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The Ones Left Behind

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Before

“Why d’you have to go back?”

It’s the last Wednesday of the summer holidays, and school - and separation - rumble towards them like boulders in a landslide. Trisha and Penny (or Pennygirl, or PenPen; Pep and Pepsi are still in the future, nicknames yet to be bestowed, while Trisha is Trisha, now and always) are sitting cross-legged on Penny’s back porch, sipping pineapple juice. Mr Wooster, Penny’s old tortoiseshell cat, lies stretched out across a patch of sunlight beside them, his jaw slack with sleep.

Trisha shrugs. “Dad’s job’s there.” She runs a fingernail through the condensation on the outside of her juice glass.

Penny puts her own glass down on the deck, empty. “Maybe he’ll get another one. You could live here all the time.”
 
When Penny - now Pepsi - hears a year later that Trisha’s parents are getting divorced, it’s this conversation that she remembers, and her stomach hollows out with guilt. Did she jinx them by suggesting it, her fleeting desire heavy enough to tip a celestial scale?

Day 1
 
Pepsi grimaced at the still carless driveway. Nearly six, and they still weren’t back from whatever family outing Quilla Andersen had set her heart on this time. While Pepsi hoped the late return was because they were having just gosh darn so much fun, it was more likely Pete had finally been pushed too far and exploded. Oh well. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, families gotta fight.

She tucked the note she’d written earlier into the door frame (“PANCAKES TOMORROW! LIMITED TIME OFFER. BE THERE OR BE A CUBE,” over a sketch of a cube with a face, arms and legs, and a Red Sox cap) and ambled back home, humming the chorus from Amnesia, her current third-favorite song. Do you suffer from long-term memory loss?/ I don’t remember…

When she got inside her mother swooped down, hugging her with desperate intensity, and when Pepsi fought her way free, she realized her mom was crying.

“What’s wrong?” Pepsi looked round wildly. “Is it Mr Wooster?” But her cat was lying in his usual inconvenient spot just outside the kitchen doorway, one ear twitching. “Granny?”

Her mom shook her head, and sniffed. “Come over here and sit down, sweetheart,” she said, as if Pepsi were five years old again, and the unease Pepsi had felt since she’d seen her mom’s face deepened into a treacherous undertow.

“Who is it?” But even if she didn’t know what, she’d already guessed who.

Day 2

Three different TV crews were jockeying for position outside the police barracks, each with a polished presenter who would talk intently into the camera for a moment before breaking off to gesture at the lighting guy; or try to catch one of the uniformed officers trotting briskly up and down the steps. One of them held up Trisha’s last year’s school photo, all tamed hair and white teeth, and Pepsi’s heart seemed to stutter inside her.

“She hates that photo,” she said urgently to her father, who had stopped and was looking around the scurrying ants’ nest of people, one hand shading his eyes. He’d agreed to bring her, but was adamant she couldn’t join in the search; Pepsi had reluctantly agreed.

He looked down at her and then over to the TV crew. A shadow passed over his face.

“They’ll find her, PenPen.” Her father pulled her into a one-armed hug, and she turned her head into the fabric of his jacket for a moment, breathing in the familiar grass and leather smell of his Polo cologne. Her chest felt less tight.

A police van pulled up outside the barracks, braking hard, and all the TV crews swarmed towards it. When the side door slid open Trisha’s mom was there, dark shadows under her eyes, and her dad as well, holding on to Quilla protectively. The noise kicked up several notches, journalists shouting “Quilla! Larry! Over here!” and the state guards cautioning them to keep back while ushering Trisha’s parents up the steps into the barracks. A search dog who’d been napping on the sidewalk sat up, ears pricked, and gave a deep bark.

Pete clambered out. He looked beaten down, his shoulders hunched. He flinched when a reporter called out to him.

I used to like you. The tangle of fear and anger inside Pepsi suddenly snapped taut, focused on this single point. She would bet all the money in her gold china pig that when Trisha disappeared Pete had been making himself as unpleasant as possible. Maybe that was why she’d gone, Pepsi thought, and it became crystal clear.

