Girl Emerges from Landscape
By HEATHER RYAN | FICTION | VOLUME 49.4 | HOEPFNER LITERARY AWARD WINNER
I WOULDN'T HAVE SAID I KNEW ELIZABETH that well until the day she was taken from her house. I had been her big sister in Girl Scouts a few years earlier, when I was seventeen and finishing and she was nine and starting, but that doesn’t mean you see who someone is. And a lot had happened to us both since then.
Elizabeth was twelve, so she wasn’t really a kid anymore. I had known her when she was a third-grader. She was the kind of kid who would cry when she read about polar bears drowning in the Arctic and then write letters to important people about them. She had long pigtails her mom would sometimes braid. But she was in sixth grade now, and she wore her hair in a sharp A-line cut and dyed her bangs pink and went by Liza. She had quit the troop a few weeks after hitting middle school.
I was engaged to and living with my boyfriend, Jeremy. We both worked at an insurance company’s call center during the day and took night classes at the local community college. We also delivered newspapers in the early morning hours because we barely made enough at the call center to cover rent and utilities. Those mornings were the times I thought most about Girl Scouts. Jeremy and I would be folding the papers, sliding rubber bands over them or slipping them into plastic bags if it was raining, and I’d think about how oddly similar it was to things we’d done to earn badges: cooking tacos, knitting scarves, raking leaves for some old person. There was a monotony to the activities, a kind of pattern that, if you found it, you could slip into easily. If you started something, you could always finish it once you had slipped wholly into the activity’s rhythm.
I don’t think the scout leaders knew they were preparing us for this kind of life. They had imagined something more meaningful for us, more distinguished than night classes in algebra and taking calls from people in fender benders, or folding newspapers early mornings and driving slowly in cul-de-sacs to deliver them. And so had we.
THE NIGHT ELIZABETH WAS TAKEN, I WAS SICK, still cramping and bleeding from the surgery. I had slept on the couch, bundled with nearly every blanket we owned, even though it was the first of July. I was sure I was bleeding too much, but Jeremy said it was fine, that he had talked to the nurse before they released me and she warned him about this. In the middle of the night, I heard sirens wailing through the thickness of blankets and Vicodin. They passed our apartment on Lodi Avenue and then turned onto Lower Sacramento Road, and it comforted me. It felt appropriate to the situation—calamity outside that I’d just managed to escape. I cuddled deeper into the cushions and fell back asleep.
The next morning, we were at the newspaper drop site, when I noticed Elizabeth on the front page, the papers still bundled together. I pulled the plastic bundling strips apart, thinking for a second that maybe she had done something wonderful—won some contest, maybe. The photo was huge, a blown-up school photo, Elizabeth a little off-centered and sullen looking in front of the typical blue-grey background. No photo like that ever accompanies good news, which I knew, but I let myself believe it for a little while, until I saw the headline: “Girl, 12, Kidnapped from Home.”
I read it quickly, searching out the details. Her parents had gone to Oregon for a funeral. They left Elizabeth’s sixteen-year-old sister, Jenny, in charge. Jenny ordered Chinese delivery from Bill’s Flying Chopsticks, and a few minutes after the driver dropped it off, the doorbell rang again. She opened it without looking, thinking maybe he forgot to bring something up. It wasn’t the driver but a tall, reed-thin man with tattoos. He pushed himself in, grabbing Jenny first and tying her up before finding Elizabeth in the den, watching television. The article said he held Elizabeth and Jenny for six hours before deciding on taking only Elizabeth in his late- model Camaro. There was pointedly no mention of what had happened in that six hours.
“Jeremy,” I said, holding a newspaper out to him, “I know her.”
He took the paper and scanned it quickly. He raised his eyebrows and whistled thinly. “Wow,” he said. He looked at Elizabeth’s photo again. “Where from?”
“Girl Scouts. She was my little sister when she first joined. Her name is Elizabeth Jorgenson.”
He nodded then handed back the paper. “That sucks.” Jeremy said this about everything that was negative. He had said it the day before, when he burned the popcorn in the microwave.
“After the paper route, I’m going over there,” I said, which I hadn’t thought of doing until that moment. It made sense, though. The troop would convene, set up a headquarters, and then do something. Hand out fliers or talk to neighbors. They were always like that: prepared in a crisis, ready to help.
“Over . . . to her house?”
“Yeah. Or wherever they’ll have volunteers. Maybe I can help with something.”
Jeremy lifted his glasses to his forehead and rubbed his palm over his eyes—his gesture of annoyance, sometimes building anger. “You can’t go over there, Haley. You’ve just had . . . ” He paused.
“Surgery,” I said.
“Surgery. An operation. You need your rest. You probably shouldn’t even be on the route today, and I wouldn’t let you, except the Sundays are so hard.”
I thought about defying him, but I liked him saying I needed to stay home. I liked the idea of lying on the couch. I liked resting and being allowed to rest, being encouraged to. Jeremy bringing soup or tea or a book to me. Watching television, flipping from bad program to bad program.
“Anyway, Hales, there won’t be anything you can do. The police are probably all over looking for . . . ” He looked down to find her name again. “Elizabeth. This is a small town. They won’t let her completely disappear.”
SUNDAYS, WE HAD 351 PAPERS TO DELIVER—more than double the daily count of 147. Jeremy and I would get to the drop site early, fold about sixty or seventy papers for a start, and then pile the rest in the back seat of our tiny two-door Hyundai or in the trunk, still in the bundles. We’d leave a small space for me to sit back there, where I’d layer the paper with the comics and ad inserts, fold them together, then slide a rubber band over each end. I’d throw the folded paper into the front passenger seat, where Jeremy would pick it up and toss it out the window onto driveways and front walks.
I was nauseated, and Jeremy’s swerving from house to house made me sick, so I had to ask him to pull over twice. The second time, I puked.
“Jesus, Haley,” he said, shocked. “I thought that was gonna be over.”
I was leaning over the front seat and the folded papers, out the door, retching onto someone’s curb. When it stopped, I stayed still for a minute, my mouth hanging open and eyes closed. I let the spit and bile ribbon out.
“Guess not,” I said. I had thrown up a week ago, on last Sunday’s route, on a street called Candlelight Lane, and Jeremy rubbed my back and said, “This will be over soon. Real soon, Hales.”
This time, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, spat once more, and then leaned back. I shut the door, pulled the seat back, and nodded at Jeremy. “Let’s finish,” I said. “I want to go home.”
READ THE REST OF THIS STORY IN VOL 48.3