They search everywhere for her brother, or her brother’s body; no one seems to think there is a difference now. Not even their mother. Not even the policemen.
Her grandmother does her best to keep the girl entertained in the living room: she is permitted to open the once-forbidden curio cabinet. She examines the china ballerina, the Russian music box, the gilded glass rose, and the Southern Belle who glides in circles, turning and turning in her blue and silver dress. This works for a time. She forgets that her brother is not in the next room, or in the kitchen, stealing scraps of sandwiches before dinner.
Still the girl creeps into the living room at night. With her body pressed under the coffee table, she lets the stories of missing children fill her mouth. One girl’s remains are found swaddled in duct tape, with a delicate unicorn sticker to seal her lips. Another is missing for sixteen years before she reappears. Miracle, the news announcers say, but this seems like no miracle to her. This one is nothing like her picture. Her teeth are ruined and loose; she has borne three children, the newsman says, all by her captor. The girl wants her brother back as he was, not as he might become.
When she is discovered under the table, her arm is snatched, and she is slapped before the grandmother can stop herself. Her cheek turns the color of a bright, relentless peony, a bruise already forming under the pink.
There are so many places that her brother may have gone. She will find him. She will believe even when her faithless family surrenders all their hope. She packs that night, putting two books and her brother’s camping lamp in her backpack. She folds her favorite pajamas, the flannel ones printed with pink petals. For luck, she takes the glass rose dipped in gold, the one whose edges sparkle with false diamonds. She adds clean socks, and all the candy she can scoop from her grandmother’s cut glass bowl.
No one stops her on the way out the door, but no one sees her, either. She puts on her shoes outside the door, and the dog doesn’t wake to see her leave. Lazy hound. That doesn’t stop her from blowing his silky and battered ears a kiss.
The first place she’ll look is the house of her brother’s best friend. She always hated Colin. Before now, he used to whistle at her and smack her head sideways as a greeting. His parents have haunted their living room, murmuring how sad how sorry how awful this is. Even Colin isn’t right. He hasn’t touched her since her brother went missing.
His parents will pity her. They will help her, in the way that other parents sometimes offer extra candy or soda to her when they hear her last name. But when she arrives at the corner bungalow, the windows and dark, and the curtains drawn. The spare key isn’t under the terra-cotta squirrel. She tests the locks on the kitchen windows, tries the basement door, and no one comes.
She walks instead. The books in her bag weigh heavy on her shoulders. She does her best to move quietly, to be as small as a bat or a fox in the dark.
A man, grocery bag in hand, stops her by the cross walk. Hey girl, you lost?
She says she’s not. She’s just on her way to her friend’s house.
She walks and walks. She comes, finally, to a skeleton house. It has a roof but no doors, it smells of raw wood and cigarette smoke, of concrete and plaster and drywall. The master bedroom has a nest of plastic bags that once contained candy-fluff insulation, and she rests on that. Pretty soon she puts on the pajamas and eats the candy bar. She rubs her hands together, curls her toes in their socks, and reads The Wizard of Oz. At the part when Dorothy clicks her ruby slippers, she starts.
Her eyes begin to water, she shuts off the light and looks at the stars pin-pricked in the sky. She invents constellations: rainbow birds, branches, wedding bouquets, and lace hearts. Her tongue slides over her sugar-gritty teeth.
That night, she dreams a bear asks her to waltz. She puts her hand against the soft black pads of his paw, and tucks her fingers between his claws. He teaches her to dance like the Southern Belle in the china cabinet, and soon she is grown up. Her brother stands in the next room, close enough to slap or bite or kiss.
When they find her bed empty, will they call the police? Will their lights flash outside her bedroom window like they once did, painting her skin in red and white? In the morning, she imagines, she’ll go home early. They will never see her gone.
The radio from the construction truck wakes her. The music flares, then subsides. I want your—let me be—I need your—
She wriggles out of her pajamas and into her dress. One of the workers snaps his gum. The other cracks open soda cans and sets them in a line on the windowsill. She peers down at them, and waits until they are out front again, arranging slender boards that will line cabinets and walls.
She walked ten blocks to come here. Ten. It’s easy. But it’s just a number, and she isn’t sure if she turns at the big juniper trees or the flowering pears. She doesn’t recognize the squares of grass piled by the sidewalk, or the magpie bathing in the fountain, or the cocker spaniel that dashes towards her with an open mouth, tongue unfurled and pink.
The girl walks and walks. Blisters appear on her big toe and the back of her heel. She stops and bathes them in someone’s sprinklers, but she is gone before anyone else can see. She wishes for her candy bar, or a juice box. She loves how it collapses when she sucks at the straw.
She walks, and soon the light fades, like the shine of the television and all their missing children. Duct tape, she thinks, and bad teeth.
A house on the corner has white lacing, smooth as frosting on the cake. Out front is a beautiful garden, full of roses like the glass one she carries. She pries it out of her backpack to hold before her, an offering or a signal. She is almost sure she will be home soon. She is beginning to believe that her brother will be waiting for her there.
The old woman who answers the door punctures her blisters with a needle, and then wraps them in beautiful blue bandages. She feeds her a dinner of breaded pork and sauce, of salted potatoes and glazed carrots. Then, afterwards, a dish of vanilla ice cream drowned in raspberry syrup. The old woman says she will call the grandmother tomorrow and explain. They play bridge together, the old woman says with a wink. She is sure that the brother will be found. She is certain that all will be well. She will put the rose aside for her, where they will keep it safe.
The woman washes the girl’s pajamas, and they are dry in time for bed. She takes the backpack and says that she will mend the holes. She is careful to put it up high, on the tallest shelf of the closet, so no one can get inside and steal her things.
At the witching hour, the old woman leaves the house with a trowel, a pair of thick yellow gloves, and her walking stick.
She digs in a careful circle around all her roses, naming each of them as she does. Golden Gate, Jeanne d’Arc, Chicago Peace. Belinda’s Dream Climbing. She is careful to brush dirt off their roots, to keep them intact. It will not kill them, but if the girl can’t see the roses, she will never remember who she is.
The old woman digs more holes, bigger ones this time. False graves for her glowing flowers. In the morning, the girl will wake up, fresh and unknowing. Her backpack will be gone, and the books with it. There will be plates full of chocolate chip pancakes and a new pink ribbon. She will not ask about her brother or grandmother. They will be so happy together: they will dress and undress dolls, fill vases full of tulips, bake bread, and use crayons to color princess gowns. She will be the old woman’s first and only, her most beloved child.
The old woman spoons dirt over her biggest bush, the Dame de Coeur. She has had this one since before she took this house. It is so old that the flowers are no longer cherry-red, but so crimson that they are almost black. Her hands tremble as she covers each bloom in soil. The roses will wait for her. They will sleep beneath the earth.
C.A. Schaefer is a writer and teacher of writing who lives in Salt Lake City. She holds a PhD from the University of Utah, where she was a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, So to Speak, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere.