It was two o’clock in the morning when Alex got the call from Mara’s mother. “Is she with you?” Mara’s mother asked, her voice hoarse, urgent, desperate. “Please tell me she’s with you!”
“Wha-? Who?” Alex mumbled groggily as she tried to shake herself free of sleep and dreams. “Mara?”
“Yes! Mara! Is she with you?”
Alex knew it was a ridiculous question. Alex’s best friend, Mara, lived in Houston with her mother. Alex lived in Los Angeles. They hadn’t seen each other in almost a year, relying on phone calls and instant messaging to stay in contact. “Of course not,” she said to Mara’s mother, but at the same moment she found herself glancing around her apartment as if expecting to find Mara there. As if she’d simply forgotten that Mara had come to visit or something. But the apartment was empty as always.
“How could she possibly to just up and leave Houston and come to LA without you knowing?” she asked Mara’s mother.
Mara’s mother sobbed and said brokenly, “I don’t know… I didn’t really think… but I can’t find her anywhere. And she’s not answering her cell. And no one has seen her since yesterday morning. And at first I thought she might have to gone to a party or something and forgot to tell me… But it’s four o’clock in the morning and she’s not back and I’ve called all her local friends and she hasn’t visited or talked to them in days or weeks! And I thought… maybe… maybe she bought a plane ticket and left while I was at work, for some reason…”
“She’s not here, Ms. Ackers. I swear,” Alex said. In her chest, something like dry ice was beginning to burn her lungs and her ribs. She recognized it as panic, but kept her voice calm for Ms. Ackers’ sake. “I think you should call the police,” she said.
“Yes… yes…” Ms. Ackers whispered. She let out a little gasping sob. “Oh god…”
“Ms. Ackers, please call me the minute you find anything out. And… and try not to worry too much. I’m sure it’ll be alright. There’s probably just been a mistake or a miscommunication…” There was silence on the line, and Alex knew that Ms. Ackers knew she was probably lying.
“I’ll call back when I know something,” Ms. Ackers whispered. Alex nodded though Ms. Ackers couldn’t see that. “Bye.” Alex opened her mouth to say ‘bye,’ but there was a click and the line was dead.
Alex sat on her bed, the phone still in her hand, and waited. For what, she wasn’t sure. Her skin tingled with anticipation. At any moment, there was going to be a knock on her door, and Mara was going to be standing there with her duffel bag, exclaiming: “Surprise!” and they were going to call Ms. Ackers, and Ms. Ackers was going to furious with Mara for disappearing without warning, and then they were going to have a good laugh over it, and everything was going to be okay. When Alex’s alarm clock beeped loudly throughout the apartment, warning her that it was now six a.m. and time to get ready for work, she was still sitting there on the edge of her bed with the phone in her hand. And she was angry. Angrier than she could ever remember being before. She was angry with the phone for not ringing. She was angry with the door for not rattling as knuckles knocked on it from the other side. She was angry with Ms. Ackers for making her think Mara might show up here. She was angry with Mara for playing such an awful trick on everyone.
Then she shook her head, straw blonde hair tumbling around her shoulders haphazardly, dropped the phone on her pillow, and stood to get ready for work. Routine clicked in, and suddenly everything was fine. Mara was at home, probably still asleep, and when Alex returned from work in the evening, she would get online and log in to MSN messenger and they would have a nice chat about their respective days. Until then, Alex had to get out the door before traffic got too heavy. She threw on her gray slacks and a blue oxford shirt, and pulled her hair back into a ponytail, and put on a little foundation, and grabbed her keys and her purse and the stack of papers she’d been working on the night before, and she dashed out the door.
In her car, sitting in early morning traffic, listening to German rock to keep herself awake, Alex spent half her time looking around her out the windows. L.A. traffic was a nightmare. Everyone drove too slow or too fast, no one knew what “happy medium” meant, and everyone had attitude. Three black men dressed neatly, stood by a bus stop talking and waiting for the bus. Beside them on the bench sat a little old Asian lady wearing a muumuu and a straw hat and carrying a large purse. And then, standing directly behind the men Alex saw the face of a young woman, big deep-set eyes, straight nose, long straight dark-brown hair. Alex slammed on her breaks and did not even hear the cars around her honk their horns. Heart pounding a frantic rhythm in her throat, she swerved and shoved her way across three lanes and pulled into a parking lot near the bus stop.
