“I don’t know what this thing is or what it just did to me…but it isn’t directions,” said Mom.
Here it comes.
“How do you know how to get there?”
Seeing my hesitancy, she did her best to swallow some of the fierceness fear was putting into her voice. She wasn’t used to being the good cop, but she said as gently as she could manage, “I promise you are not going to get in trouble for helping keep your sister safe.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Can I tell you when we’re not driving? We’re almost there.”
We had reached the northern edge of town, closing in on the wide-shouldered bend in the road where it drew closest to the fence, when I spotted what I was looking for in the weeds alongside the remnant of the old railroad pathway. “There! Pull over!”
“Here?” She had to be imagining every combination of illegal and depraved dealings that could go down in an isolated spot like this. I jumped out and ran up to the fence to get a closer look. Sure enough, there was a handlebar poking out from beneath a collection of garbage. “Look, she left her bike!”
Mom ran up behind me. “Oh no…”
“It must have taken her a while to bike all the way out here. She’ll be tired, we might be able to catch her.”
“Catch her before what? Answers now, Reid!”
“I’m not sure. Before someone else does?”
At that, she would probably have postponed the interrogation and vaulted the fence like Esther herself, but the short, sharp whoop of a siren behind us interrupted.
A sheriff’s car pulled up behind Mom’s and out stepped a deputy. “Afternoon, ma’am. Can I ask what brings the two of you out here?”
“I’m looking for my daughter. She’s 5 foot 5, black hair down to here, brown eyes…”
“We got a report the other day of a trespassing incident in this area. Are you aware that’s private property?”
“All I’m aware of right now, Officer…Pagao, is that my daughter may be in danger on that property. Are you going to help me or not?”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being Esther’s brother, it’s how to take advantage of the spotlight being on her. While Mom and the officer were going back and forth and wasting time, I was still standing by the fence, looking through it sidelong and working out my best route. Deputy Pagao looked on the heavier side, not quite fat, but not the type I’d expect to clear a fence in a hurry. I’d have a decent head start.
I didn’t make any sudden moves, just casually put a hand and foot up on the fence links. I’d gotten several steps up before I heard Pagao bark “Hey!”
I called on every gymnastics gene I might have co-inherited to scramble the rest of the way up, fling myself over the top, and hit the ground running.
“I said I’m not coming today.”
“You’re serious? You never miss practice!”
“It’s an optional meeting,” Esther retorted. “I have other plans.”
“I mean, technically, but…we were all counting on you to bring the topic prompts.”
“Sorry, Cody, I didn’t make any promises. You guys’ll be fine without me.”
I, listening to this exchange from the other side of a planter, asked myself for the fifth or sixth time what the hell I was doing.
The more worried I got about Esther, the faster my scruples about eavesdropping were evaporating. So there I was at Newcastle Plaza, where the Niels Bohr High School speech and debate team was meeting for their “optional” practice session ahead of next week’s event. Since not even the nerds wanted to be anywhere near “Bohrdom” right now, their coach had suggested a more casual meetup at the trendy shopping center. I stooped to tagging along when Mom dropped Esther off, after convincing a few friends to meet there later so I had a pretext. Shadowing her, I wasn’t all that surprised when she went off in the opposite direction of the tables where the team was meeting. However, she hadn’t counted on running into two teammates, Cody Luong and Chelsea Phillips, who were now trying to convince her to stick around. I could already tell she wasn’t going to budge.
She’d been dropping hints about wanting to quit debate even before things got weird. I couldn’t personally understand why she would rather take up drama; I saw no downsides to an event that was basically professional arguing with an audience. ”Keyword professional,” she told me, “not creatively dissing each other for twenty minutes. It’s not as much fun as you think.” Still, if she did end up quitting, I couldn’t wait to sign up next year. It was one of the few exceptions to my steadily mounting dread regarding high school.
The conversation was getting more heated. Finally Esther broke it off and walked briskly out of sight around the back of the nearest building. The other two conferred with each other for a minute, then went after her.
I followed them into the soon-to-be fenced off and condemned section of the old plaza. They were looking down an empty alleyway between buildings, with no one else in sight.
“Oh hey,” said Chelsea as I approached. “You’re Esther’s brother, right? Uh…Keith?”
“Sure, why not.” Maybe it was time to stop caring whether anyone got my name right if they were always going to identify me as “Esther’s brother” regardless. We looked enough alike to regularly get the twins question when we were little. The same straight black hair, similarly round faces with features that led to similar annoyance at being thought younger than we were (though mine was the only one that ever got called “impish” for some reason). I’d probably never be able to hide it without plastic surgery.
“Did you see where she went?” I asked.
“No. I didn’t know she was that fast!”
Cody frowned, concern winning out over his annoyance. “If she doesn’t want to join us that badly, fine. We’ll have to change our plans now anyway. I just hope she’s okay.”
“Mh-hm,” said Chelsea, chewing her lip pensively. “I don’t know what her deal is, but she needs someone to talk to.”
