My Sister is Missing – Carissa Ann Lynch

That old saying, you can never go home again, tickled the edges of my memory and floated on the back of my tongue as I accelerated through the Bare Border welcome sign in my rented Honda Civic. The car was supposed to be the ‘luxury option’. Stupid me – I’d actually expected something fancy, like a Rolls Royce. The Honda wasn’t bad looking, but as soon as it hit 45 mph, the doors had begun to rattle and shake, the wheels threatening to tumble loose, and the peppery must of cigarette smoke from the previous driver was making my temples ache. In truth, I longed for a cigarette myself, but the last time I’d smoked was, well … it was the last time I came back home. Nine years ago, I’d come to Bare Border for my sister’s wedding, but even then, I’d only stayed for the ceremony and reception. I didn’t visit with family. I didn’t stay overnight. I’d shared the champagne toast, made a clumsy congratulations speech, then ducked out before the clock struck midnight, Cinderella-style. I didn’t want to stay in Bare Border then, and I don’t want to be here now. But Madeline had asked me to come; not just for a visit, but to ‘stay for a while’, however long ‘a while’ meant. She wanted to talk to me about something, but not over the phone. My big sister had never been the mysterious type; in fact, she was pretty terrible at keeping secrets, or at least the old version of her used to be, the one I remembered from my childhood. What do I really know about her now, besides the fact that’s she a mother, and happily married? I don’t know what I was expecting when I passed through the entrance to my hometown – storm clouds and thunder? An ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach? The theme song to Stranger Things prickling my subconscious? What I found instead was a scene from a movie script, but not the creepy, menacing variety. The afternoon sky was a silk-screen blue, the sidewalk teeming with children on bikes, and tiny mazes of houses puckered out between the only buildings in town—Maggie’s Mart, the elementary school, the library, the post office, and a couple of fast food joints.

It looked downright charming and quaint. As I passed through the town square, I spied the bingo hall that also functioned as a church, creeping up ahead on my left – where my sister was married. From this vantage point, everything about my hometown looked the same as it always had, how I remembered it… Maybe you can go home again, an annoying voice tickled my ear. I think the expression means that you can go home, but it will never be the home you remember. Nothing is static; everything looks different through a child’s eyes. But in my twenty-nine-year-old periphery—nothing about Bare Border had changed. But, then again, this was as far as I’d been in just under a decade. Rundown storefronts and residential houses faded away as I navigated up the steepest hill I’d ever climbed in my life. Even though it had been a long time, I knew I had to speed up, or else risk rolling backwards. I punched the pedal to the floor, revving the engine up the twisty incline, instantly shifting around the once familiar curves from my past.

The Honda rattled dangerously as I gripped the wheel with both hands. It’s not until I reached the top of ‘Star Mountain’, as the locals called it, that I realized I’d been holding my breath. I hadn’t tackled this hill since I was twenty years old, and when you’re twenty, nothing seems scary. But now it wasn’t the climb itself that gave me a jolt, but the drop off on either side of it. There was nowhere to go but down, down, down if you fell … and what’s at the bottom? I wondered. I’d never really cared to ask when I was a teen. Thankfully, the road flattened out again, and right away, I was back on autopilot, taking a right on Painter’s Creek Road and then a sharp left on Knobby Pine. There were no more children on bikes, the old farm roads abandoned. Population: nobody cares. There were just too few to count, although that number had probably grown since I’d last come back.

A thousand times I’d made these turns—making the drive back and forth from my first job at Maggie’s Mart, driving myself to junior prom after Paul Templeton had stood me up, and my first wreck, when I’d T-boned Mrs Roselle. For the record, the accident wasn’t my fault – that woman always ran the stop sign on Lowell’s Lane, which intersected with Painter’s Creek Road. My sister’s house, and the place where I grew up, was right up ahead, exactly where I left it all those years ago… The trees opened up and there it was: the crooked old sign for the ‘Bare Border Inn’. It whistled back and forth in the wind as I turned down my sister’s driveway. The ‘inn’ was nothing more than a two-story, eight-room house that my grandparents used to run as a bed and breakfast back in the Fifties. To me, it had always just been our house, but my mom and dad had never taken down the sign. This place has character. History. You can’t get rid of that, my mother had told me. The bubbly vibrations of gravel beneath my tires welcomed me home for the first time in years.

