The first night you didn’t unlock our door was the night I phoned the police. Were you perhaps out with friends? they asked. Did you get caught up at school? Did you miss your bus? Did I try to contact you or anyone you might be with? They filed a report, inquiring the standard: Where did I last see you? Speak to you? Where were you going? Where had you been? They recorded my answers and sent out a notification of your description to patrolling vehicles. Call us back, they said, if you didn’t show up by the next morning. And they washed their hands of you, until your sheets were still barren and undisturbed when the sun arrived.
They searched your room, pulled up your mattress and made your bed naked. They asked more questions. With masked hands they moved your clutter into new piles. They took a t-shirt from your hamper for the bloodhounds, a ratty one you had slept in the night before disappearing—the one that still smelled most of you, of your sweet-scented skin, faintly of your lilac perfume and the tang of your sweat, the one soft and thin from wear—and bagged long, red hairs pulled from sweaters like a magician’s sleeved ribbon. They unpinned a toothy photograph of you from your bulletin board. They pawed and ripped through your towers of books. Looking for notes, they said. Looking for clues, for any indication that your absence was voluntary.
But I knew they would not find anything, no skeletons or elopements or glassy-eyed dreams of Hawaii.
The first time it happened was forty-eight hours after.
I was standing at the Third Street stop when I saw you. Pulling out the tangles in your hair, lingering for a moment to check for the doppler of cars before dashing to the opposite sidewalk through the tendrils of heat expanding from the pavement. And I mimicked your quick glance before my own rush toward you.
Weaving through back streets, through ancient downtown alleys, past old women fanning themselves on covered porches and sipping iced tea, I trailed and clawed at your skirt tails, never quite close enough to reign in or clutch your hem. You dissipated into a row of parked cars, vanished behind a magnolia at the corner, skipped across an intersection just as a mother pushing a stroller impeded my progress.
A quick twist, a slight jump, and I could see you again. All words a knot in my throat, I could not call your name, could merely patter behind you as you knit your path. And I tugged your yarn taut until in my silent surprise the low and swelling hum of music began to pierce the humidity. You led me through a street festival, a circus of clumsy, dancing children and intoxicated adults, of scattered beer cans, wadded napkins, corn dog skeletons, before the crowd devoured you, before your hem slipped out of sight. No squeezing between lovers, sliding through their sweat, the stench of bodies and grease, no straining or stretching, no crouching or darting made you reappear.
“Did you see a girl run through here?” I asked, tugging on a man’s arm, clasping his wrist inside my fist. “She has red, curly hair and she was wearing a green blouse and a flowing skirt.”
“Sorry, man,” he said.
“I have a photo,” I said. Before he could turn away, before he could extract himself, I pulled it from my pocket. There were creases worn into the picture from folding and refolding. Corners were missing. But your face, off-center, was still unblemished. He squinted in the sunlight and tried to turn away, but I did not release his arm.
“I didn’t see her.” There was a red imprint of my fingers around his arm as I let go.
I asked many times of many people. Nobody had seen you.
Still, I waited for you. I waited until the music decrecendoed to a reserved mash of lingering loiterer’s conversation and the metallic scape of deconstructing stages and booths, leaving behind crushed aluminum, scraped-clean bones, scraps and stubs. But in the traces of festival there was none of you.
The first time you walked through our door, your arms were filled with bags and fabric and suitcases. We had only spoken on the phone; you called about the extra bedroom I was renting. You said the dorms were full and you needed a room for the school year, your second year in college. Your curls bounced across your shoulders as I led you to the empty bedroom. You were the bright student, and I was the cool bachelor, only a few years graduated.
As I walked past your bedroom that day, I would stop to watch you through a sliver of doorway as you unpacked your things, as you made your space. You set a tiny row of figurines across the top of your dresser, one of which toppled and shattered into porcelain shards as the police searched. You tacked photos into the plaster, folded old shirts stained and dotted with ink, set your sewing machine slowly and gently on top of your desk. I even caught you undressing that first night, a constellation of freckles materializing across your back as you removed your shirt. You struggled with your hands behind your back, trying to unclasp your bra. Just as it unlatched, I leaned farther and the door squeaked in its tarnished hinges. I was gone before you could turn around.
