It all started with the letter.
It was waiting for me when I arrived home after my late-afternoon class, sitting patiently under a pile of other envelopes like a fat spider hiding in the shadows until its prey appears.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea how it would eventually destroy the life I had so carefully built, poisoning every aspect and draining it of its vitality and essence.
I should have smashed that spider when I had a chance.
“You got a weird letter,” Bryn, my roommate, said as she stood by the stove stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese. She had tied a hot-pink bandana around her wild, sandy-colored hair, as if to contain the explosion of curls. It didn’t seem to work, as tendrils spiraled out every which way.
I glanced at the pile. “They look normal to me.”
“Not those. The one underneath. From the post office.”
The post office? I shifted the envelopes aside until I found a plastic bag containing scraps of a handwritten letter. A note starting with “We Care.” and ending with “Please accept our apologies.” was attached to the front.
I tapped the bag. “Wow, what a mess.”
“I know, right? It’s really chewed up. Guess that’s why they sent it to you like that. I didn’t even realize they did such a thing.”
“Yeah, it happens,” I said as I squinted at the envelope with a return address I didn’t recognize. “We got a couple of these when I worked in the mailroom that one summer. Sometimes, the letters get caught in the sorting machine. But I don’t know why they would even bother sending this to me. It’s got to be junk mail.”
“That was my first thought, too, but look at the address,” Bryn said. “It’s from Redemption, Wisconsin. I’ve never gotten junk mail from that weird town. Have you? Ugh, just thinking about what goes on there gives me the creeps. Besides, it looks like a house address, not a business.”
I eyed her. “How do you know the difference between a house and business address?”
Bryn rolled her eyes. “Marigold Lane? Come on, that hardly sounds like a business district.”
She had a point, but it still didn’t make any sense. “But I don’t know anyone in Redemption,” I said, shaking the plastic bag to get a better look at the letter inside it.
“Didn’t you say you used to spend summers there?”
“A long time ago,” I said. “I don’t know who would be sending me anything now. Especially through the mail. Wouldn’t someone I knew back then be more likely to message me on Insta?”
Bryn scooped up a couple of macaronis, blew on them for a moment, and popped them into her mouth. “Maybe it’s a condolence note.”
I jerked my hand back like I had been burned. My parents had died in a car crash just ten months before, and while I put on a brave face around Bryn, doing my best to pretend like I was getting my act together and successfully moving on with my life, inside I still felt lost and alone … untethered from “normal” people and things. How could I focus on the day-to-day living when I was now an orphan—the last living member of my family?
Except that isn’t completely true, a little voice deep inside me countered. There is one more.
I squashed it. I wasn’t going to think about her and how she abandoned me.
As far as I was concerned, she might as well be dead.
Bryn glanced over, as if finally noticing I hadn’t responded. Her expression softened. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to blindside you. Do you want me to open it?”
“I’m okay,” I said, gritting my teeth as I peeled back the tape and carefully dumped the contents onto the table. A few words and phrases immediately jumped out at me.
“Stalker.” “Alone.” “What have I done?”
“It’s like a puzzle.” Bryn had abandoned her meal on the stove to join me at the table. “You’re going to have to piece it together to read it.”
“Hopefully, there won’t be too many missing pieces,” I said, poking at the paper. Now that it was on the table, I could start to arrange the scraps. “See, right here, look how it’s torn ...” I paused, sucking in my breath with a hiss.
Bryn glanced at me, her baby-blue eyes concerned. “Janey, what just happened?”
I couldn’t answer. I shook my head violently and pointed at the signature.
Bryn followed my gaze, but I could tell by the way her eyebrows knit together that she wasn’t getting it. “Kelly? Who’s Kelly?”
My mouth was so dry, I didn’t think I could force the words out. I tried to swallow, but it felt like sand in my throat.
