PART ONE - Olivia
It was the neighbor’s dog that woke me.
The curtained window was outlined in sunlight. The thick fabric had been advertised as “black-out curtains”, and perhaps they performed as such in New Hampshire or Ohio. But they were no match for the sun in Arizona; some things were simply too much to ask for. Even this early, there was no keeping the day outside.
Rick’s arm was heavy across my chest, trapping me in the bed like a stupid metaphor for this relationship. As if I needed it underlined. Officially, we’d broken up three months ago. But, in that time, I’d managed to wake up this way more times than I wanted to count.
I pushed his arm off me, my anger at myself coming out as anger at him. He groaned and rolled over, smiling sleepily without opening his eyes. As he reached for me, I jumped out of bed.
“Gotta pee,” I said, shutting myself in the bathroom. I sat on the toilet with my head in my hands.
This bathroom was the worst thing about the apartment. When I’d moved here a year ago, I’d been sure that the mildew smell was something I could get rid of easily. I was wrong. The small, rectangular window was painted shut, making for humid, unventilated showers. The linoleum flooring curled along the edge of the tub.
But what sold me on the place were the old wood floors and the exposed brick walls. It was one of seven units, on the end so it only shared one wall, with a private, shady back patio. I’d never known my neighbors before, but here I knew them all. I watered Mrs. Rosen’s plants when she went to visit her daughter in Scottsdale. The landlady’s son, Manny, lived next door. He did repairs and fed my cat whenever Rick and I went away for a weekend.
Rick had spent a weekend sanding and staining the scratched floors, something my landlady was more than happy to allow.
I flushed and went to the sink. There, Oscar was curled into a ball, looking like a sink-full of liquid fur. It’d be hard to tell one end from the other, except that I knew the brightest orange stripe was on his forehead. I imagined I could pull the stopper and he’d be sucked down the drain. He’d just started sleeping in the sink this week, a sign that the weather had shifted to summer, the longest season in Tucson. It occurred to me that I should bump up the cooler, but that would mean leaving the bathroom.
I’d dated Rick for six years before it became clear it wasn’t going anywhere, whatever that meant. I think it meant that he wanted babies, and I didn’t. He came from an unbroken home. Whether his parents liked each other was up for debate as far as I could tell, but they never fought in front of their children and they passed on the idea that this kind of life wasn’t just possible; it’s what you did. You settled down, popped out a few kids, worked like hell to put them through school and never took time to consider whether this was the life you wanted.
I didn’t grow up that way. My parents fought in front of us all the time, until I was twelve, and my mom left. She did take a moment to consider whether this was the life she wanted and her decision was a definite no. There was no custody agreement or visitation; she was just gone. My dad was left to raise two daughters on his own. My sister Charlotte was only six.
I turned the shower on, locking the bathroom door in case Rick got any cute ideas.
He’d asked me to marry him once. I still wasn’t sure how serious he’d been. We were in Vegas, walking by a wedding chapel, and he’d said something like: “Let’s just do it!”
I’d laughed it off, said “Yeah, right,” and pulled his arm, making him walk faster. Who knows what might have happened if I’d taken him up on it. That was about a year ago.
I closed my eyes under the water and hoped he’d be gone when I got out. We’d already had several versions of the awkward, “let’s not do this again” conversation. It was depressing.
My first patient of the day was someone new. Paige Sullivan had been referred by her OBGYN for last trimester back pain. The first appointment always felt to me like a bad first date – the uneven asking of getting-to-know-you questions. My job made small talk necessary. It helped to get a sense of their daily lives beyond the description of the injury or illness that brought them to Desert Oasis Physical Therapy. Sometimes, that was how you figured out what was really going on: the joint pains of the retiree having to do with his new sedentary lifestyle, the athlete whose fear of missing the season made her minimize her symptoms.
Small talk was easy in Tucson. How long have you lived here? How about this heat? People who knew me in my real life would be surprised. I claimed to be horrible at small talk. Though, to be honest, it was less that, more that I just didn’t care for it. Small talk was like the Hallmark card of conversation; it filled obligatory space without getting personal. In a professional context, that was appropriate. In the real world, it was a complete waste of time.