Pepsi pushed free of her father and went up on tiptoes to see better. Maybe Pete saw the movement or recognized her; either way, his gaze met hers through the shifting crowd.

She glared back. You lost her. More hatred than she’d thought possible, welling up like blood. Pepsi gave herself up to it.

Pete looked away.

Day 3

“As the search for Patricia McFarland enters its third day, police now believe the girl may have been abducted. Any sightings of a blue Ford van driven by a Caucasian man in his 30s with glasses and dyed blond hair should be reported to - ”

Pepsi’s mom appeared in the bedroom doorway. Pepsi snapped her radio off. It wasn’t telling her anything she hadn’t heard all day.

She could see her mother deciding not to talk about it, after the last argument had ended in tears and door-slamming. “Dinnertime, sweet pea.”

“M’not hungry.” Pepsi looked back down at the drawing she was working on. She’d lined up all her Mr Sketch markers and selected each in turn, drawing a single circuitous line for each color that looped all over the paper before finally making it back to the start.

“I know it’s not good news.” Pepsi’s mom came over to her desk, looking over her shoulder. “But you need to eat.”

Trisha needed to eat, too. Whether she was stumbling through the woods or gagged and tied up in the back of a van. Pepsi swallowed.

“Don’t want to,” she muttered. She grabbed a marker at random and started another loop, her fingers white with tension on the plastic barrel.

Her mother put a hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Could you try?”

Pepsi shrugged the hand off and shook her head. Part of her hoped her mother would yell at her for being rude, something so predictable and normal that it would push her out of this horrible place she’d ended up in, this version of her life that was just wrong.

Instead, Pepsi’s mom waited patiently for a few more minutes and then pushed herself up to her feet. “I’ll pop yours in the microwave.”

The marker Pepsi had picked was a deep forest green. She slashed through her network with thick lines, no longer caring where they began or ended. She stopped only when she ripped the paper, and then tore another piece off the pad and began again.

It was nearly eleven when Pepsi padded down to the kitchen in sock-feet and helped herself to a bowl of Cheerios, crunching them dry as she sat at the breakfast bar. She’d thought her parents were asleep, but on her way back she heard them talking.

“ - worried about Pete,” her mother said. Pepsi stopped, listening. Her father muttered something in reply, too low to make out.

“They’ve already lost one child.” Her mother sounded so sad. “They don’t need to lose another one.”

Pepsi slid fone foot forward along the slippery wooden floorboards, then the other. She shut the door of her bedroom quietly behind her and got into bed. She’d left her desk light on, and as she drifted off she could see her drawings scattered across the melamine surface, records of her attempts to map something incomprehensible.

There were so many ways to be lost.

Day 8

Her feet took her over by the Andersen place, partly out of habit and partly out of hope that the whole godawful week might have been erased, that the Dodge would be parked in the driveway and Trisha would be throwing pitches in the front yard.

No Dodge and no Trisha. No reporters, either; their numbers had been dropping all week.

A week. The time since Trisha’s disappearance could no longer be counted in days. Next it’d be a month, and then a year - the TV crews would be back for the anniversary for sure, Pepsi thought, a truth that dug into her like a fishhook. And in five years’ time, she’d be saying, “I had this friend…”

Something moved over by the hydrangea patch. Pepsi jumped and, to her annoyance, let out a faint squeak. Her irritation deepened when the suspicious seated shape resolved into Pete in a gray hooded jacket.

“Hey Pepsi.” His voice was flat. He shifted, putting something out of sight behind him, but Pepsi had sharp eyes.

“That’s Mona!” She couldn’t believe Pete had Trisha’s doll. She lunged for it, but he twisted away, protecting it with his body.

“Why do you have her?” She grabbed again, and when she missed, punched Pete in the ribs. He let out a choked “Uff,” and shoved her so hard she almost fell down. As soon as she had her balance back she went for Pete with fists and feet.

He blocked her at first, but after she got in a few good hits on his torso he elbowed her in the gut. She sucked air back in with a gasp and threw herself on him, no longer even trying for the doll.

This time, Pete didn’t fight back. She hit him harder. Pepsi reached up to claw at his face and saw tears glisten in his eyes; but worse than that was the distance in them. She wasn’t even close.

