to…
I QUICKLY CAME to learn that everyone was a suspect.
ON SEPTEMBER 16th, exactly six weeks after Becky disappeared, I…
BY THE END of September, work on Becky’s case had…
MAYBE IT WAS the necklace that set my mother off,…
THE DAY AFTER my mother’s accident was a Saturday, and…
THOUGH HE DIDN’T tell me about it, I suspected my…
A FEW DAYS after I had met Hal for the…
AT THE BEGINNING of October I started having the dream…
IN ENGLISH CLASS we finished Hamlet, and we moved on…
THE LAST TIME I remember my family’s being completely whole…
BY THE END of November the ground had begun to…
IT SNOWED SIX more times between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and…
THERE WAS A moment after Tommy kissed me when I…
I THOUGHT ABOUT the girl Tommy had seen in the…
THERE WAS THIS Christmas song that Becky liked to sing:…
WHEN TOMMY CAME back from Florida, he had this really,…
THE NEWS OF the body not belonging to Becky catapulted…
THERE WERE ODD similarities between my mother’s disappearance and Becky’s.
THE ONLY THING worse than going to school after both…
TWO WEEKS AFTER she disappeared, my mother reappeared just as…
THE FIRST TIME I went to visit my mother in…
BY JUNE MY quietly abnormal life felt like a routine.
ONE YEAR TO the day that Becky disappeared, my father…
THE SECOND FALL when school began again, I was just…
MAYBE IT’S THE snow that changes everything, the transformation of…
AFTER MRS. RAMIREZ had her heart attack, Tommy’s mother drove…
SIX MONTHS AFTER Tommy left, my mother gave up her…
WHEN I’M CALLED OUT
of my tenth-grade advanced English class at nine-thirty in the morning on a Thursday to come down to the office, I know immediately that something has happened. As I round the corner, I see my father standing there, and I’m suddenly afraid.
“What’s the matter, Dad? Are you all right?” I whisper. There’s a sinking feeling in my chest because I know he’s not all right. He should be at work.
He shakes his head. And I’m not sure if I want to hear what he’s about to say, but I know I need to hear it. “They’ve found her,” he says.
His words are an ending, a relief and a heartbreak all at once, because I know that everything that happened over
the last two years, everything that has led me right here, right to this moment, is finally over.
The night before Becky disappeared was amazingly normal; it could’ve been any night in my life, any night the summer before my thirteenth birthday. Becky and I fought, but this was nothing unusual.
It was a particularly humid night, even for July. There was a certain heaviness, an unbearable, budding sweat that refused to go away as we ate dinner in our bathing suits. The air in the house seemed to stand still, even as the paddle fans above us swung around and around.
We ate macaroni and cheese for dinner. It was my favorite meal and something my mother cooked for us often because it was easy and it was the one food Becky and I both could agree on. When we were eating, my mother disappeared into the bathroom. Becky and I chewed up the noodles and held them on our tongues, then stuck our tongues out to gross each other out. “
,” Becky kept saying. “Abby, don’t show me.” But I laughed and did it anyway. I knew she wasn’t really annoyed, only pretending, but I wanted to push her to the edge, to make her angry.
Becky and I were at each other’s throats—six weeks out
of school and somewhat bored. Our mother pretended we were friends and set us up with games and arts and crafts during the day, but we hated each other. Maybe hate is too strong a word; it was more like we were jealous and crazy for our mother’s attention. I was two years and one day older than Becky, and I think that always drove her crazy. She didn’t like being second, not in anything.
When my mother came back to the kitchen, her face was red and puffy, and we knew she’d been crying. She cried a lot then, though we didn’t really know why. Ever since our grandmother had died the year before, my mother’s sadness had become something we’d accepted, something we’d learned to live with, just like anything else, I guess. We usually tried to ignore it or make jokes. Becky chewed up more noodles, stuck out her tongue, and said, “Look, Mom.”
“Oh, Becky, really. Behave yourself.” And she went out on the back patio to have a cigarette. My mother didn’t smoke inside the house. She said if she did it outside, it didn’t count. And we believed her. We didn’t see her cigarette as an indulgence, something sinful, but rather as an extension of her glamour, something a little dangerous that made her more than just our mother.
There was something about our mother that Becky and
I idolized. She’s beautiful, but I don’t think that just because she’s my mother. She’s medium height, but she’s very thin, and she has this shiny blond hair that she usually pulls back in a ponytail against her neck. She doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, but she wears enough to highlight her features, her enormous green eyes, her wide, toothy smile. Her bottom front tooth is slightly crooked, but this only adds to her charm, makes her not perfect, and to me makes her seem only more beautiful.