As she climbed out the driver’s seat, she glanced toward the bus stop and three black men who stood there talking. But there was no young woman standing behind them. There was no young woman walking away from the bus stop. There was no young woman in the parking lot. There was no young woman anywhere in sight. Breathless and confused, Alex stood there, turning in a slow circle, looking all around her until her surroundings blurred – blue sky, gray- and red-bricked buildings, black asphalt, the colored dots of cars, all smeared into nothing. She was certain, absolutely certain, she had seen Mara standing there. She couldn’t possibly have just imagined it. She could swear one of the men standing at the bus stop had even stopped to glance at the woman standing behind them. It could not have been all in her head. And yet, nothing.
Alex felt drained and shaky, as if she had just run ten miles without stopping for breath. Shock was beginning to set in, she feared. But she climbed back into her car, and she drove to work, and sat at her desk, and turned on her computer, and sorted through the papers on her desk and the appointments she had. Any minute, she told herself, any minute Ms. Ackers is going to call, or maybe Mara will call herself, and tell her it was all a mistake and everything is fine. Everything is okay. Mara is safe and sound and home and happy.
But Alex knew – knew without needing to analyze the knowledge or question its origin – that this was not true. And when lunch-time came and there had still been no word from Mara’s mother, Alex knew she had to go.
Sometimes it took Alex a while to make a decision, but once a decision was made, she was firm and resolute. In this case, nothing was going to stop or delay her. Without a moment’s pause, she grabbed a stack of papers she might need, slid her purse over her shoulder, and with keys in hand, strode to her boss’s office. “I’m going to need some time off, I’m afraid,” she said without preamble. “I have to leave right away.”
“What? Why?” her boss demanded. “You know I need advanced warning for you to take time off. And haven’t you used up most of your vacation days already?”
“I know,” Alex said, “and I’m sorry. But this is an emergency. My best friend has quite literally disappeared off the face of the planet. I have to go see if I can help. I can’t sit here and do nothing.”
Her boss looked unconvinced and a little confused. She paused, then asked, “how long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to let you know later. I’ll call you with details as soon as I can, but I have to go now.” And without waiting for an answer, she was out the door, and headed for the parking garage.
Moments later she was dialing her cell phone as she walked purposefully to her car. “Ms. Ackers, its Alexandra,” she said to the voicemail on the other end. “I’m assuming there hasn’t been any news about Mara. I’m getting the first flight I can to Houston. And I’ll get a rental car so you can stay at the house in case Mara comes back. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.”
Six hours, some arguing and wrangling, and $500 later, Alex had landed in Houston and picked up a rental car. She remembered the directions to Mara’s house from her last visit, and drove quickly, calling Ms. Ackers once to let her know she was on her way there. When she arrived, there was a police car parked outside. Her heart plummeted into her stomach. She felt her face drain of blood and almost laughed, because she thought that only happened in books and not in real life. Trembling violently, she parked her car on the side of the street, and got out. For a moment she simply stood there, staring at the front of the house, terrified of what she would learn when she knocked on the door. Finally, she made her way slowly up to the house; she could not make her legs move any faster, though her heart was beating a hundred miles a minute. It took immense force of will to make herself knock, and even more force to keep from running back to the car before anyone answered. But before she had the chance to change her mind and leave, Mara’s brother Sterling had opened the door.
“I came as soon as I could,” Alex said. “The police… they haven’t… she’s not…” she stuttered anxiously.
Sterling shook his head. “No, they haven’t found her. They came to get a more detailed report.”
All the air rushed from Alex’s lungs and she swayed for a moment, feeling light-headed with relief. “Okay…” she breathed. “Okay.” And she followed Alex into the house.
There was a straight shot view from the front door, through the foyer, and into the living room, where Ms. Ackers and a police officer were seated and speaking.
“Mom,” Sterling said as he led Alex into the living room. “Alex is here.” Ms. Ackers’ head shot up and in a second the older woman had engulfed Alex in an embrace.
“Thank you for coming,” Ms. Ackers sobbed. “You shouldn’t have, but thank you anyway.”
The police officer stood to look at them. “And you are?” the man asked, a small notepad in one hand, a calm, patient expression on his face.
“This is Mara’s best friend,” Ms. Ackers introduced.
Alex held out her hand. “Alexandra Dietrich, but everyone calls me Alex.”
The police officer nodded, and wrote her name down in his notepad. “Did Mara mention anything to you about leaving? Running away? Taking an unplanned vacation?”
Alex shook her head. “No, nothing. We talked three nights ago on the phone, and she didn’t say anything about leaving. Or anything strange at all, for that matter.”
“And you live where?”
“I live in L.A.”
The police officer raised an eyebrow at her. “And you just dropped everything and flew in to Houston on a moment’s notice?”
“Yes, Mara’s my best friend. I want to help in any way I can.”
“Fine,” the officer said with another nod. “Did Mara have a boyfriend?”
“Did she have any enemies? Anyone who might wish her harm?”
“Lord, no! She didn’t really understand why, herself, but almost everyone liked her. Even her students liked her.”
“She’s a teacher,” Ms. Ackers interjected.
“Ah. Okay. I think that’s all I need for now, Ms. Ackers,” the officer said. “I’ve got the photo you gave me. And I’ll contact you the moment I know anything.”
“Thank you,” Ms. Ackers said.
The police officer shook Ms. Ackers’ hand, then Alex’s, and finally Sterling’s. Then Sterling showed him to the door and locked it behind him. Sterling stood in the foyer for a moment. Alex had never seen Mara’s brother look so lost. He was twenty-three, three years younger than Mara. His ashy-brown hair fell in his face, and his eyes were dark with exhaustion and worry. He ran a hand through his shaggy hair and sighed.
“I’m… I’m gonna try calling Dad again,” he said. And he headed upstairs to his room.
Mara’s parents had been divorced for years, Alex knew. Mara and Sterling only ever saw their father perhaps once a year during the summer, sometimes not even that often. She wondered how many times Sterling had called him already, and what he would say once he’d finally heard the news.
“How long are you going to stay?” Ms. Ackers asked, and Alex looked back at her. The woman was haggard and pale. Mara had only been missing two days and already Ms. Ackers was falling apart. Alex didn’t want to think about how much worse it could get. Mara would turn it before that happened; she had to.
“As long as you need me,” Alex said, responding to the question.
Ms. Ackers nodded. “You can sleep in Mara’s room… if that won’t upset you…”
“Perhaps you could look through her papers, see if there’s any indication where she might have gone. And… I tried to get onto her laptop to see if there was anything information on there. But I couldn’t begin to guess the password. Maybe you could try?”
“Of course,” Alex said. Then she dragged her hastily packed suitcase to Mara’s bedroom.
It was seven in the evening. Everyone was too exhausted to think about food, so Ms. Ackers offered to order a couple pizzas. They sat in the kitchen, Alex, Ms. Ackers, and Sterling, and ate in silence. They were all lost in their own thoughts. Alex watched Ms. Ackers carefully for a few minutes. The woman’s face was study in panic — pale, drawn, lips taut even while eating, eyes dark and wide. Alex could easily imagine the thoughts running through her head — imagining all the scenarios of how Mara might have run away, or been kidnapped, or hit by car and left in a ditch… These were all the same things going through Alex’s head. Sterling, on the other hand, was impossible to read. He sat in his chair, chewing slowly, looking vaguely angry, both otherwise unaffected. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel anything, of course, only that she could not begin to read it on his face.
After dinner, while Sterling returned to his room to try calling his father once more, and Ms. Ackers sat on the sofa listlessly flipping channels on the television in hopes of distracting herself, Alex stepped outside onto the back patio. It was just starting to get dark. Eight o’clock on a summer night was early still and the hazy orange and violet of a fading sunset filled her eyes. The air was thick and humid, hot as a sauna and just as wet. A lazy breeze drifted through the trees just beyond the back fence.
“Alex…?” a voice whispered, Mara’s voice, as if she were surprised to find Alex in her backyard. Alex spun to her left toward the voice, assuming she was hearing things, and hoping she wasn’t. And there, a few feet away, stood Mara. Her long dark hair billowing around her face, her hazel eyes wide with shock, her mouth hanging open.
“Mara…?” Alex echoed. And then the image shimmered, and was gone. Alex blinked and looked around, moving in quick circles to survey the whole backyard. Frantic, breathless, tears springing to her eyes. The fear and stress was already messing her with senses. How lost would she be if they didn’t find Mara in a week? In a month? She shook her head, and wiped the tears away. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Instead, she removed to Mara’s room, retrieved Mara’s laptop from the nightstand, leaned back against the headboard of Mara’s bed, and turned the laptop on. After a moment, the screen loaded to the login page. It took her six attempts to guess Mara’s password, but finally it came to her, and she held her breath as she pressed enter. Alex stayed up most of the night, going through Mara’s folders one by one. She felt like a spy, or a voyeur, or something as she dug through the papers Mara had written for classes, and the emails she had saved from friends, and the short stories she had collected from various websites, and the pictures of her favorite actors and actresses, and the poetry she had written… Halfway through the night, she came across a series of short documents in a password-protected file: they looked to be journal entries of a sort.
Alex froze, her hand hovering over the touchpad of the laptop. She was violating Mara’s privacy and she hated the though of it, but there was every chance that something in these entries might explain where Mara had gone, or at least offer a clue. Alex hoped that when they found Mara that she would understand that Alex had had little choice. She was afraid Mara would be angry anyway. She was also a little afraid of what she might learn.
Taking a deep breath, Alex clicked on the first of the documents and began to read. Very quickly she realized that these entries represented those moments in Mara’s life when she was at her worst — lonely, depressed, angry, despairing. ‘A part of me is still waiting,’ one entry said, ‘though I know it will never happen. Though I know its bordering on delusion to keep hoping. Though I know I am not the kind to ever deserve such things, or survive them if they came for me.’ It took Alex only a moment to understand what Mara meant; they had spoken of it often enough. They had always been the ones waiting for the fantastic, a small part half-expecting it would someday happen, despite all of reality as proof to the contrary. They had both fantasized about grand adventures and fantasy, finding worlds like Narnia, or meeting monsters, or being contacted by aliens. The fantasies of children and lunatics had stayed with them far longer than most would allow. As the years went on, and they grew past the teenage years when these adventures always seemed to happen in books and movies, and they finished college and took on adult roles, Alex had found herself adjusting. She still daydreamed — who didn’t? — and she channeled those daydreams into writing and art. She had though Mara had adjusted as well, accepted the reality around them for what it was — she had certainly taken on the challenging dream of pursuing a career in academia, and that was its own sort of adventure, wasn’t it?
Now, she wondered how much of Mara was still invested in the daydream, in the patient waiting for something, anything, to happen. Ice ran down her back. What would Mara do when she realized all her waiting was in vain? When she realized that there was no other existence on the other side of the curtain — that there was, in fact, no curtain at all, just this. Mara had always had difficulties dealing with depression, sometimes sinking into abject despair. The daydream sometimes seemed the only thing that kept her moving forward. What happened when the dream shattered? Alex was afraid to find out.
She felt the weight of a cold stone in her stomach. Turning off the laptop, she finally gave into sleep sometime after five a.m., curled up on Mara’s bed.
A hand on her shoulder, warm but barely there, almost ghost-like. A gust of wind ruffling her straw-blonde hair. A voice in her ear: “My Alex…” Alex stirred and opened her eyes. She must be dreaming still, she thought, for there was Mara standing by the bed, a hand hovering over her shoulder just close enough to stir the tiny hairs on her pale skin. Mara smiled, gentle and affectionate, but there was a shadow of something in her hazel eyes — guilt, sadness? Alex wasn’t sure.
“Mara,” Alex breathed, “I wish you were really here.”