I shared the room with five other therapists. We each had a little curtained off examining area for assessing client needs and talking confidentially. The rest of the room was divided into work spaces; two exercise bikes, parallel bars, treadmill. Paige didn’t need any of the big equipment. She squatted on a balance ball and used the green resistance bands to stretch. I stood over her and did the counting.
In college, I’d done a rotation in a neurology clinic where you got to spend hours with a single patient. That way, you really got to know them, got to feel like you made a real difference in the practical routines of their daily lives: showering, dressing, meal preparation. Teaching someone how to safely transfer from a wheelchair to their bed or the toilet could be the difference between living independently and winding up in a nursing home. Here, we got fifty minutes a week until the insurance companies told us to stop. The Medicaid patients got fifteen visits a year, sometimes more if we could write convincing progress notes.
The day was busy. None of my appointments canceled so the schedule was packed. My last client of the day had been coming for several weeks. It had become clear within the first few visits that Mrs. Henderson wasn’t doing her home exercises. You could tell which ones were lying: they’d smile and nod when you asked and then five minutes later, you’d prompt a certain position and they’d return a blank stare. Sometimes, they’d confess like a guilty fifth grader, but more often they’d maintain their story with such dedication it made me wonder what kind of authority they thought I had. When I’d first started, I used to call them out. These days, I let it go. Hey, it’s your funeral, Mrs. Henderson. Literally.
It used to wear on me how useless it made me. If the one hour a week in my presence was the only work they did, they’d never get better. But it evened out. The athlete with the knee injury in a rush to get back to the game, the girl with early stage MS determined to keep up her strength, the eighty-two year old post-stroke who wanted to pick up his grandkids again. These were the troupers who validated my existence.
My father was in the waiting room when I left for the day. He looked so out of place –
my big, strong dad in a room of broken, old people – and I realized he’d never visited me at work before. As I got closer, I saw he hadn’t shaved and he wasn’t dressed for work, wearing jeans and a t-shirt that promoted a political candidate who had run and lost years ago.
He looked up as though he’d forgotten where he was, lost in the pattern of the carpet. “Olivia.”
He wasn’t smiling to see me. I touched his arm. “What’s wrong?” I felt like I was bending over him, a little boy cowering over a broken toy. But he was taller than me.
And then he stood up straighter and put his arm around me and was in charge again. I was relieved to be ushered out the woosh of the automatic door and into the warm evening air under his direction.
Once outside, in relative privacy, he stood me in front of him and gripped my upper arms. “Charlie’s missing,” he said, ripping the band-aid off.
“She didn’t come home last night. I can’t reach her on her cell.”
I let out the breath I’d been holding, smiled warmly, condescendingly. “Dad. She’s nineteen. I’m sure she just stayed out with a friend. Maybe she turned off her phone.”
He let go of my arms then. “That’s what the police said.”
“They aren’t taking it seriously because, legally, she’s an adult.” He said “legally” like it was a made up word. Clearly, she wasn’t really an adult. I tended to agree. “I’m not overreacting.”
“I didn’t say that. Look, let me try her.” I shifted my messenger bag to the front and started digging.
“She’s never stayed out overnight without calling.”
“I know.” Everything was a mess inside.
“You never did.”
“I know.” I felt something hard, but it was just my camera.
“It’s not allowed.”
I pulled my phone out and found her name at the top of my contact list. “I know.”
“I have not laid eyes on her since yesterday morning. She was in bed when I left for work.”
I had to admit I didn’t like the sound of that. Or of the call going directly to voicemail. “Maybe her battery died?” I whispered. “Charlie. We’re worried. Call home.”
My dad sat on a bench. “I’m not overreacting,” he said again.
I sat next to him. “Did she say where she was going last night?”
He shook his head. “I came home and her car was gone. I looked for a note, texted her before I went to bed. Nothing. And now it’s five o’clock. I have not seen or heard from your sister in thirty-three hours!”
“Did you try Carmen?” Charlie and Carmen had been best friends since first grade.
“I called the Rodriguez house all day. I kept getting the machine. I didn’t leave a message because,” he faltered, rubbing his forehead, “I kept thinking Charlie’d come through the door and I’d have to apologize for getting hysterical. I don’t know. I hate those things.”
“Maybe they’re together.” It calmed me to consider this. Carmen was a good kid. So was Charlie, but she could be erratic, emotional. Hot-headed. Carmen reined her in.
I took advantage of this moment of semi-calm. “Why don’t you go home and order us a pizza? I’ll stop by Carmen’s house on my way.”
He hesitated, seeming as unsure as I was of my leadership.
I stood up as if it was decided. “We’ll figure out the next step over dinner. And, hey, maybe she’ll be home when you get back.”
He got to his feet and we headed to our cars. As he was getting in his SUV, I shouted: “If she’s there, call me right away.”
He nodded, climbed inside, and drove off.
Carmen lived in one of those developments with three different housing plans repeated a few dozen times and painted in HOA approved pastels. It would be easy to get lost if I didn’t know the neighborhood by heart, having spent all the years since I got my license picking up or dropping off. I took the corner onto her street and was awash with relief: there, in the stubby driveway, was Charlie’s yellow Volkswagen bug.
By the time I rang the doorbell, my relief had already turned to anger. What was she thinking? How could she let us worry like that – especially my poor father. He’d missed a day at work, something he never did, indicative of just how scared he’d been.
I banged on the door, righteous adrenaline behind every thud.
It was Carmen who came to the door. I could just make her out through the mesh of the security screen: dark hair flat on one side, wild on the other. She was wearing a red tank top and baggy shorts that hung low on her tiny hips.
“Olivia.” She gasped my name in a gravelly voice and reached to unlock the security door. As I pulled it open, her face crumpled and she stepped back. “Oh, god.”
It was not the welcome I’d expected. I tried to hold my voice steady. “Where’s Charlie?”
Carmen blinked and her face smoothed. “You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know!” I was yelling. Suddenly, I felt like I wanted to hit her, this girl I’d known forever who was nearly as much a sister as Charlie was. She knew something; she was hiding something, taunting me.
Carmen put a hand to her chest. “Oh, you scared me. I thought you were coming to tell me something had happened.”
“Something like what?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been texting her all day and she hasn’t texted back. I’m worried.”
“Her car’s in your driveway.”
“I know. She was here last night.” And then, finally: “Come in.” She shut the door behind me and led me into the living room.
“My dad was calling the house all day,” I said.
She sat in the oversized recliner in the corner and pulled her feet under her, making herself even smaller than she already was. “My parents are away. I don’t answer the house phone. It’s never for me.”
I sat down on the couch across from her. “Carmen, if you were worried about her, why didn’t you try to get a hold of me or my dad?”
She looked startled by this suggestion. “I didn’t want to get her in trouble.”
I sighed. Kids. “So she was here last night?”
Carmen nodded, warily.
“Did she sleep here?”
“Well, I thought she did. But, I’m not sure.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“I went to bed at about one and she was still up.”
“What was she doing?”
“Well, there were some other people here. And they were all just talking.”
“And you went to bed while a bunch of people were in your house?”
“Not a bunch. A couple. And I was tired.”
She stammered and I rolled my eyes. “Carmen. I don’t care. I just want to find my sister. Who else was here?”
“When I went to bed, it was just Charlie and Isaac.”
“I thought you said there were a couple people.”
“Um, I don’t know his last name. He’s in Charlie’s ethics class. They’re kind of a thing.”
“Charlie has a boyfriend?”
“It’s new,” Carmen said quickly, trying to cushion the blow.
What else didn’t I know? I was the cool older sister Charlie idolized and confided in. I‘d been the one to take her to Planned Parenthood when things started getting serious with her high school boyfriend. I kept her secrets from our father and offered wisdom without judgment. What had happened?
“And everyone was gone when you got up this morning?”
“Well, Dan was here. With me.”
It was like pulling teeth. Like I cared if her boyfriend slept over. “What time?”
“Around noon. No one was here, but she’d locked up the house from the outside, with her key.” Carmen had a key to my dad’s house too.
“And no note?”
She shook her head. “And no text and she hasn’t been on Facebook.”
I looked at my watch. My father would have gotten home by now. No phone call. “This isn’t like her.” I said it like a statement, but I was looking for reassurance.