Our father was working late, something he does often. When he was home, she didn’t smoke at all, and we all ate dinner together. This usually happened one or two nights a week. Most nights were like that night.
Our father is a stern man, unyielding. I’m both in awe and afraid of him. He’s very tall and burly with this thick brown mustache and bushy eyebrows. He’s a strange match for my mother’s beauty, but somehow they seemed to fit perfectly, the way he put his hand on her leg as we rode in the car, the way he put his arm around her as they sat on the couch; it was almost like he was always protecting her from something.
He works as a controller for Velcor, a company that makes dishes, china, and just your normal everyday stuff.
That’s why we always have very nice plates and little teacups and saucers and the like. That night we ate our macaroni and cheese out of these pink-flowered bowls. The bowls are white, and the pink flowers are stenciled around the edges in a little chain. It was Velcor’s latest design, and Becky and I adored them. We loved pink; that was one thing we both could agree on.
After dinner I called my best friend, Jocelyn Redfern. We talked to each other at least once a day, and we usually saw each other on weekends. With Jocelyn, I was my grown-up self, the one who’s interested in boys and clothes and makeup. It was an entirely different role from the one I played with Becky, chewing up noodles and displaying them as a gross-out technique.
The whole summer we’d been talking incessantly about James Harper, a boy we both had a crush on. Only we’d talk about him in secret code, so when Becky tried to listen in, she wouldn’t understand what we were saying. We used names of food for people: Jam for James, Banana for Becky, Iced Tea for Jocelyn’s mother, and so on.
“I think I’d like to have some jam,” Jocelyn would say, and we would giggle. We thought it was a brilliant idea.
When I got off the phone, Becky was watching
, and I sat on the couch and joined her. I don’t like game shows very much, but I love Vanna White. In a certain way, she reminds me of my mother.
We argued over which one of us would grow up to look most like Vanna. It was something we talked about a lot. Becky said she would be the one, because her hair was almost blond. “It’ll get lighter when I get older,” she said. “That’s what I’ve heard.” Becky was always saying she heard things, which mainly I thought she made up.
“I’m taller,” I told her. “You need to be tall for a job like that.”
“You’re too dumb to turn the letters.”
“You’d probably trip,” I told her. Becky was known for being the family klutz. Sometimes my father would call her Sticky Fingers Malone, just to be silly I guess, because it made Becky laugh, even though we had no idea who Malone was.
We didn’t have air conditioning yet, so it was a nightly ritual in the summer for our mother to let us go into the pool to cool off before bed. That night in the pool we fought over an inner tube.
It boiled down to this: I was sitting in the tube that Becky wanted. We have two; one is pink and the other one is
orange, but neither one of us ever wanted to use the orange one. I’m not sure why my mother decided to buy them in different colors, when both of us begged her to buy us pink tank tops and pink sparkly barrettes; but for some reason she had, and I was the one who always got stuck with the orange one. That’s the way it was with Becky and me. She had a way of always getting what she wanted.
I’d gotten to the pink one first, something that rarely happened, and I’d pulled myself up through the center, so I was sitting on top of it like a queen on her throne. I sat there smirking as I watched Becky swimming ferociously toward me, breaststroking with her head above water, saying, “Abby, that’s my tube. It’s mine.” I knew she was coming for me; I knew she was going to shove me off and take the tube from me even if she had to wrestle me. I wasn’t a good physical fighter; I rarely won these battles, but for a moment I didn’t care. I smiled.
“Girls, no fighting.” My mother said it absentmindedly, as if she expected us to fight and there was nothing she could do to stop us. Our father was the one we listened to, the one we were afraid to fight in front of. From my spot in the tube, I could barely make out her shape, her long legs and torso stretched out as if she were sunbathing, as if she had failed to
notice the darkness. She dangled her cigarette loosely from her hand, tip glowing red, tiny, like a firefly.
And then Becky jumped on top of the inner tube and knocked me off, so I was choking down water. She grabbed my hair and pushed my head under for a few seconds, just long enough for me to feel intensely suffocated, like I was going to drown. I tried to push up, to push her off me, but she wouldn’t budge. Then she let go; I came up and sputtered for air, and she was already sitting on the inner tube, smiling at me. “The pink one is mine,” she said.
“Mom.” I protested even though I knew it was useless. My mother was really somewhere else: a tropical island, a cruise ship.
She took a puff from her cigarette and blew smoke into the air. “Girls, please. Abby, just sit in the other one.”
She expected me to give in to Becky. She was always saying it: “Abby, you’re older. You should act like the big sister. Abby, you’re trying my patience.” This was why I hated Becky, for being the younger one, the baby, for knowing how to take advantage of my mother’s absentminded discipline.