She let her arm drop. “Sorry.” She rolled off of him and sat back on her heels, her heart still pounding with the effort.

Pete felt around behind him. “Here. You take her.” He held out Mona.

They’ve already lost one child… Pepsi stared at him. She knew he drove Trisha crazy, but she also knew Trisha loved him. He’d been unhappy for a long time. And he could have hit back a lot harder.

She shook her head at the doll’s cheerful smile. “She belongs with you.”

The tears in Pete’s eyes spilled over, his mouth twisted, and he was sobbing, his chest heaving and the agony on his face painful to watch. Pepsi reached out and pushed Mona towards Pete with the tips of her fingers. Pete resisted.

“I should have been looking after her.” He gulped for air. “Mom said - ”

“It’s easier to blame someone,” Pepsi said. She’d tried that too. She put pressure on the doll again and this time Pete let her.

Time to drive it home.

“People fuck up.” A part of her was pleased at how smoothly she’d managed the swearword. Totally badass, she thought in Trisha’s voice. It was painful, but not all the way through. “Doesn’t mean you wanted it to happen.” And wanting something to happen didn’t mean you caused it.

Pete stood up. He rubbed his face and glanced around, as if looking for something. “You wanna play ball?”

Pepsi shrugged. “Bring it on.”

He propped Mona up on the bird bath to watch them, a task she carried out with unblinking concentration. Pepsi accepted the offer to stay for lunch - she phoned, so her parents wouldn’t worry - and eventually wandered home after some post-lunch computer gaming (where all puzzles had a solution), with a promise to return the next day.

Which meant she was there when the phone call came.

After

They had to sign in at the hospital. Security guards stood around the reception area, eyeing up the reporters and camera operators who seemed to have settled in for the long haul. Neither Trisha nor her parents had done an interview yet, although Pepsi had seen a few seconds of footage of her being wheeled along a hospital corridor on last night’s news.

A polished blonde woman advanced towards them with a microphone and a determined expression. Pepsi nudged her mom to hurry her up.

“Family? Friends? Could you let Trisha know how much we’d like to talk to her?”

“I could,” Pepsi’s mom said, “but I don’t think I will. Come on.” She walked briskly away. Pepsi fought down a smug grin - it was always good to know she came by her bluntness honestly - and then gave up and beamed at the now-frowning reporter.

She had to wash her hands with gel before going into Trisha’s room, and another guard at the door checked her mom’s ID. Inside was a big hospital bed, tipped up at a 45 degree angle and flanked with machines, just like the ones on E.R., and two chairs with Quilla in one and Pete in the other, and in the bed -

“You look totally rank,” Pepsi said to the girl in the bed, who’d opened her eyes as Pepsi and her mom entered. Her cheeks were hollow and the cheekbones themselves stood out starkly under the oxygen tubing, her hair was lank and greasy, and the fingernails of her hands resting on the coverlet were broken down and dark with ground-in grime. She looked like a homeless kid with cancer.

She looked like Pepsi’s best friend.

“You look almost as good,” Trisha said, her voice strained and thin.

Two steps, and Pepsi was at the bed. “I brought these.” She tipped her bag out, careful to make sure the contents didn’t land on Trisha herself. “Pete helped. He’s not totally useless.” She nodded in his direction but didn’t take her eyes off Trisha.

Pete had given her a hundred and forty dollars yesterday before going to the hospital (“It doesn’t matter what I saved it for,” he’d said, thrusting it at her. “Take it.”) and Pepsi’s parents were more than happy to drive her to the mall and make suggestions.

Trisha’s gaze moved over the objects. A compass, a whistle, a Leatherman keyring-sized multitool. One of her hands crept up and closed over the largest object.

A new Walkman.

“Don’t throw this one away,” Pepsi said, her own voice hoarse. She leaned down and hugged Trisha; initially with caution, but as Trisha squeezed her in return, was actually, finally, there, Pepsi just held on as tight as she could.

“Missed you,” Trisha said into her ear.

Pepsi swallowed. Whatever tipped the scale, she was grateful. “Good thing you came back, then.”

THE END