Bryn was starting to look alarmed. “Janey, are you sure you’re okay? Why don’t you sit down?” She pulled the chair out for me and helped me into it, then hurried back to the kitchen sink to pour me a glass of water. “Here.” She thrust the wet, dripping glass into my trembling hands. Water sloshed over the sides and onto my lap, soaking my jeans, but I managed to get some of it into my mouth.
Bryn pulled a second chair up close to me, her eyes never leaving me. She was so close, I could see the dusting of freckles on her button nose and the dimple in her cheek. Bryn was cursed with adorable little girl looks that never aged well. “Breathe,” she said, and paused while I tried to catch my breath. She was going to school to be a nurse, which made perfect sense, she was forever taking care of everyone around her. Especially me.
I definitely needed a lot of taking care of.
After I calmed down and my hands stopped shaking so badly, Bryn put a steadying hand on my knee. “Okay, so can you tell me who this Kelly person is and why she upset you so much?”
I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to say it, because the moment I did, it would become real. This odd little pile of torn paper would suddenly mean something. Something important.
If only I had kept my emotions in check, this wouldn’t be an issue. I could have told her it was nothing … I had no idea who Kelly was. It was probably all a mistake, or a joke. Ugh. Mentally, I kicked myself. I was such an idiot sometimes.
But it was too late. I either needed to tell her the truth or make up something really good. Since my mind was a complete blank, I had no other option but the truth.
“She’s my sister,” I croaked out.
Bryn’s eyes widened. “Your sister?” She ducked her head down to study the signature. “But it just says ‘Kelly.’ How can you be sure it’s her?”
I swallowed. “It’s ... look at the signature. That’s how she signed. With the flourish with the Y, almost like a heart?”
Bryn looked again. “I see it. But ... didn’t you tell me she was dead? How can this be her?”
I was silent for a moment. In my mind, I was back in that hot summer day in August, the humidity so thick, it was difficult to breathe. The sound of buzzing insects. Kelly lounging next to me in the boat, clad in a tiny blue bikini and dark sunglasses. Her long, bleached-blonde hair gleaming in the sun, lips coated with bright-red lipstick, the smell of suntan lotion mixed with Calvin Klein’s Eternity—her ‘signature’ perfume. In fact, for a moment, I thought I caught a faint whiff of it. Was it coming from the letter?
“I don’t actually know what happened to Kelly,” I said. “No one does.”
Bryn’s eyes went wide again, but she stayed quiet, waiting for me to continue.
“She disappeared one afternoon about eight years ago now,” I said. “We didn’t even realize she was gone until almost a day later. She was almost eighteen, and my parents gave her a lot of leeway. When she still wasn’t home the next morning, we started calling her friends, but no one had seen her. When we checked her room, we found that she had taken some things. Money. Clothes. Makeup. Her computer.”
“So, she ran away.”
“That was the official conclusion.”
Bryn raised an eyebrow. “Official?”
I frowned, trying to figure out the best way to describe Kelly. “My sister … I guess you would say she told a lot of stories.”
“More like exaggerated,” I said. “It was always difficult to sort out what exactly was going on with her. In this case, around the time she ran away, she was telling people she had a secret boyfriend who was much older than her. She also claimed to have a stalker.”
I sighed. “I know, right? The problem was, no one was really sure they ever saw the stalker. One of her friends thought she had seen some shady person following Kelly one night, but she didn’t have much description to go on, other than ‘a guy who seemed to be wearing black.’ Another of her friends described a car following them one night as she drove Kelly home. But could it have been the secret boyfriend?”
“What do you think?”
Kelly standing in front of the mirror applying eye shadow. The sound of a car backfiring outside. Kelly jumping, smearing eye shadow across her face. “Now look what my stalker made me do.” Laughing as she wiped a wet towel across her cheekbone, the tremble in her hand so faint, I wondered if I had imagined it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “With Kelly, I was just never sure what the truth was.”
“So, what did the cops think happened to her?”