I’d ripped and roared through town, but now all I wanted to do was slow down. I wasn’t ready for this reunion – the one between my sister and I or the one with my own childhood. Going back was like returning to the scene of a crime when you were guilty: it wasn’t advisable. But I’m not a criminal. I have nothing to run from, right? The house itself loomed like a ghoulish shadow, a black silhouette against a backdrop of crisp summer sun. Only, the sun was fading now, a gloomy dull film settling over the rickety inn… The driveway was longer than I remembered, and the further I got down it, the foggier the air around the Civic became. The inn was set back from the road in a clearing, thick woods surrounding it on two sides. Almost like an appendage, like it was a part of the woods, not the other way around. I could sense movement beyond the trees … barefoot children scurrying through the branches, keeping beat with the sluggish pace of the rental car. These were the children of summer.

Bees zipping, bird wings flapping, the rolling water of the creek – all part of their never-ending summer soundtrack. In reality, there wasn’t anyone moving through the trees, only ghosts of the children my sister and I once were. The sticky taste of cherry Kool-Aid still clung to my upper lip, mixed with the sweat and dirt from running in that muggy, marshy forest… There was a pang in my chest – the concept of family was something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. There are crevices inside me, yearning to be filled , I thought, and then I shuddered at the memories and laughed at my own silly thoughts. Off to my right was a flat field, and in the distance, despite the fog, I could just make out the shape of the Tennors’ cottage, and beyond that, Goins Farm. I looked left and right, from the woods and back to the field, and now I had no other choice but to face the giant looming before me. Here it was —home. For such a simple, monosyllabic word, it contained so much meaning. So much memory. I wish I could say that the house looked different, older like the sign.

I half-expected it to look more modern, new paint or shingles, at least. But the two-story inn looked just the same. Pale blue shutters, faded windows, blood-red flowers, and overgrown plants licking up the sides of it. In the low-setting fog, it was almost like a house from a storybook. Memories. It held almost all of mine, and so many of those weren’t good… A chill ran up my spine as I parked the Civic next to, what I could only guess, was my sister’s khaki-colored Jeep. After putting the car in gear, I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Am I ready for whatever it is my sister has to say? Who was I kidding? I already knew why she asked me here; the only real question was: why now? She was pissed off at me, for not coming home for our father’s funeral, but that was nearly a year ago. If she was going to say something, why didn’t she say it then? Although we had been estranged—besides the wedding nine years ago—we still talked occasionally via text. Neither one of us had ever been fond of phone calls, but lately, even the texts had come fewer and farther between.

I know she’s sore at me about the funeral, but I thought she’d get over it after a while. Maybe that was it … maybe she called me here to ream me out and get it over and done with, I considered. You’re supposed to come home for funerals; you’re supposed to mourn people when they die. It’s just what you do, I could imagine my mother saying, if she were still alive. But on the days leading up to my father’s funeral, I couldn’t force myself to pack my things. I couldn’t force myself to pretend I wasn’t angry, to pretend that he was this upstanding man who didn’t break my mother’s heart… ‘Emily?’ I jerked at the sound of my sister’s voice. She was bent down next to the driver’s window, her own face inches from mine. Stunned back to reality, I rolled the window down. She was already talking to me through the glass, her words warbled and low. ‘Wow.

What were you thinking about, Em? That was one hell of a daze you were just in.’ I could make up some sort of stupid lie, but I won’t. This was my sister – sisters don’t lie to each other, even if they’re not as close as they once were. ‘I’m sorry. It’s creepy being back here, to tell ya the truth. I’m excited to see you, but also worried about what this thing is you want to talk to me about. Before you say anything, I – I should have been here for you, for dad … the funeral…’ As the words tumbled out, they were strangled, like I was trying to say them from under water. But before I could utter one more misshapen word, Madeline yanked the car door open and scooped me into a hug. I was surprised to find myself shaking with relief, my eyes brimming with tears I didn’t know I had. I hadn’t seen my sister in so long, yet her arms were warm and soothing, the way a real home should feel.