Now your room is bare. Two weeks after the police unmade your room, emptying your dresser, dropping your clean blouses and tiny, delicate panties on a heap in the middle of the floor, your parents came and quietly folded the mess back into your suitcases and took it away.
“I’m sorry,” I said, helping them carry your things to their car.
Their phone number remains faded, tacked to the refrigerator.
For a while, the mattress still smelled of you. But your scent quickly faded, and now I am left with only a small collection: ripped, crumbled drawings saved from the trash, a small bottle of nail polish that had rolled to the corner of your closet, the innumerable, silky hairs I still find in the carpet. The creased photograph I took of you as you were reading in your bed. Your favorite pair of socks, taken from your hamper. Your toothbrush, left behind.
They screen your face on television broadcast, every evening and morning. They mispronounce your name, speak it with little thought. They run the picture before switching to scores or politics. Each day the anchor pulls a curtain, reveals more about your case. Siobhan Berne was last seen leaving a night class on Carver University’s main campus. There is reason to suspect foul play. Search dogs have not yet found a trace. No artifacts have been recovered.
Your bell curve has not yet reached its peak; hope is not yet erased, not yet faded.
They call you an aspiring fashion designer, even though the nooks and crannies of your bedroom are filled with unfinished patterns, tangles of yarn, and too many unwound skeins. Your machine misthreaded. They use all these words to glamorize, to pin down the young girl who cried when a task turned complicated, who littered the carpet with her bitten nails, who shaved the soft hairs between her eyebrows every morning after taking a shower.
And there I am, too, before your face on Wednesday night. I do not mention that I have seen you, chased you into the spaghetti of a crowd. My interview has been edited. I stand in our living room, assigning you meager adjectives, pleading to anyone who may have spotted you, who may have taken you.
I do not say that we had an argument the morning before you disappeared. Underneath your tooth-filled smile are the same few words, the same ten digits: IF YOU HAVE ANY LEADS OR INFORMATION PLEASE CALL.
You were on the other side of a six-lane thoroughfare in a book shop, at the counter, handing over your money. I raced to you. When the signal did not change and you were exiting the doors, I ran anyway, dodging horns and squeals of brakes and metal frames. You ignored the din and kept walking, even as my breath escaped and did not return, until you vanished inside the front of a bus. I slipped into the back.
You stood at the front of the mobbed bus, one hand curled around a railing and the other holding open your latest purchase. A pulsing ocean of students, of mothers and children, of young people and old separated us, the waves too violent a crash to swim through. Within the storm, I watched you flip pages, tuck your curls behind you ears. Tug and straighten the bottom of your skirt with the loose stitches from your machine.
You closed the book and pulled the cord. The bus jerked to a stop. As you stepped away from the bus, I scratched through a tangle of pointed elbows and bony shins, a crowd pouring out and drifting in through the small doorway. I pushed against the current, tripping over ankles and falling to the pavement. My palms were bleeding as I ran, swelling and throbbing towards you, and you slithered around a corner. I could feel the pounding inside my chest, the rapid metronome like a clock encased in cotton.
And as I rounded after you, I caught you. I felt the soft hairs on your arm as my fingers closed around your wrist, the tears in my palm pulsing red onto your skin. But when you twisted in surprise, your sunglasses fell from your face, shattering on the sidewalk.
And then you became different. Your hair was pin-straight and your complexion was void of freckles. Your eyes were not blue; they had morphed into a deep hazel. Your face was distorted, and I did not release my grip as you attempted to flee, to escape one more time.
You did not get your chance until someone intervened, until a man pulled at my shoulder, stood between us as you sprinted out of sight, evaporating into the blazing, gaudy sunlight.
The evening news replays surveillance footage of someone turning a corner, out of view of the lens. They say this is the last known location, the last known footage of you. You appear at the bottom of the screen and look to your left, over your shoulder. You are outside of the convenience store, a block away from our house, after hours. You appear to be squeezing the straps of your handmade bag as you look behind you. You turn the corner and reappear again, walking up the middle of the television. This is all they show, in a loop. They say no one else appears in the footage.
But you are much farther away. I had walked past the same store the next morning, the same morning the police pawed through your drawers. I purchased a cup of coffee and loitered in front of the neon advertisements. I counted the surveillance cameras. Your face was not yet plastered on the editions stacked inside the bin wanting a quarter to open. Only in the ensuing days would your mystery unveil in its folds.