“That she ran away,” I said firmly. “Although, to be fair, they did poke around a bit and ask a few questions. Especially about the stalker and the secret boyfriend. She was almost eighteen, and as the cops kept telling us, it wasn’t against the law for an adult to disappear. I don’t think they took it as seriously as if she had been younger. But, once we received the postcard, that closed the case.”
Bryn’s mouth dropped open. “A postcard? Seriously?”
“Yeah. It was postmarked in Chicago. Had a picture of the skyline.” I paused, remembering how frantic my parents had been, wanting to drop everything and drive to Chicago to look for her, and how the police officer in charge of Kelly’s case had convinced them to stay put and hire a private investigator, instead.
“So?” Bryn nudged me. “Don’t leave me hanging. What did it say?”
I shrugged. “Not much. That was the problem. ‘I’m fine. I’m happy. Don’t worry about me. I’m living the dream. Xoxo. Kelly.’”
“Living the dream?”
“Yeah, another thing Kelly said. She wanted to be famous. Actress, singer, model. Something like that. She had been saying for years the moment she turned eighteen, she was moving to Hollywood.”
“But she wasn’t in Hollywood. She was in Chicago.”
“I know, right? That was what my parents said. There was something wrong. If Kelly was going to run away, either with her secret boyfriend or on her own, she would have gone to California, not Chicago. But the cops didn’t see it like that. As they said, she could be working her way up to Hollywood. Maybe she landed a couple of gigs in Chicago and decided to start there. Or maybe she was just passing through and dropped the postcard off on her way to Hollywood. There could be a million explanations that didn’t involve her being abducted and forced to write it against her will.
“Anyway, that pretty much put a bow on it for the cops. They closed the case and my parents hired a private investigator. But that didn’t pan out, either. I don’t think my parents ever stopped looking for her, but it didn’t matter. As far as I know, that was the last any of us ever heard from her.”
Bryn sat back in her chair. “Wow. I mean … wow. What a story. Why didn’t you tell me before? And why did you tell me Kelly was dead?”
I reached out and started worrying a corner of one of the envelopes, which appeared to be a credit card offer, trying to ignore the hurt accusation in her voice. “It’s just ... well, it’s complicated,” I said. “For a long time, I was so angry at Kelly. Why didn’t she reach out to me? Why didn’t she tell me she was going to run away? Why the radio silence? She always told me everything before, so why did she stop? So, I guess in a way, it was easier to think she was dead. Because if she wasn’t, and she was ignoring me ...” My voice trailed off.
Bryn squeezed my hand. I blinked a couple of times and tried to force a smile. “The other thing is, people treat you differently when they know you are a victim of a crime … or that your family is, in our case. I hated the way everyone would stop talking when they saw me, and how the teachers would hover. No one knew what to say. My friends were uncomfortable and awkward around me until eventually, it was just easier to stop being friends.” I shook my head at the memory.
“Later, I found some new friends who either hadn’t heard of Kelly or didn’t realize I was her sister, and I saw how much easier it was if people never knew my history. If I just created a new version of Janey without this whole sordid past. So, when I went to college, that’s exactly what I did. Just rewrote my history. Instead of a sister who just disappeared under strange circumstances, I had a sister who tragically died in a car wreck. Which was still a nightmare, of course, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that people rarely asked questions about death. Death scares them, almost like they are afraid if they talk about it too much, someone in their family will die, too. But a missing sister? That’s the stuff of true crime. Everyone loves to talk about that.”
“But I wouldn’t,” Bryn started to say, but I held up my hand to interrupt her.
“I’m not saying you would. In fact, I know you wouldn’t. But after we spent time together and got to know each other, I didn’t know how to bring it up, because I would have gotten questions like this. I realize now I should have, and I’m sorry.”
Bryn’s face cracked open. “Oh, Janey. You don’t have to be sorry. I get it. I really do.” She reached over to give me a hug.
I hugged her back, relieved by her acceptance of my explanation.
Not that it was a lie. What I told her was all true.
It just wasn’t the whole truth.