Alex blinked and sat up, and Mara was gone. With a frustrated sigh, Alex rubbed both hands over her face. She looked around the dark room, a tiny flicker of streetlights sneaking in through a gap in the curtains. Nothing, no sign of Mara, just Alex sitting on Mara’s bed trying not to cry. The dream had seemed so real.
She did not dare consider too closely why she could still feel warmth on her shoulder, or why papers that had been on the nightstand were now on the floor, as if blown off by a gust of wind.
The next day, Ms. Ackers concluded that Mara could not possibly have run away. She had gone through every piece of clothing, every bag, and every item in Mara’s room. The only things missing were Mara’s cell phone and house key. She had not packed a bag, or taken any clothes, or even her wallet. Alex tended to agree with Ms. Ackers’ assessment — she doubted that Mara would have run away without taking her laptop at the very least; almost her whole life was on that machine.
That left two options, neither of which the two women dared to consider for more than a few seconds had a time. But the police seemed to have come to the same two conclusions. By that afternoon Mara’s photograph was on the news, and cops had begun to search the morgues of every hospital in Houston. It was just a precaution, one of the officers explained to Ms. Ackers, Sterling, and Alex that evening. But Alex felt nauseous anyway.
Two days later, the first call came in. Someone had seen a young woman matching Mara’s description walking North on I-45 in Dallas. “Dallas?” Ms. Ackers echoed when a police officer came by to give her the update. “Why the hell would she be in Dallas?”
“We don’t know for sure it was her, Ma’am,” the officer explained, “though the caller did insist that the woman she saw looked exactly like Mara’s picture. The caller even added that the woman had very long hair — almost down to the back of her knees — which wasn’t apparent in the photo.”
“My God,” Ms. Ackers whispered. “It has to be her, right? I mean, how many young women have hair that long besides Mara?”
Alex, seated on the sofa beside Ms. Ackers, nodded. Not many women kept their hair so long anymore. But Mara had always been a little obsessed with her hair — the one attractive feature she felt she had actually possessed. Hope welled up within her.
“We’re coordinating with DPD,” the officer added. “But the caller admits that when she looked away and back again, the woman she saw had disappeared. She wasn’t sure if someone had perhaps picked her up off the side of the road, or if she had ducked behind some bushes, or something. There’s no saying when, or if, we will actually locate her.”
“I’m gonna tell Dad,” Sterling said from his position in the kitchen, where had been listening to the conversation. He had gone to get some water, and he still stood with one hand on the kitchen faucet, the other holding a glass that was still empty. Wordlessly, he set the glass down on the counter and once again disappeared into his room to calling his and Mara’s father. From what Alex understood, their father had decided to stay in Virginia, just in case Mara tried to contact him or showed up on his doorstep. Alex couldn’t decide if it was a good idea or merely avoidance of the issue. Perhaps he simply wasn’t prepared to face that fact that his oldest daughter, whom he rarely saw, was missing, and there was little he could do about it. She could understand that feeling — she didn’t feel prepared either.
Three days later, the eighth since Mara’s disappearance, a reported sighting placed Mara on the shore of Lake Houston. It didn’t seem possible. The police were certain the anonymous caller was prank caller, or was at the very least, simply mistaken. Then the caller described in perfect detail a pink, purple, and orange t-shirt that was one of only a couple shirts Ms. Ackers could not find, indicating that Mara might have been wearing it the day she disappeared.
And a day after that, one of Mara’s former students swore he had seen her on campus. But only a for a moment. He had blinked and she was gone.
Unsettled did not begin to describe how Alex felt. And she could not imagine what it was like for Ms. Ackers. The woman continued to go to work, knowing she could not support herself or Sterling if she quit, but every spare moment was devoted to finding Mara. She rarely ate more than a few bites a time, and she slept only in fits and little dozes between printing flyers and making more calls. Alex, in the meantime, had requested a short sabbatical at work. She was not ready to give up and return to L.A. She felt certain there was still something she could do in Houston.
That evening, she offered to go grocery shopping for Ms. Ackers and Sterling. Alone, she drove to the nearest grocery store and muddled her way through guessing what would be good for dinner, and what her hosts might like for breakfast — provided she could convince them to eat. As she was checking out, her cell phone rang. When she answered, she was greeted by Arthur’s urgent voice on the line.
