Spring was elusive in St. Charles, Illinois. It snuck in around late March or early April each year, seeping through the curtains of sleepy homes and coaxing small flowers from the crevices between rocks. There was a palpable hopefulness in the spring, as the sun which sent stripes across the placid river seemed to instill a type of energy in the people as well. However, there was always a restlessness there. Everyone knew that it was fleeting, and would either relapse into winter for weeks or settle into oppressive heat for the next five months; the people of St. Charles held onto spring with all they had.
Spring was clutched wholly in the fists of the people in our town as the blue and red lights invaded the windows of our sleeping house. We were assembled in our living room. My mother’s hand was clamped on mine, and my father demanded answers that we were all too afraid to hear.
Three days had passed and the police thought they had found her. Lying by the river. I pictured her nestled among rain-soaked twigs and weeds, with flowers already trying to push between her fingers. She wouldn’t be heavy enough to smother the plants beneath her.
The officers didn’t ask any questions. Instead, they tiptoed with their words and occasionally glanced at me with concern. I looked away. I tried to look out the living room window but it was black and glared back the reflection of us sitting there. We were all still. I heard my chest emit shaky breaths. The officers spoke quietly from across the coffee table, treading lightly over scenarios and possibilities. Feeling my heart beating precariously, as if unsure whether to panic or stop completely, I forced myself to wait until one of the officers said what a part of me knew was true but I just needed to hear out loud. Because of course, we couldn’t be sure it was my sister until the body was identified. I had to remember that.
When the two officers left, I went upstairs, climbing the spiral staircase up to my third floor room in darkness. The night was sordid and silent like a curse. I knew I wouldn’t sleep. I could see the police cars from my window and followed the path their headlights wove as they drove away.
Our house was built on top of a hill that fell down steeply on all sides, preventing other houses from being built next to ours. The top of the hill was flat enough to allow a formidable front yard, but the back of the house had to be supported by thick wooden beams as the earth sloped down to wilderness. When I was younger, I used to pretend my family were the only people on earth; that the desolation immediately around our house actually stretched on forever. My father said he bought the house for the view.
The next morning I was jolted awake by a feeling of falling. I never really woke up that way until she disappeared. The few times I did, when I was younger mostly, I would turn over and tell my sister (whose twin bed was next to mine) and she would sometimes say she felt it too. We were a lot alike in that way. She was often restless like me, not wanting to be still, always on too short of a leash by our parents. I often felt the same. I could see it get to her.
It was pouring that morning, droplets drumming on the windowpane and sending streams down the slick shingles on the roof. The rain tinted the wood of the gazebo next to our house dark brown. My parents had the gazebo built last summer. Like the back end of our house, it had to be propped up by vertical beams because the land dropped away beneath it. It was a great vantage point, and when it was finished I would often go out into the open air and stand between its columns looking at the horizon and beyond. A half a mile away from our house was another hill which a train would pass over. Sometimes as a train was going by I would pretend there were mountains behind it; that when the train passed I would see palatial valleys below ice caps and rugged rock but I never did. St. Charles was a place people went through to get to somewhere else.
For a few weeks after the gazebo was built, my parents wouldn’t let my sister go onto it. They thought she was so small she would fall through the cracks.
My breath suddenly caught. I felt the tide slam into me, the whole weight and gravity of it, thinking about her. I shut my eyes and saw hers. They were paler than mine, such a light and disarming blue that it looked like something inside her had extracted the color from them. I knew there was a battle within her, something strangely beyond her years. I could sometimes see a flash of it, see her eyes flicker with something intense and desperate, and I never knew exactly what to do. Looking back, there was always a hopelessness there. My chest felt constricted, like my heart filled it, every beat hitting my ribs. I held on to her open eyes with all I had.
My mother came into my room, her irises shiny and fixed like the insides of marbles. We were going to the police station.