I’d missed her so much. Promise me, her voice whispered through the trees. Promise me we’ll be more than sisters. It was another memory, but one I hadn’t remembered until now: Madeline using mom’s kitchen shears to draw blood from both of our fingers. Summer sisters, she had called us. ‘I’m not mad at you about the funeral, Em. I’m really not.’ ‘You’re not?’ We were still holding onto each other, and I whispered the words into her hair, relief flushing over me. Her sandy blonde hair still smelled like that stupid coconut cream shampoo she’d been using since we were teens. She nearly broke my finger once, yanking that prized bottle of shampoo from my hands as I teasingly threatened to pour it down the drain after she made fun of me about a boy.

‘I’m not mad, I swear.’ Madeline stood up from where she was crouched beside me. She dusted her hands off on her jeans and then worked tangles out of her hair with her fingers. Her hair was still wavy and unkempt, just the way I remembered, but her face was creased with age. There were tiny little crinkles around her mouth, and even the lines around her eyes had deepened. For the first time, I realized how much she resembled our mother. ‘I knew you probably wouldn’t go to the funeral, anyway. Things with dad and you, and dad and me … well, we aren’t all the same. I can’t blame you for handling your grief in your own way. I was a little miffed at first, I admit, but that’s not why I asked you here.

’ Gathering my purse and keys from the passenger seat, I wiped my eyes and stepped out of the car. I stood there, gripping my purse like a shield, waiting for her to explain. When she didn’t, I said, ‘Okay, can we cut the suspense now? Why did you ask me to come?’ ‘All in good time, little sister. The kids are inside waiting to meet their Aunty Emily they’ve heard so much about … so c’mon! I can’t wait for you to see the inside of the place. I know the outside looks the same, but I’ve replaced all of the furniture, obviously. Well, just wait, you’ll see.’ My duffel bag was still wedged inside the trunk, but I chose to ignore it for now. Now that I was here, standing in front of the old place, and I knew Madeline wasn’t angry, I was eager to go inside and check it out. There was a manic bounce in my sister’s step as she led me toward the house, and I couldn’t help noticing that she was thicker now, her hips wider since giving birth to my niece and nephew. I sort of liked this filled-out version of her.

She looked glowing and healthy, like Mom when she was in her thirties. ‘You look really good. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I saw you. Everything about you is still the same.’ My sister looked back at me from over her shoulder, rolling her eyes. She pointed at her soft belly. She was wearing loose-fitting mom jeans and a Green Day T-shirt that I was pretty sure used to be mine. I couldn’t help but smile. ‘I don’t look great, you don’t have to lie to me.’ Before I could argue, she pushed the front door open.

The first thing that hit me when she opened the door was the smell. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t flowery either. In fact, it reeked of sweet, dusty old fruit—until now, I hadn’t realized that my childhood had a smell, but it did. The past came rushing back to me … Madi and I, racing through the front door as kids, shoving each other down the driveway to get there first. Madi in her overalls, one long strap swinging wildly behind her. And then, when she was older, she wore low-slung jeans and cropped T-shirts. I always admired her style, and the way she could outrun me every time… As I stepped in behind her, it took me a minute to clear the fog of confusion. What used to be the front living room was now some sort of office-playroom. The only thing that seemed the same was the heart pine flooring. I stared at the entryway beneath my feet; it was covered by a fuzzy, polka dotted rug, but I knew without thinking that if I peeled it back, I would find a horseshoe-shaped groove below it, from the time dad tried to lug that steel safe over the threshold.

Mom damn near killed him for buying it. The right half of the living room was a chaotic scene of toys: a rocking horse, a chalkboard on wheels, and buckets of Legos and dolls. But on the left side of the room was a neat yellow desk with, what I guessed, was my sister’s computer and stack of work papers. ‘Just ignore this room. It’s a mess. I’ve given up on trying to sort those toys. Follow me. The kids are in the kitchen.’ Suddenly, it seemed so quiet I was overcome with a strange sensation – the air in the room was too thick, like there was some sort of tension swirling around us. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d walked into some sort of tomb.

