For the Dead Who Travel Fast
It's around the time my sister gets involved with this guy who's leaving bruises all over her, around the time of yet another one of those shootings, around the time I start to think there's something wrong with men in general—myself included, something rotten and dismissive and violent in the piddly tail of our Y chromosomes—that I hear about it.
A missing girl. A girl I've never met. I can't stop reading about her.
"Have you talked to your sister?" my mother asks. "I'm worried about her."
My sister has stopped answering my calls.
"I'm worried about you, too," my mother adds. She has a way of making everything into one big crisis she's directing.
There is something rotten at the core—maybe in all of us. I don't trust myself. I don't trust myself in a great many things. I don't trust my sister either. Or my mother. We're all fools, in our way.
But I'm stuck on the story of this other girl. The missing girl. Cecelia.
The hotel where Cecelia goes missing is on the wrong side of town. It doesn't look like the sort of place where nice young people go, certainly not nice young girls—correction: nice young women. Outside, men hunch under awnings, their beards grizzled and flecked with grime. They sprawl on cardboard boxes. Someone sour smelling in a bright blue tank top is yelling at someone else from the back of a moving van. A bottle arcs through the air and then shatters. Everyone is idling, leaning against buildings, under awnings, watchful. The air is damp and heavy with the scent of rotting onions. Still, there is the hint of old glamour. Once upon a time, this place was not so squalid. The hotel was upscale, ornate. You can see it still in the Art Deco lobby, the old statues looking out blank eyed into the mirrored walls. Now there are water stains in the corners of the ceilings, cracks in the cornices. A cluster of Belgian backpackers drink coffee out of paper cups.
Cecelia was traveling on the cheap, documenting her adventures: photos of fancy cocktails with a friend, a lunch at an outdoor café, a hike somewhere near the canyon. What she lacked in money she made up for in charm, in Instagram followers. Her photos are moody and lovely—supersaturated and smeary on the edges. Life as a beautiful adventure.
"But I love him," my sister insists the last time I talk to her, after I drive her back from the ER, after I give her ice packs and let her sleep on my couch. "He's trying to change. Besides, I was egging him on. I was saying awful things. We'd had a few drinks." She sighs, touching the necklace of fingertip-shaped bruises around her neck. "Things are always so beautiful between us, except when they're not."
She gives me a pointed look before continuing. "I bet you know about that. You and Trinny."
I don't answer her. My girlfriend, Trinny, left months ago, taking our daughter with her. An extended trip to her parents' house. To think, she said. I get that. We all need to think sometimes.
My sister looks at me, a scratch like a question mark on her cheekbone. I look away, choosing to consider instead my baby daughter, how I miss pressing my face against her and breathing her in, how I miss her soft frog belly, the good part in me she summons.
Better angels of our nature, blah blah blah.
I am a fraud, I am thinking.
But who among us is not?
My sister is crying softly, I realize, prodding gently at the bruises on her arm as if she's in the produce aisle testing fruit, as if her body is a separate entity.
It probably goes without saying that the disappeared girl, Cecelia, is pretty. Or maybe not pretty, but young, which is often taken for the same thing. She appears even younger in her photos. It's in the way she tries to look older. It's how she tilts her face in her selfies, knowing how to suck her cheeks in just so, which filter to use. Kissy-mouthed and serious-eyed. And though she aims to project a certain worldliness, she's still devoted to her parents. Every day, she checks in with them.
Until the day she does not. They hear nothing. This is so unlike her. Something is amiss.
"It can be as subtle as a shift in atmospheric pressure—the wrong tone of voice, or maybe he thinks I'm laughing at him. I say the wrong thing. A joke I make lands wrong. And then it's like I'm talking to a different person." My sister sighs. "They say impulsive aggression is associated with lower levels of serotonin." She is studying to be a clinical social worker, ironically enough, and believes the world can be broken down into solvable problems.
"Don't make excuses for assholes," I say.
"You're an asshole," she says.
I nod, devil-made-me-do-it style. "Most of the time."
In the hotel, there are fourteen floors, quieter as you go up. There are shared hallway bathrooms. It feels more like an old dormitory than a hotel. A hostel. There are two rickety old mirrored elevators that go up from the lobby. And that's where they get the footage. I've watched it over and over. Cecelia.
She enters the elevator. The timestamp shows it's very late, or very early. She presses the elevator buttons—not one floor, but all of them. She leans in close, as if terribly near-sighted. Maybe she's intoxicated. Maybe she's been drugged. Then, as if struck by something—a sudden sound, maybe—she backs away. Pressing herself against the corner of the elevator, she appears to be hiding, trying to make herself invisible to someone passing by. A few beats pass, and then she moves to the door, peering out. She looks to both sides, careful, checking. Then she's back inside the elevator, stabbing at the buttons. It is only grainy surveillance footage, but you can tell she's frightened of something. Something is happening, something bad. She steps out of the elevator again, making strange motions with her hands, flapping them like winged things. She steps forward, out of the frame. Finally, the elevator door closes. She is not on it. The final frames show an empty elevator.