“I know.” Carmen wrapped her bare arms tightly around herself. “She always texts me back, even in the middle of the night. She keeps her phone with her while she sleeps and she’ll just send me back a smiley face so I know she’s listening.”
Among a group of framed photographs on the surface of a dresser, there was a shot of the two girls with their faces pressed together, grinning. They were both missing their front teeth, which would make them, what, six or seven? Their faces were painted like butterflies, caterpillar middles along the bridge of their noses, antennae on their foreheads. It had been taken at the 4th Avenue Street Fair; there was a copy of that photograph at my dad’s house.
I turned back to Carmen. “How well do you know this Isaac?”
“I’ve only met him a few times, but he seems okay. Kind of quiet.”
“Do you know how to get a hold of him?”
She shook her head. “Charlie had his number.”
“How drunk was she when you went to bed?”
“Just tipsy. Not out of control. I wouldn’t have left if she was trashed.”
“I know. But they were still drinking when you left?”
She nodded. “It was just beer. I cleaned up all the empties this morning.”
I rubbed my palms against the top of my thighs. They were so clammy. I was worried for nothing, I told myself. She was nineteen and I hadn’t heard from her in a day. That was nothing. “If you hear from her, or you think of anything, call me, okay?” I stood up.
Before I left, I tried the door to the bug, but it was locked. I cupped my hands around my eyes and peered through the window. There, sitting in one of the cup holders, was Charlie’s cell phone.
“Well, that explains why she hasn’t called us,” I said. My dad and I were sitting on barstools around the island in the kitchen, the only part of the house that had been renovated. It had followed months of arguments between my parents and an endless stream of bickering while it was being done. My mother had insisted on this island; it was the necessary feature of any respectable kitchen.
“No,” my father said. “That explains why she didn’t get our messages, not why she hasn’t called. No excuse.”
He’d already called to update the police on this and the location of the car. They’d added these details to the report he filed earlier, but sounded generally unimpressed. It’s not against the law for an adult to go missing. That’s what they’d told him. When he repeated it to me, he had a sneer on his face and a mocking tone in his voice.
“If she still had her phone, we could track her with the GPS,” he said with his mouth full.
“I never thought of that.”
“The detective told me.” He sighed. “She could be anywhere.”
My pizza cooled on the plate in front of me. “There’s got to be an explanation. She doesn’t have her phone so she doesn’t have our numbers?”
My dad looked at me without any facial expression at all, but somehow managed to convey his belief in my absurdity. It was a stretch. My father’s home number had been the same our entire lives.
I tried again. “She isn’t near a phone.”
“Where could she be that isn’t near a phone?”
“Maybe she and Isaac got separated. Maybe his car broke down. Maybe she’s lost in the desert somewhere.”
“Do you know how cold it gets at night?”
“Cold. But not hypothermia cold.”
He got to his feet quickly, just catching his stool before it tipped over.
“Where are you going?”
“It gets colder in the mountains.”
“So, what, you’re going to drive up Mt Lemmon?”
“I guess. I can check out the camping areas.” He ran his hand over his head, attempting to smooth his hair but only succeeding in making himself look more agitated.
“You’re just going to drive around all night?”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
“Can I come?”
“No. You stay here. Call me if she comes home.”
My father’s frantic day was spelled out in the living room: photo albums spread across the coffee table, his laptop on the couch, a list of hospital contact information on the screen.
My father had resisted the shift to digital; he loved getting his prints in the mail, pressing them under the cellophane pages. He held out much longer than the majority of Luddites; the most recent album was from Charlie’s high school graduation. Her hair was long then, darker than my own mousy brown which I’d lightened for so long that my natural color could only be found in these albums, the early ones.
Charlie looked so sweet in these photos. This was before the nose ring, before the Virgin Mary tattoo on her left forearm, before she chopped her hair short and sculpted it into a fine point along the center of her skull. That happened the following summer, her transformation for college into somebody cool, somebody tough. But she hadn’t changed her personality: a little shy, soft spoken. It made the external changes seem incongruous.
Though really, Charlie had always been a bit of a contradiction. She was so uncomfortable as the center of attention and yet very prone to melodrama. It made for an interesting adolescence. She did not tantrum in public. But she’d fix you with a cold stare and you’d know you were in for it later. She could make you miserable by withholding her usual charm, substituting a dedicated sulk my father referred to as her death look. She had a commitment to the silent treatment that I couldn’t help but be in awe of.