“Is there any news?” he asked, his voice soft and strained.
She shook her head, then remembered he couldn’t see it and said, “A couple more reported sightings. But there’s nothing solid.”
“I… I thought…” Arthur stuttered.
“What?” Alex questioned.
“I thought I saw her today,” Arthur replied. “I was driving home from work, and there she was on the side of the road, right at the tree line along I-95. I was in the wrong lane, so I couldn’t get up right beside her, but I slowed down and tried to pull over, and I swear she looked right at me. Just watched me, a weird smile on her face. Like… like she was… sad and happy at the same.”
“Arthur,” Alex breathed. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“How could she possibly get to Delaware? No money was withdrawn from her bank account. Her mother checked. There is no way she bought a plane ticket to Delaware, and even if she had, why wouldn’t she just go straight to you?”
“I know, I know,” Arthur huffed. “I know that. I know. But I just… Alex, I’m telling you it was her.”
By now, Alex was pushing the cart full of bagged groceries out into the parking lot toward her rental car.
“I’m sorry, Arthur, but I just don’t—” Alex looked up as she dug in her purse for her keys. She squinted; there standing near the back row of cars was a woman with shadowed eyes and long, dark hair. “Mara,” she breathed, and dropped the phone. She could hear Arthur calling for her, but she was running.
“Mara!” she shouted, running, leaving her cart and her dropped cell phone in the middle of the parking lot. “Mara!” The woman lifted an hand in some kind of greeting or acknowledgement, then lowered it again and turned away. “No! Stop!” Alex screamed. The woman turned to the side, disappearing behind a tall SUV. When Alex rounded the corner after her a second later, there was no one to be seen.
Alex stuttered to stop, her breath hitching in her throat and heaving in her chest. A sob shuddered through her. “Come back,” she cried out. But there was no one there. Defeated, trembling from the adrenaline rush and ignoring looks from a few people who had been in the parking lot to witness her break with reality, Alex stumbled back to her abandoned cart.
She picked up her cell phone to find Arthur still on the line, calling for her, demanding to know what was happening. “Sorry,” she gasped out, breathless.
“What happened? Where’d you go?” Arthur asked. She breathed heavily into the receiver and tried to think of any answer. “You saw her, didn’t you?” he said after a moment — part hopeful, part accusing.
“Yeah,” she said in a gust. “Yeah. But it must have been in my head.”
“I don’t know,” Arthur whispered. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. I just don’t know.” And he sounded so broken in that moment that Alex could think of no reply. Sometimes she forget that she was not Mara’s only best friend. She and Arthur shared that role, and now that shared the pain of that loss.
“I have to go,” Alex said finally. “I’ll call you if anything changes.”
Alex hung up and shoved the cell phone into her back jean pocket. Then she pushed her cart toward her rental car, hands and knees still trembling.
Alex did not sleep often or well these days. Some nights she stayed to read through Mara’s journal entries one more time, in the hopes of finding a clue, a hint, a whisper, anything. Some nights she sat up with the frantic, grieving Ms. Ackers. One night she found Sterling sneaking out of the house at one in the morning. He told her he had taken to walking in the darkness — he and Mara used to sneak out of the house to walk at night years ago and it gave him time and space and privacy to clear his head. Alex asked if she could join him this one and he shrugged. They walked for an hour in the darkness and the silence, neither feeling the need to speak. At one point, Sterling came to a sudden halt, looking far off to his left, breathing hard. She wondered if he had seen Mara as she had, but after a few breaths he shook himself and forced himself back into a long, slow stride. She didn’t have the courage to ask what he had seen.
Even on those nights when Alex stretched out on Mara’s bed and knew she should sleep, knew she was in desperate need of it, she was afraid to all the same. When finally she drifted off, her nightmares were filled to brimming with Mara. Gagged and bound in the trunk of someone’s car, tears and blood smeared and dried on her face. Walking down the side of the road toward the local Walmart, only to be struck head-on by a speeding car. Left to rot in some ditch, covered by trash and pine needles. Tied up in some psychopath’s basement, kept alive for God only knew what. Or buried in that same psychopath’s backyard already. Terrified and in pain, or already dead — she could not stand either thought.