If my father had been there, Becky never would’ve pushed me off. She would’ve taken the orange tube and kicked my legs discreetly under the water. If he’d been home
and witnessed what happened, we both would’ve been out of the pool and punished in our rooms for the night. But Becky and I knew she could do what she wanted on my mother’s watch.
I gave up and took the other inner tube, but I stuck my tongue out at Becky and told her that I hated her. “So?” She shrugged. “I hate you, too.”
This was the last conversation we had before she disappeared.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of my father calling her name. I snuggled under the covers, feeling satisfied, knowing immediately that she was in trouble and that she deserved it after what she’d done to me the night before. So I allowed myself to lie in bed for a little while and bask in my victory.
By the time I got dressed and went downstairs, the police had already arrived. My father’s friend Harry Baker is a policeman, and he and another guy were sitting on the couch in our family room. At first I wasn’t frightened, not even when I saw Harry there or when I saw my mother staring out the kitchen window, her eyes looking glassy, or even when I saw the crease on my father’s forehead, saw his lips
twitching the way they do when he gets really angry.
“Abby,” my father said, “have you seen your sister?” I shrugged. I didn’t take him too seriously. I thought Becky was being Becky, trying to get attention again. “It’s important,” he said. And he grabbed my shoulders and shook me a little, maybe harder than he meant to, so I felt something small snap in the back of my neck.
“No,” I whispered. I was frightened by my father’s urgency, by the feel of his large hand gripping my shoulder so tightly. It wasn’t the same as the anger I was used to, the way he would treat me when Becky and I fought, when we annoyed him. My father let go of me so suddenly that I thought I might fall, as if he’d been the only thing holding me up. He sat down on the couch and took shallow, rapid breaths. “Becky’s missing,” he said.
“What do you mean, missing?” I couldn’t process what he’d said. Of course I’d heard about kidnappings. Our parents always warned us to stay away from strangers, not to go with anyone we didn’t know. But until the moment when my father said the word “missing,” I believed if you did everything right, if you followed my parents’ rules, there was no way to disappear.
When I looked away from my father, I saw policemen
walking up and down the stairs, carrying things out of Becky’s room. One of them had her sheets in a bag, her pink and white Barbie sheets crumpled up against the plastic. “What are they doing?” I asked.
“Evidence,” Harry said.
“That’s enough.” My father stood up and grabbed me. He was trying to hug me, but his embrace was rough, and I squirmed. “Go sit with your mother.”
My mother hummed quietly under her breath and stared out the window. When I sat down next to her, I realized that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had her all to myself.
“You hungry?” Her voice sounded low, hollow. I shrugged. I didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t really afraid, certainly not hungry. I didn’t think Becky was really missing. I figured she was outside, walking around the neighborhood. She would be back in an hour, and then my father would be really angry. “I’ll make some eggs. Everyone could use eggs,” she said.
We hardly ever had eggs for breakfast, something my mother reserved for special occasions, like Father’s Day or our birthdays. She stood up and walked toward the refrigerator. She was humming again, something happy that I
couldn’t place. I looked out the window, toward the backyard, half expecting to see Becky in one of our favorite trees, waving and sticking her tongue out at me. The morning was bright and glaringly hazy. But the yard was empty.
When I turned back to face my mother, she was staring at me; only she had this blank look on her face. She was holding the eggs one minute, and then she let them drop to the floor the next. “Jesus.” My father ran in from the other room. “Elaine.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll clean it up.” My father stood there as if he were unsure, afraid to move.
The police questioned all of us over the course of the day. Harry Baker asked me questions about Becky, about my parents. He asked me if I thought Becky would run away or if I knew anyone who would take her. He asked me if I had heard anything suspicious in the night, if I had seen the slightest thing amiss.
I am an unusually sound sleeper; sometimes my mother would come into my room three or four times to get me up for school. I felt this sudden surge of guilt, as if I should’ve heard everything, should’ve heard Becky get out of bed. But I had heard nothing, and my answers to Harry were
all empty, useless, something I saw reflected in the uneasy frown on his face.
I didn’t know Harry Baker that well. He played on my father’s community baseball team. My father is the pitcher, and Harry was the catcher. Before that morning I’d never spoken with him at any great length. My father is of the school of thought that children should be seen around their parents’ friends, not necessarily heard. Harry is much smaller than my father and chubbier, with an oversize, balding head and feet that appear too large. There was almost this silliness about him, this clownlike quality that didn’t disappear, even when he was wearing his stern police uniform.