I sat on the couch and reached for one of the photo albums at the bottom of the pile. It was one of the older ones, the adhesive yellowed with age. There was Charlie as a newborn, a pink, hospital-issue cap hiding her mass of black hair. My mother sat in a hospital bed, looking tired but so happy it made me queasy. How could that have been real? Somehow, it would have made more sense if she weren’t holding Charlotte so tight, if her eyes in these pages were not focused on the photographer (my dad) or on her children, but instead looking distractedly, longingly, out the window. But, they were not.
I’d looked for answers in these pages before, knew there were none to be found. These were the good days, the days we’d posed for the camera, the days we wanted to remember forever.
And yet, for me at least, the crisper memories were of the other days, the ones not in photographs. I could still hear her screaming in Spanish, throwing plates at my father. Charlotte didn’t remember these things, didn’t remember how I shut her in my bedroom and turned up the stereo. For her, these photos had become the real memories. For me, they were an elaborate and convincing charade.
Toward one in the morning, I went to Charlie’s room to find something to sleep in. I was distracted though, rifling through her drawers. Sitting on the floor, I turned the pages of several half-filled notebooks. Charlie was not an organized student; the same notebook was used for several classes and the subjects weren’t segregated. This one held philosophy notes and biology notes and shopping lists. Several pages that began with a definition of terms devolved into swirly doodles. In separate locations, I found three phone numbers without identifying names.
I set these aside and reached for her high school yearbook. The only photo of Charlie in this book was her senior photo, the little square that preceded a list of memories that read like gibberish. So many abbreviations, I doubted even she would remember what they referred to in a few years’ time.
My face could be found all through my high school yearbook. I’d been on teams: basketball, softball, field hockey. I’d been on the yearbook staff as well, which meant I was in the candids section, along with all my friends.
I hardly spoke to any of them any more, the ones who stayed in town. I’d been popular in high school but I envied the intimate bond Charlie had with Carmen. They didn’t join teams or go to parties, but they had each other. In all my years of high school, I’d never really trusted any of those girls who were my friends. I’d seen too many casualties of the clique, girls who committed some random faux pas and found themselves on the outs. I used to tell people my mother had died and I never mentioned that she was Mexican. My dad was white; I had a white last name. And my brown little sister was little enough not to be around too often.
At 4 AM, I collapsed fully dressed into my old bed across the hall.
In the morning, I found my father in the kitchen, sitting at the island. Against the far wall, the kitchen table sat empty, covered in several layers of clutter. My father was dressed for work like maybe things were back to normal. But he wasn’t reading the paper like normal. He was writing on a yellow legal pad. I stood over his shoulder and tried to make sense of his scribbles.
“So, I guess you didn’t find her.” I got a mug from the cabinet and poured myself the rest of the coffee.
He didn’t answer, just forcefully underlined something in his notes. Twice.
“Are you going in to work?” My father ran his own dental practice and yesterday had been the first day he’d taken off in as long as I could remember.
He shook his head. “I need you to drive me to Carmen’s. So I can pick up Charlie’s car.” He wasn’t asking. “Do you know her passwords? For her cell phone or her email?”
I sat down. “No.”
He looked up at me then, as if to check for dishonesty in my face.
“I really don’t. I could try talking to Carmen again.” It seemed like she was the true keeper of secrets these days.
He nodded. “I’d talk to Carmen myself, but you’d probably get more out of her on your own.”
I agreed. My dad was pretty gruff and came off as intimidating even when he didn’t mean to. He was liable to make Carmen cry.
He cleared his throat and continued looking at his notes on the table. “You’d tell me if you thought she could be . . . pregnant. Or something.”
I blinked, startled by his bluntness. “I’m sure it’s nothing like that.”
He grunted into his coffee mug.
I’d gotten my first period at thirteen, mere months after my mother had left us. Remembering the conversation I’d had to have with my father still made me squirm with discomfort. I wasn’t sure which one of us had been more miserable. He’d gone to Walgreens and came back with a dozen different brands and styles of feminine products, like he’d just swiped a random armload into his cart and run from the aisle. In the years that followed, whenever we went to the grocery store, he’d hand over the cart at the end of the trip and let me go get whatever “personal items” I needed.