The day’s heat began to rise from the pavement. I circled the building, shuffled past the loading docks and dumpsters. Nothing of you remained: there were no footprints in the gritty sand after a scuffle, no skid marks or rubber etched into the pavement after a quick escape, no pieces of you.
On James Street you were walking. Your toes poked through your worn soles and your hair had grown past your shoulders where your knuckles were pale and red from holding your stretched bag in a vice. Your feet smacking the pavement, you sped past fences lining the sidewalk, ignored the man hustling for nickels, and you moved only faster when I found my voice and called your name.
Too far ahead of me, you huddled in a doorway and slipped inside the locked hallway of a three-story brick complex. For five miles I stalked you and for hours more I hovered around the door, surveying the building, waiting for you to slither out. I loitered around that door, peered into the windows I could reach, your face appearing only on screens. Memorized the scrapes from keys in the metal of the lock. Peered through the door’s portrait window into the hallway.
After a night of no sightings, I impersonated tenant four, claiming to the mailman, who dropped a tidy stack of letters into my hand, that I had misplaced my keys. I pumped up the stairs, lingering with ear against wood for a sound of you, ear to the floor for a sight of you below the door.
I prowled every floor, waited and perched in stairwells as doors beneath or above opened. Three days I monitored the ins and outs of the front door. Three days I wasted my time.
Your face still makes its rounds on my television screen. They play the looped footage; they display your face and the phone number for seconds before running commercials. Police continue the search for Siobhan Berne, a young woman who disappeared two months ago walking home late at night, the anchor says.
The camera angle changes, and she continues: Early this morning a fisherman pulled clothing believed to belong to Ms. Berne from the Slokane River. Search activity is ongoing as the investigation has begun its focus at the banks. No suspects in this case have been identified, and no other artifacts or clues of her whereabouts have been found. Police urge anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Siobhan Berne to contact them with leads, tips, or any further knowledge.
A long, official yellow ribbon blocked off the shores on both sides of the river. Gloved hands scraped and foraged through the discarded cans, the wrappers, the used condoms gathered there. Investigators beamed flashlights into the crevices beneath the bridges, interrogated boaters, drifters, neighbors. Divers in wetsuits plunged into the water. Even after paddling downstream, scouring the farthest reaches of the river’s channels, its gaping mouths, they surfaced without clues. The search drew a spectacle of greedy gawkers, pulsing at the edges of the investigatory line, stretching it taut, to catch a glimpse of you floating to the disturbed surface, to have their own story to tell.
They emerged only with garbage.
I saw a button in the dirt off the trail in the woods.
It was the same trail you traced each morning.I searched here for you; I went off the path. I looked closer and thought the button could be yours, ripped from your jacket.
And then the ground was patchy, riled, disrupted. And I was clawing and scraping and pulling deeper and deeper and I could feel the dirt compacting between my fingers, lodging under my bleeding nails. Even after I had scoured seven different piles and made my clothes streaked and soaked and dirty, I still couldn't find you.
Not a scrap.
Your face last appeared on October 13, 2010, four months and three days after you didn’t come home. The local news has been weaned of your face. You have been replaced with a fatal pile up, a murder in the South end, fluff. No longer is your face etched into my screen; the cartons have been recycled.
The case of Siobhan Berne remains unsolved, they said on the last broadcast. After months of practice, the reporter had been corrected; she now said the proper pronunciation of your name. No new evidence has been found. As always, if you have any leads or information, please contact the local authorities. What she only implied: we have more important things to look for now. We have no time to overturn all the rocks of the world.
Your body was never recovered. Your single debit card received no new charges. No rotting pieces, no stray, floating hairs. No notes, no phone calls, no fingerprints. Nothing save your clothes washed ashore, now folded and labeled and packed away in storage. The newspaper ads expired, the telephone posters were torn or dropped away, ruined by weather, the street swept up and tidied.
But I still see you. I see you during my morning walks, in the grocery store, outside of your bedroom window. I see you in the many news recordings I have collected. You appear on sidewalks, behind fences, reading in cafes, running in the park, arguing with a clerk. Once I saw an entire crowd of you.
But only rarely do I follow anymore.
The last time it happened was two hours ago.