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If I Hadn’t Looked Back This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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A lack of sleep weighs me down, but that voice in my head drives me on, nagging at me with an ever-constant panic. My voice is breaking; it no longer sounds like mine. The very idea that this is me is ludicrous. I do not run through the night, calling someone's name. I do not bang on doors in the dark, waiting for the inhabitants to answer with sleepy eyes. I do not ask strangers if they have seen a girl, only to have them shake their heads and keep moving, uninterested in the girl I am searching for. I do not cry.

If that girl was not me, I'd like to know who she was. Now that I can once again think clearly and the panic is gone, I wonder who that girl was who panicked last night, desperate to make everything right. She wondered, as she ran, why the pieces didn't match. The story didn't fit. But last night, running over the dark grass like a shadow, I didn't know what was a lie and what was the truth.






My stomach hurts. The evening has dwindled, leaving the world mostly dark, with only a few shades of twilight to illuminate the darkening sky. I lie on the bed, curled up against my mother. Her voice vibrates in her chest as she reads aloud from the ­storybook. I lose myself in the words, closing my eyes sinking into her voice and the storybook world, finally able to block out the horrible stomachache. Time for bed, it says. Close your eyes and go to sleep. You've had a long day.

So I do. I begin to drift into the warmth of slumber, only to be rudely awakened by my father's voice.

“Girls,” he says, peering around the corner.

Mom stops reading. The comforting sound of her voice is suddenly gone, and I jolt back to reality. I put on my glasses; everything comes into focus, the blurred shapes of family members now sharp and clear.

“What?” I mumble, so tired I am ready to curse him for waking me from the best night's sleep I'd had in days after the weekend from hell.

“When was the last time you saw your friend?” Dad asks.

It takes a minute for the memory to form in my sleep-deprived brain. When it does, I remember the sight of her as she walked away, pulled by Daphne on her pretty pink leash. The black dog led her as I glanced over my shoulder.

Remembering now, I wish I hadn't looked. That one backward glance made me the last person to see her ­before she disappeared.

“We walked her home,” I reply groggily. “Em and I saw her coming out of the building on our way back from our walk. She wanted to take a walk with us, but we were too tired, so we just walked her home.”

I stumble out of bed, Dad hands me the phone.

“Is she missing?” I ask. That is my first thought.

“Yes, we can't find her. She's been gone for two hours.”

The sleep falls away. Adrenaline electrifies me and the stomachache disappears. There are two places I know to look, and I head out with my brother, towering over me like a guardian angel, as the night grows deeper.

The banging of his fist on the door is so loud that it hurts my ears, but a woman answers. He is not home, she says. She hasn't seen him all day. Who is “he”? Isn't this a “she”?

Off we go again, into the dark night and across grass and pavement, into a building and up stairs, to bang on the door of an apartment with no lights. No one answers. We knock again, knowing no one will answer. Now there is nothing left to do but call.

It's getting darker with every second. Now it is night, but I swear the darkness deepens to pitch as we step from the warmth of the light by the door. It grows colder, too, even though the summer night is warm.

Should I call her name? It's dark and my instincts say to be quiet. People are sleeping. People are safe. I open my mouth and give a shout, but the name that comes out doesn't seem to fit. After all, I hardly know her. Three days is not enough to really know a person. But it scares me, being the last person to have seen her. It could have been me. It could have been my sister. What if we had walked with her as she'd asked? Would this not have happened, or would we all have disappeared without a trace? What if I hadn't looked back?

I scream her name, but no one answers. I keep calling. Still, there is nothing.

“This is gonna sound crazy,” I say to my brother, “but I need to check the pool!”

The pool is dark. The blue water is still, but as it gets deeper it gets dark. I stare through the white fence, hands clutched around the square poles as if they are prison bars.

“No one's there,” my brother tells me.

I close my eyes and then open them again, convinced I will see a body floating. Afraid I will see one.

As we turn to go, the headlights of a car blind me. The window opens and I'm face to face with the woman I spoke to on the phone just minutes before. I catch words that make their way through my muddled brain: medicine, suicide, dog on the porch ….

Why would you put the dog back? Why, when you are a girl, walking at dusk, all alone, would you put the dog, your one protection, back on the porch and tie her there, then disappear without a trace?

“C'mon,” my brother says.

No one is at the stream. No one is hiding behind the buildings. The world is so peaceful. Tears begin to slide down my face as panic sets in. I can still feel them, warm and sticky, salty as they coat my eyelashes, touch my lips.

My brother tells me to dry my eyes, knowing that tears won't help the situation. I do not cry after all. I keep a cool head.

Our pulses beat faster, hearts pounding. We imagine that a dark shadow will leap out to snatch us or that we will stumble across a body. But no, the dark is harmless. It's our fears that do the real damage.

The light of the house is a relief. When I am finally tucked safely into my bed, sleep comes easily, even with the memory of that last backward glance. The stomachache returns, reminding me that my body cannot continue at this pace. I fall asleep, the sound of a ringing telephone echoing in my ears. But the phone doesn't ring. Not once, all night. But the sound haunts my dreams.

When I wake up, I expect good news, “We found her!” But no one says anything. Mom pauses and shakes her head as she stands over the sink.

“No. Not a clue. She's still gone,” she says.

My shoulders slump and I heave a sigh.

“They're not taking it very seriously,” she says. “Why aren't they canvassing the area? Why aren't the police here to talk to you, since you were the last one to see her?”

Just then there is a knock at the door. I go to answer it, clinging to my rock T-shirt. There on the doorstep stand two middle-aged men with silvery hair. They introduce themselves as detectives, and I stare at them ­before remembering my manners.

They are polite and very kind, asking questions that I know only some of the answers to. Her clothes I remember somewhat. But the bulk of what I tell them is that she walked away. I looked back over my shoulder, and I saw her walking away. Then she was gone.

It's so scary that someone can disappear without a trace. Not a single clue. Just gone. The one thing I don't understand: Why did she put the dog on the porch and then walk away?

My guilt overwhelms me for a minute, and I wonder what could have happened if I had just walked with her. If my sister and I hadn't been so eager to watch our TV show. What would have happened? The guilt weighs on me. It could have been us. I'm thankful it wasn't. Not me or my sister. And for that I feel guilty.

Eighteen hours later, eighteen hours after the search at dark, they find her. Not hurt, but scared and crying. What happened, I still do not know. But at least she is back. Go home to your mother. Those are the words in my head. Go home and never knock on my door again. I've had enough.

I have a thousand questions I want to ask: Where did you go? Why didn't you come back? Why did you put the dog back? Why did you leave? Why did you lie to me? But most of all, what I want to ask her: Did you hear me? Crying, calling your name? Did you hear me? And if you did, why didn't you answer?

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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