The town passed in long lines of grays and greens; we were going too fast to see the chipped paint on the store windows but I knew it was there. At a red light, I saw two women huddled close, talking carefully – their eyes pulling in my direction. The people of St. Charles were an ecosystem, every component depending on the other. They leaned on each other, feeding off of each other’s secrets and whispering purpose into each other’s hearts. I wondered if those two women had heard; if their sons had stepped over my sleeping sister, cracking branches near her feet on their way to skip stones down the river.
The same officers who had come to our house led us down a hallway to a room that was strangely pleasant. We sat on a red couch across from them. The room looked like there should be elevator music playing, but there wasn’t. There was silence – until the inevitable opening of a briefcase, clearing of throats, an explanation that they intended to make our experience as comfortable as possible. They showed my parents some photographs of the body’s defining features, in hopes they could identify her. I couldn’t see them and wondered what they looked like. My sister had always been photogenic. Her eyes would look into the lens; even if she was partly turned away, she would stare out of her side-eye, as if watching for sudden movements. She always looked washed out in them, faded away already. I thought looking at those pictures now would be like reading a tragedy again after learning the ending.
My parents started crying, their fingers making little indents at the bottoms of the photos that they held, turned away from me. The room was filled with sharp gasps and after a moment it felt like there wasn’t enough air; all we had was salty water and each other to hold onto.
On the drive home, the horizon looked like waves.
The next day I felt myself start to disappear. I felt it right when I woke up. The sun cut through my shutters and the birds outside mourned. I lay in bed for a moment, ascerning that I could feel the sheets beneath my skin, but I felt strange. When I stood in front of the mirror, I could see a glint of the metal jewelry box directly behind me. I took a step closer. Reaching out my arm, I could see the way the morning light hit it. But on the right side of my chest, about halfway down, was a small patch that was almost transparent. I tried to focus my eyes on it, and I could see it faintly, but I could see past it. Behind myself. The jewelry box on my dresser. My chest was like an overlay photograph, with two pictures layered upon each other but you could see them both. I shut my eyes.
I could feel the sun shine hot on my face. It was the kind of sunlight that emerged every so often from between heavy clouds and stridently reaffirmed its existence. It was the kind of sun that, when my sister and I would swim in the lake folded away in a circle of forest, would make us dive under the water from gleeful shock and then push through the surface again. My family would visit that lake a lot in the spring and summer. I don’t know how my parents found it, its only access was a thin path of mud. We would leave our doors unlocked in the warm day and drive into the wilderness, pulling our car over when we saw the strip of dead, trodden ground. There would often be other kids there too, and we would all play together. Sometimes we would decide to play hide-and-seek in that clearing, with our legs covered in mud and dead grass and the bright circle of sky spread above us. My parents wouldn’t let my sister and me go too far. As long as they could see us through the branches in the fading light – not swallowed by the firs or whatever they tried to save us from – it would be all right. When it got dark, our necks craned at bright patches of holes in the sky.
One day when we went to the lake my sister scraped her shin against a sharp rock underwater. She cried and I helped her tow herself ashore, dripping water and blood. Our parents never took us there again.
I ran downstairs and out the back door to the gazebo. I stood between its columns. Everything seemed alien in some way, sucked bone-dry and spread dimensionless like I could reach and touch any of it. The bright morning forced me to squint as I looked across the street and across the town to that hill, to something I thought might be there. I didn’t quite know what I was expecting. I hadn’t been able to place the feeling that I woke up with, that still remained. Now I realized – as spring made the trees dance slow turns and the wind pushed through my chest – it was like falling. Not falling, but the instant before, being suspended in air before the perpetual ends. I felt that way when my sister never came home. That precarious instant of dreamlike stillness, almost suffocating, like missing a step on the way downstairs.
The hill was close, no glimmer of snow at its peak, dyed golden by the sun. Everything was waking up as the sun reached it, and everything awaiting revival craned toward it like flowers. My hand rested opaque on the wood railing, not dissolving on the edges as far as I could tell. I wondered if I was leaving bit by bit, already in the air, suspended in that breathless moment.
I could almost hear my sister, far away from St. Charles, echoing out over phone lines and trains, set in their roundabout course, galaxies close …
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.