And this footage is the last trace of Cecelia alive.
My mother calls and leaves a voicemail about a study she saw mentioned, one about aggression in chimpanzees. "The sexually aggressive males tend to sire more offspring." She leaves me this message as if it's an explanation, or an accusation.
My mother leaves more messages.
"Your sister's back with him, isn't she?" she asks, her voice savage. Like it's my fault. "Neither of you are returning my calls."
I haven't heard from my sister in weeks. I haven't heard from my ex-girlfriend in months.
I think how my daughter will recoil the next time she sees me, a stranger.
Of course, the story blows up on the Internet. I'm not the only sleuth. There's the surveillance footage, begging for speculation. Everyone has a theory.
Also, a body has been found.
Here is where you think the story ends. The grisly finale.
The body appears to be hers. Cecelia. Her parents give no statements. They retreat to the town from which they came. The restaurant they run is boarded up for weeks, and people leave flowers, notes, candles at the door.
Time passes, and eventually: no evidence of foul play.
She wasn't well.
At a certain point, it's your own fault. Your own fault for staying. There are choices. There are things you let happen and happen and happen...
I start to feel that if I were to look directly into my daughter's face, it would be like staring into the sun. I would smile a smile that would threaten to split my face in half, into a cataract of tears.
Every smile is a threat. That's just evolutionary biology. All this stuff written into our genes. Maybe my sister is right. Maybe I'm onto something. I send an email to Trinny trying to explain all this, as if it will make her understand.
But this is not the end, I promise you. There's an addendum.
Cecelia comes back. Reappears. Or maybe she never left.
The first time someone sees her it's actually in a coffee shop in an adjacent neighborhood, and there she is, hunched over a laptop, half-grown out bangs swept over her eyes. The barista notices her. He brings her the tiny cappuccino she ordered and is caught by her watchfulness, by the reluctance with which she seems to take the cup from him.
"I know you," he says, although his voice is far from certain. "From the—from somewhere." He feels himself stumbling over his words.
She looks up at him evenly.
"People say that," she says. "I get that all the time."
Hello, you've reached the voicemail...Hello, you've reached the voicemail...
This becomes something of a lullaby.
I imagine my daughter as the tiny, singing hollow of a seashell, miles away. I imagine my sister as a broken bit of coral, washed ashore. I don't know what I imagine Trinny as—nothing, the darkness when I squeeze my eyes shut.
Next it is a pair of Australian backpackers staying in the hotel, arriving late from a night out drinking. There she is, flustered, in the elevator. She's kneeling, as if she's looking for some tiny object she's dropped.
When they enter, boisterous with drink, she rises, her eyes large and startled as a deer's. It's 3 a.m. They feel enormous and loud, bawdy clowns with big clumsy paws. But instinctively, they know not to startle her. They quiet themselves and back away as if approaching skittish wildlife.
"You alright there?" one of the Australians asks in the over-loud quiet voice of a drunk person. "You lose something?"
She shakes her head, backing away from them slowly. She turns and runs down the hallway and is gone.
It's only later that the backpackers hear the story and see the video footage: it's her.
One of the building's tenants is taking a bath when he hears someone padding softly across the room. It's her. A cruel joke. The tepid water he's in is suddenly unbearably cold. She walks just up to the bathtub, staring at him with a worried expression. He shouts, and she runs away.
Soon, it seems, she is everywhere. All over the hotel, all over the neighborhood. She is not a ghost, people insist. She is decidedly not a ghost but solid flesh and blood. There must have been some mistake. The whole thing, the whole ending—it was told wrong.
I think I see my sister wearing a motorcycle jacket in the frozen foods aisle, holding the hand of a stocky, older gentleman, but when she turns around, she has the face of a grimacing hag.
The world is haunted by doppelgangers.
Then, I really do see Trinny—so real it hurts. She's getting a sandwich across the block from her office, but she pretends to laugh very hard at something her colleague says so as not to see me. I have to clutch at my chest because I feel an actual pain there. Trinny is gone by the time the pain passes and I can straighten back up.
An old man stops, touches my shoulder. "You okay, son?" he asks.
I don't know how to answer.
A French backpacker holds up long strands of black hair to prove he's seen Cecelia. A patron of a nearby diner has a paper cup marked with her lip gloss. An Israeli tourist has cell phone video of a woman's small, wet handprint on his backpack. A man wakes up from what seems like a dream with a pair of cheap earrings left by his bed. Always, always, she is damp-haired and serious.