When Charlie got her period, she’d had me.
My father stood and carried his empty mug to the sink where he could talk with his back to me. “She’s been kind of sullen the last couple days.”
“Quieter than usual. She stayed in her room most of the time she was home. She ate her dinner in there Sunday night.”
“Was that unusual?”
He turned and slouched against the counter with his arms folded. I noticed the salt and pepper of his hair was getting saltier. “We usually eat together on Sunday night. But she made herself a frozen pizza. Said she had to study.” He shrugged. “I didn’t really think anything of it at the time.”
“And why would you?” He was wracking his brain to find a clue, but that wasn’t anything. Maybe she had been studying or maybe she’d had a fight with this new boyfriend. There was no way to know and it didn’t explain her disappearance either way.
The typical reasons young girls ran away – the unplanned pregnancy, the drugs – just didn’t apply to Charlie. For any of those things, she’d come to me for help. I was sure of it. I simply couldn’t imagine a problem so big she wouldn’t reach out. Perhaps my imagination was failing.
“Are you ready?” he asked, straightening up.
I looked into the still full cup of coffee in front of me. “Sure.”
My father and I stood in front of the Rodriguez house as I tried to guess the password on Charlie’s phone.
I shook my head.
My dad sighed and turned away without saying a word. He backed Charlie’s car out of the driveway while I banged away on the front door. It was early and it took Carmen a good ten minutes to figure out I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness and I wasn’t going away.
“Olivia,” she grumbled sleepily, letting me in.
“When do your parents get back?”
I followed her into the kitchen where she yanked open the refrigerator and gazed inside, groggily. “Do you want anything?”
She settled on some orange juice, poured herself a glass and sat next to me at the breakfast bar.
“Has she called you?” I asked.
Carmen shook her head.
“Would you tell me if she had?”
She hesitated. “I guess it depends.”
“On whether she asked me to keep it a secret.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Well?” She shrugged. “She’s my best friend.”
“I know, but—” I shook my head. “Something’s wrong. You know it.”
Carmen wouldn’t look at me, feigning fascination with the fraying hem of her t-shirt.
“My father’s worried sick.” It pissed me off how tranquil she seemed. I wanted to shake her. “He’s afraid she could be dead!”
She cringed. “She hasn’t called me, Olivia, I swear. I’m as worried as you are.”
Whenever Carmen and Charlie got into trouble as girls, Carmen was the first to cave in. She was not a confident liar, unlike my sister, who could commit to the most outrageous fictions. Carmen tapped her ragged fingernails against the still-full glass of orange juice. I tended to believe her.
“Do you know any of her passwords?” I asked.
Her eyes bulged. “Even if I did.” She looked away and shook her head.
It drove me nuts, but I couldn’t really blame her. “Are there other things going on in Charlie’s life that I don’t know about?”
“Olivia,” she whined. She scratched at her bare thigh. She was so skinny. “I’m not just going to tell you all her secrets.”
I sighed heavily. Carmen had been the last person I knew to lay eyes on my baby sister. 1 AM on Tuesday. It was only Wednesday morning, I reminded myself, but for some reason it didn’t comfort me. “If she contacts you, will you tell her to call me?”
“Yes. But I can’t make her. I mean, to be honest, if she calls me, I’ll probably do whatever she tells me to do.”
“I know.” I reached into my bag, wrote my number on the back of an old grocery list. “But my dad’s frantic. If you hear from her please just let us know she’s okay.” I stood up and pressed the folded paper into her hand. Of course she already had my number, but now she couldn’t pretend otherwise.
I was already late for work by the time I parked in front of my apartment, but it couldn’t be helped. I had to change my clothes, but more than that, I had to feed Oscar.
I had my key in the lock when I heard a voice behind me.
“Walk of shame?”
I jumped a bit and turned to see Rick leaning on the hood of my car. “What? No!” Not that it was any of his business. “I slept at my dad’s.” I turned back to the door and shoved it open. It was getting too hot for outdoor conversations.