‘They’re being awfully quiet,’ I remarked, trailing my sister as she led me through the familiar arch from the living room to the dining room, and then onto the kitchen. I am the worst aunt in the universe. Ben was eight and Shelley was three, and I’d never laid eyes on them. Not really. Sure, I’d liked their pictures on Madeline’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, but that didn’t really count for much, did it? We had planned nearly a dozen meet-ups over the years, but I’d always used my work as an excuse not to come. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet my niece and nephew … I just didn’t want to come to Bare Border to see them. Madi had never shown any anger about my absence from their lives, but I suspected that my failure to be a decent aunt, and not showing up for my father’s funeral, were the reasons for her becoming more distant with me over the phone lately. ‘Here they are!’ My sister was standing in the middle of the kitchen with her arms spread wide, and all I could think was: This is where my mother should be standing. An image of my mother in her stained cooking apron, tapping her foot impatiently as she waited for her famous lasagna to finish baking in the oven, sprung up from my memories. ‘Where are the kids?’ I brought myself back into focus.

There was no one in the kitchen, besides my sister and me. I walked around the empty space, taking my time. The wood cabinets were still painted white, just like mom used to keep them, but these were newer, not the same … yes, there were shiny new handles on the cabinet doors. I opened one of the drawers and closed it back. I could feel my sister watching me. The sink had also been replaced by one of those modern vessels I’d only seen on TV. Tenderly, I ran my hands over the navy-blue countertops, my nose recognizing the green dish soap mom used to use. What was it called … Palmolive? ‘Are they hiding?’ I glanced back at my sister. I was surprised to see that her expression had changed. Her lips were curled down, her eyes hard and serious, like two little black beads.

Her initial excitement to see me had morphed into a mask I knew too well … she was worried about something. ‘I don’t have any children. I made all that up. The pictures, the stories…everything was a lie.’ ‘Huh?’ I tilted my head to the side, waiting for the punchline. But she still looked strange, her eyes floaty and her voice flat. Is my sister capable of telling such a massive lie? It’s not like I would know the dif erence—after all, I’ve never actually seen Shelley or Ben in person… My heart was thumping in my chest as I waited for Madi to explain. ‘Ahhh!’ I jumped back in surprise as the cabinet doors beneath the sink sprung open with a sharp bang. One at a time, two small children popped out and ran straight for me. I chuckled at my niece and nephew, surprised.

Behind me, Madeline was cackling now, just like she used to when she drank too much Seagram’s when we were teens. After all these years, I’d almost forgotten how much she loved to play pranks. ‘I see you haven’t lost your sense of humor,’ I said, rolling my eyes, and then I mouthed the word, bitch, over my shoulder, so only she could see it. I knelt, taking both children in my arms. The smaller of the two, my niece Shelley, lifted her feet in the air as she hung on my left arm. Ben was excited to meet me too and wrapped both arms around me. With the weight of them both, I had to steady myself. ‘So, you must be Shelley and Ben. I’m excited to finally meet you guys. I’m your Aunt Emily.

’ ‘We know that already, silly woman,’ said Ben. He let go of me, pacing back and forth next to little Shelley, while making a high-pitched squeal that set my teeth on edge. His strange squealing didn’t surprise me much – Madeline had told me that he struggled with hyperactivity, and recently, a doctor had told her that he might be on the autism spectrum. Shelley was more subdued, and keen to stay in my arms. I stood back up on my feet, lifting the tiny girl onto my right hip, then shifting her to my left in an awkward pose. I was surprised at how heavy she felt. I’d held a baby once or twice, but I’d never held up a toddler with one arm like this. Again, I felt my eyes welling up, as I stared into the face of my sweet little niece. She had my sister’s pointy chin and big smile, but those eyes … those bright blue eyes matched mine. I swallowed down a lump in my throat, trying to hold the tears at bay.