"Let's go swimming," she says. "It'd be such a lovely evening to go swimming."
A sick joke. That's what people say in response. What kind of Reddit troll would make that up?
Or she says, "I know a hiding place. A place we won't be found."
People in the hotel still have a superstitious awe of the showers. They reach up to test the water pressure, cautious before stepping in.
And then someone is posting photos on Cecelia's Instagram account.
There are new posts on her blog, filled with cheery paragraphs and too many exclamation points.
That's just cruel, people say.
Unless, of course, there was some mistake.
A fugue state, someone offers. An amnestic fugue. Disassociation. And a body wrongly identified. It could happen, maybe.
It's the stuff of soap operas.
The voice inside the seashell sings gone gone gone.
About a year or so after all this, I meet a woman in Tempe where I'm spending way too much money on bad habits, chasing whoever gives me a smile and the time of day. Trinny has moved with my daughter back up to Seattle. I get summer custody and the rest of the year to myself. My sister goes and marries that guy, first name, Bad, last name, News. At least, that's our best guess. We don't hear from her anymore. She's cut off communication with us for good. Done.
"Could be alive or could be dead for all we know," I say to my mother, and her mouth snaps shut.
"How's Trinny?" my mother asks later, sly in the way that mothers are sly.
"She's dead to me," I say, and she flinches.
I've decided to freelance and travel. The entire Southwest is filled with hippie chicks. Girls who go to sweat lodges and have mandala tattoos and have gone to massage therapy school but really want to practice energy work. Bullshit, but I'm a sucker for that type, so convinced of themselves. I love Tempe. I love a winterless college town. I love a place that pretends to be thoughtful, where you don't actually need to have a thought in your head.
And that's where I meet her.
We're both a little drunk on too-sweet Prosecco at a friend's backyard party, and she turns to me and says, "I'm a living ghost."
Her hair is cut short, dyed a reddish color. I wouldn't have recognized her anyway.
"Oh, yeah?" I say. I assume she's flirting with me, speaking in metaphors. "I'm a living ghost, too." Which feels true at that point. I smile my well-worn chimpanzee smile.
She laughs. "No, seriously," she says. "You'll know me when I tell you who I am." She twirls her hands in front of her the way people do when they're spaced out on something and suddenly their own fingers are strange, elongated worms, the most interesting things in the world. That's how I take it at first, but when I sidle up a little closer, I'm hit with second thoughts. It's her eyes. There's something off about them—something that makes me think maybe there are some unopened bottles of prescription medicines she's supposed to be taking.
Still—and I'm not proud of this—there's the way her hand is moving up my arm, and she seems laid-back enough, if odd, and I'm thinking we could get along just fine, for the night at least, so I let myself move in closer.
"I went missing," she says. She mentions the hotel in the city where I used to live. "The woman in the water tank?" she adds.
She laughs madly, a super-villain in a comic book movie, pulling me toward her by my shirt collar. I get this weird prickling on the back of my neck. She's cute, this girl, but there's something off—the way she smells, damp and mossy, the faintest hint of mold. And her skin is cold against my hands—maybe it's the evening air, but I swear to God she's cool to the touch, her skin like lake water.
"It'd be such a lovely evening to go swimming," she whispers, taunting me, her breath against my throat.
And that's when I back away, my mouth clotted with lame excuses.
She cocks her head at me. "You had a sister once," she says, studying me the way a gambler might, waiting for my tell. "A daughter." She swirls her hands, shaman-like. The hocus-pocus of a beautiful flirt. "You're a black hole."
I nod because what else could I do? I am a black hole, and she has said it out loud.
"I tried to save you," I stammer. "Her. I mean her." I mean my sister. I mean my little daughter, who still looks at me all large-eyed and joyful because she doesn't know better yet. I mean Trinny, Trinny and me. I mean us all. I want to open my mouth again to explain, but it seems like she is right and my teeth are too bright, as if I have eaten all the stars.
"Save yourself," she says, adding a little wry laugh. "We all have to save ourselves."
She slips away from me then, melting into the darkness and twinkling lights and drinks and laughter, the smudgy press of other partygoers.
I'm sweating. I go inside, where my buddy pours me a whiskey so I can collect myself. My hands are shaking.
When I tell him what happened, my buddy hints that maybe I've been talking to myself. Hallucinating. That I took one true event and made up the rest. That things hit me harder than I realize. He slaps me on the back and pours me another whiskey, saying I sure know how to spin a line.
I give him a jangled smile and shut up. The news is full of disappearances, missing people, the dead, their names cluttering the white space. I can't keep up with them all. My buddy and I clink glasses and drink. I do not tell him about the specific chill I feel sometimes, how certain I am it is the cold rush of souls, how convinced I am we are all fleeing something terrifying and animal.
–Joanna Pearson (from Memorious)