That someone wasn’t going to be me, but I kept going anyway after they turned back. I arrived at a dead end, an empty courtyard with shuttered storefronts. The only other exit was walled off with plywood, not that she would have hesitated to vault it. I took a glance back down the alley for thoroughness’ sake. There was an unmarked maintenance door in the middle of the wall, the kind you can tell is always locked even without a STAFF ONLY sign, but this one looked like it might be hanging open just a crack. A closer inspection confirmed it.
I cautiously opened the door into a pitch black space full of cluttered shelves. A swarm of tiny bugs scurried down the inside of the door and dispersed into the open.
“Eeugh.” Adding another tally to my what-the-hell-am-I-doing count, I called Esther’s name and stepped through. I felt a momentary resistance to walking inside that had nothing to do with trepidation – it put me in mind of struggling to move forward in a dream.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. Maybe no one was. Even the property manager probably didn’t remember why this room existed. It smelled like neglect, mildew, industrial solvent, and impending child murder, and of course there was no obvious light switch. I kept going forward and called for Esther again, but there was no sound except my own fumbling. Sufficiently creeped out, I was about to leave when the wind came tearing down the alley and slammed the door shut.
I blundered with outstretched arms toward where I remembered the door being, but it was eluding me. Being in the dark had messed with my sense of space before, but now it was outright stripping me of it. It wasn’t even like being lost, because when you’re lost you can at least be sure that you’re somewhere. It was intolerable. I would certainly have found Esther if she was hiding in there, because I either banged into or stepped on every object in the room, including about fifty of what felt like those caltrop tire spikes.
Finally I made contact with a door handle, pushed through the same resistance as before, and limped out into the sunlight, rubbing a bruised shin and swiping more of the little bugs off my legs.
“Hey man, read the sign. It’s employees only.” I started and looked up to see a young man behind the counter of a smoothie stand regarding me a little wearily. “Security notices that stuff, just sayin’…Are you okay?”
I was not. I was standing in front of a clearly marked employee door, in between two busy shops, in a courtyard full of people with a tiled fountain in the middle, and my mouth was probably hanging open.
Were we anywhere near this part of the mall before?
I walked away from the smoothie guy without a word, rationalizing furiously. I had gotten turned around and stumbled through some disused passageway. The disorientation was just the chemical fumes. A little extra brain damage, nothing to worry about.
And besides, I’d found Esther.
She was across the courtyard chatting with another girl and hadn’t spotted me yet. I slipped over to an inconspicuous seat behind the fountain to keep watching, and with the kind of shock I was getting numb to I recognized the other girl, a classmate of hers named Amy. It was no surprise to see her here; the surprise was seeing her not only talking to, but relaxed and laughing with, my sister.
They hadn’t spoken since February, and from what I could glean, their friendship was stone dead. Everyone knew about Esther cutting ties with her abruptly, callously, and seemingly without cause, and the resulting backlash against her for acting so out of character. I should be glad that rift was apparently mended, but right now it was just one more anti-clue, making the mystery worse.
“Hi, this is Amy, who’s calling?”
“It’s Reid Emberley.”
“I’m sorry, who?”
Sigh. “Esther’s brother.”
“Oh…Well, hi, what’s up?”
It was after dinner that night, and I had tracked down Amy’s home number from one of Mom’s contact lists. I’d been vacillating all afternoon about whether or not to call her. I barely knew her, and it could very well come back to bite me. Esther was shut up in her room, and the snippets of phone conversations with friends that I heard through the door in passing were sounding increasingly contentious. That got me wondering hard enough about the one positive interaction I’d seen all day to man up and make the call.
“Okay, weird question, and I know it’s kinda personal, but I promise I have a reason. Is everything cool now with you and Esther?”
“Cool now? How do you mean?”
“Did she start acting different?”
“Not that I know of?” She didn’t sound offended that I was asking, just baffled. Then came the line that floored me.
“I’m not really the best one to ask. I haven’t known her very long.”
“What are you talking about?” I blurted. Something was very wrong. “You’ve known her for years. This is Amy, right? Amy Vandenberg?”
“Yyyes…” Confusion turned to suspicion.
“You two had this big falling out like two months ago.”
“I know it’s not my business, but – ”
“You’re right, this is weird, and you’re being creepy. Are you really her brother? I’m not positive she even has a brother. Did someone from school put you up to this?” By the time my brain stopped spinning long enough to respond, she had hung up.
I almost cracked after that. I almost confronted Esther point blank about everything. I was certain that she’d only shut me down again, but looking back, I can’t help but wonder if things would have gone differently. The trouble was, at that point I was starting to question my own sanity.
Even so, I considered going to Dad with everything on my mind. He was the best listener in the house, great for venting to if you needed cheap therapy and a word of comfort, but we’d learned not to expect much from him in the way of concrete advice. More to the point, I knew he would take Esther’s side. Mom was never an option. She’d likely believe me, but if I provoked a standoff between her and Esther, everyone would feel the fallout, and Esther wouldn’t forgive me. But all of this seems too petty now for me to keep writing about, compared to what came next.
On to the last day.