It felt so good meeting these children – these extensions of my sister and I – for the first time. Suddenly, it seemed so ridiculous that I had waited this long to be in their lives. ‘And your imaginary husband … did you make him up, too? Where is John this lovely evening?’ I teased, glancing over at my sister. Madeline’s bright red cheeks and toothy smile faded almost immediately. The worried look returned. I was half-expecting another stupid joke to follow, but when my sister pursed her lips and changed the subject, I knew something was wrong. ‘Let’s show Aunt Emily the bedrooms, shall we?’ Shelley and Ben wanted to show me their rooms first, of course. Overcome with nostalgia, I let Ben give me the tour of his bedroom, the same room where my sister had slept when we were kids. The Debbie Gibson posters and purple speckled paint were gone, replaced by neat brown and blue wallpaper, pictures of boats and trains on the borders. ‘Mom’s going to let me paint it soon.

I don’t want these baby pictures no more. I want Five Nights at Freddy’s covering my walls.’ Ben raced back and forth in front of his TV set, running the tips of his fingers along the wall. There was a clear wear pattern in the carpet where I suspected he paced a lot. ‘Do you know the game Five Nights at Freddy’s ? Want to play it with me?’ Ben asked, his words loud and strung together. ‘He’s obsessed with it,’ Shelley whispered, squeezing her tiny hand in mine. Before I could answer Ben’s question, Madeline replied, ‘I’m sure Aunt Emily would love to, but not right now. We’re going to finish showing her around the house first.’ Ben made that high-pitched squeal again and saddled up to a laptop that set on his desk. We left him there, already focused intently on his game, while we moved on with the tour.

Next was Shelley’s room. It was only one door down from Ben’s, but this room was smaller. This was the one I was most excited to see because Shelley’s room used to be mine. Expecting to see a huge change in décor, I was shocked to see the same pink plaster, with tiny unicorn paintings on its surface. I’d painted those unicorns myself when I was only eleven years old. ‘You didn’t paint over them…’ I reached out to touch one of the unicorns. With its blue-black eyes and a long golden horn, it was sneering in a way that now almost seemed grotesque. ‘Of course not,’ my sister said. ‘I thought Mom would kill me when she saw what I’d done,’ I whispered, still running my fingertips over the bumpy paint. ‘Oh, I didn’t.

I knew she’d love your little masterpiece,’ Madeline said, quietly. I didn’t have to see her face to know there was a trace of resentment there. While she was always my father’s favorite, I was my mother’s baby. So, it was no surprise that when they split, we both took separate sides… You let her get away with everything! I could still hear my sister’s startling screams echoing through the hallway. She loved me to death when we were kids, but our teenage years were strained. The bedroom closet had white pocket doors that also looked the same. They were pushed halfway open, and without thinking, I reached for the handles, eager to see inside it. ‘I did paint over your stuff in the closet, though.’ My hands froze on the handles. ‘I’m glad,’ I mumbled as I turned away from the closet.

‘I love your bedrooms!’ I was trying to be one of those perky aunts, with overdone enthusiasm, like the ones you read about in wholesome novels, but in truth, this whole situation felt awkward and strange. I wasn’t used to being around kids, and even though I was thrilled to meet them, I couldn’t help feeling like an actress playing the part of ‘Aunty Em’. I should have come home when Ben was born, and then Shelley, and there were plenty of chances in between too – birthday parties, and the funeral – but I wasn’t ready to face this place, not yet, at least. ‘Shelley, why don’t you go play with Ben? Or take some of your dolls out of the trunk? Your aunt and I are going to have some coffee and a little chat. Please don’t fight with your brother. I would hate for Aunt Emily to see you guys get in trouble.’ Ben had drifted back into the hallway and he was clinging to Madeline’s leg. ‘Go on now, you two.’ She gently nudged them. They galloped toward Ben’s room, pushing and shoving one another in a race to see who could get there first.

I smiled at them, overcome by my own memories of sibling rivalry. Grateful to have a moment to speak alone with my sister, I followed her back down the hallway toward the kitchen. I hadn’t seen the rest of the house yet, and I was eager to see which bedroom Madeline had chosen for her and John, and which bedroom she’d put me up in for my stay. ‘The kids are beautiful. I wish I could have met them sooner,’ I said to her backside as she walked. As soon as we were back in the kitchen, she set to work pulling out coffee mugs and plugging in her Keurig machine. ‘John left me for another woman.’ Her back was still to me when she blurted out these words, and I saw her hunch down in a defeated posture. I took a seat at the table, flinching as the chair squealed loudly across the tile floors. I wasn’t sure what to say.

I was shocked, to say the least. Mournfully, I watched my big sister glide around the kitchen, taking a package of cookies down from the cabinet and choosing a coffee blend for both of us. This was the thing about Madeline and me – we were comfortable in our silence together, even after all this time. I could tell her I was sorry and ask a million questions, but I knew she would tell me when she was ready. After the cookies and coffee were on the table, she told me, in a hushed whisper, that John had been having an affair. ‘Did you know?’ Madeline shook her head. ‘I had no idea. He told me two Saturdays ago, out of the clear blue, that he was leaving me for his secretary. Her name is Starla. What kind of stupid name is that?’ ‘Pretty freaking stupid,’ I agreed.

‘I’m so sorry. Have you filed for divorce?’ She took a sip of her coffee, and said, ‘Not yet, but I’m going to. I haven’t even told the kids. I covered for his sorry ass. Told them he was going on a business trip for a while. I thought maybe he would change his mind … but he hasn’t even called or come by once since his little crude announcement.’ ‘He hasn’t even come around to call on the kids?’ I was shocked. I didn’t know John well. Sure, he’d seemed pleasant at the wedding, but that didn’t mean much. I tried to remember what I knew about him but it wasn’t much.

He was essentially a stranger to me. Madeline rarely talked about him in her texts. There was one time she called me … what was it that he said in the background? I couldn’t remember. He’d been irritated about something, shouting about one of the kids. But she’d always given the impression that things were good between them. Madeline shook her head in disgust. ‘He took a duffel bag of clothes and his bottle of cologne, and then told me he was staying at Starla’s for a while.’ What an asshole, I thought, clenching my teeth as I thought about those sweet little kids and my sister struggling to work and take care of both of them. ‘What can I do? Tell me how I can help.’ I took her hand in mine, my jaw still tight with anger.

‘Well, I could use your emotional support, for one. But most of all … the kids go back to school next week. I need more time – time to figure out what I’m going to do. Time to plan my next move. Also, I have to sell this house, Em. I can’t afford the utilities or the property taxes, not on my income.’ ‘But the mortgage is already paid for.’ Madeline stuck up a hand to stop me. ‘I still can’t afford it. Well, I could if…’ ‘If…?’ I pressed.

‘If I had a roommate. Or, I was thinking I could open it up again, like Grandma and Grandpa used to do…’ My heart filled with dread as I realized what she was asking. ‘I can’t move back here. I can’t. There are too many bad memories here, Madi, you know that…’ ‘But there are good memories, too, aren’t there?’ I nodded slightly, unsure if there really were… My sister’s eyes were filmy again. She was staring at an old-fashioned cat clock on the wall. Following her gaze, I suddenly realized that it was the same one that had always hung there. You can never go home again – those words pinged around my head like ping pong balls, but I quickly shook them off. ‘I can stay for a while. I’ll need an internet connection for work.

’ ‘Already have one,’ my sister gushed. Her face was red and cheery again, like a heavy load had just been lifted from her shoulders. I didn’t want to get her hopes up too much – I couldn’t stay that long. ‘Thank you, Em. I knew I could count on you.’ My sister threw her arms around me for the second time today, nearly knocking over the coffee between us in the process. I rested my chin on her shoulder, staring out the kitchen window behind her. The sun shone brightly again, and through the trees, I could see a sparkle of water glistening between them. Those woods held nothing but horror for me, memories of the time I got hurt out there circling back for the first time in years… Even though I was sitting here now, doing the right thing, I wanted to grab my own duffel bag and run from this place. Maybe the saying means you can go home, you just shouldn’t.

.

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