So she didn’t sleep.
Reported sightings of Mara continued to pour in over the next few days. Most of them in Texas, but a few people came forward claiming to have seen her in Washington, D.C., Portland, Maine, and New York City. These claims only after news of Mara’s disappearance had filtered into the National news, but some claimed to have seen her a week before the news broke — they just hadn’t been able to put a name to the face until they saw the news reports later. However, there was not a single solid piece of evidence to support all these claims, and after awhile the police concluded that the sightings were a result of the same kinds of group reactions that led to mass UFO sightings. And as no one had come forward claiming to have seen Mara being kidnapped, and no evidence seemed to suggest such a thing, the police had settled on suicide.
Alex was finding it more and more difficult to disagree with their assessment. The journal entries on Mara’s laptop certainly made it a viable possibility. “I’m looking for something,” Mara had written in one entry, “but I’m not sure what. I’m trying to find something, but I’m not sure it’s there to be found. Balance, maybe? A feeling of contentment — I can honestly say I’ve never really felt such a thing. A rescuer, perhaps? Or maybe just an escape.”
Alex felt uneasy about that word: escape.
Again and again, she sifted through Mara’s documents. Then she began to look through her photographs again. One afternoon, fifteen days since Mara’s disappearance, Alex began to pay closer attention to a series of photos taken from a bridge. Beneath the bridge, dirty brown water swirled and swelled. It looked to be some kind of river, and barges and small boats could be seen in the distance. On each side of the river: tall blowing grass, a scattering of small buildings, and a cow or two. The photos had been taken on different days and at different times. Some at sunset, some in the bright sunlight, some with the grass rich green, some with grass gone brown and dead. There had to be at least a dozen shots taken from the same position on top the bridge — looking out over the water, or turned to snap a photo of the bridge-supports rising on either side, cars coming toward the camera or moving away.
The stone that had been sitting in her stomach for the last two weeks grew larger, and colder.
She took the laptop out to the living room where Ms. Ackers sat designing more fliers on her own computer. “Do you recognize this place?” she asked, showing the photos on the screen to Ms. Ackers.
Ms. Ackers peered at the pictures for a moment, furrowing her eyebrows. “I think that’s Rainbow Bridge,” the older woman said finally.
“Just outside Bridge City.”
“That’s where you guys lived for awhile, right?” Alex asked, remembering the tiny town in Southeast Texas, about two hours away from Houston, where Mara and her family had lived for about six months.
Ms. Ackers nodded.
“Why does she have this many pictures of some bridge?” Alex asked. “Does it have any meaning for her?”
Ms. Ackers shrugged. “She was always taking pictures of random architectural things. She also had a thing for old railroad bridges.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen some. But this is the only bridge where she kept coming back to take more pictures from the exact same location,” Alex insisted.
Ms. Ackers paled. Alex had never really believed you could see someone’s blood rush from their face the way it was described in books, but there it was. Woosh, and the blood was gone from her cheeks and lips.
“What?” Alex questioned, “What’ wrong?” She placed a worried hand on Ms. Ackers’ trembling shoulder.
“Rainbow Bridge used to be popular for… for…”
“For…” Alex prompted. She waited but Ms. Ackers could only shake her head. “For jumping?” Alex guessed.
Ms. Ackers nodded, and Alex’s suspicions were confirmed. The stone in her stomach turned to dry ice and burned like nothing she had ever felt before. Even the initial shock of Mara’s disappearance could not compare to the panic she now felt.
“How do I get there?” she asked suddenly. Ms. Ackers stared at her, the look on her face clearing asking if she had lost her mind. “I need to see the place for myself,” Alex said.
Ms. Ackers paused a second longer, than gave him and wrote the directions down on a scrap of paper. Alex didn’t wait; she grabbed her purse and keys and nearly ran to her car in the driveway.
The Rainbow Bridge on State Highway 86 crossed over the Neches River, connecting Port Arthur on the southwest bank to Bridge City on the northeast bank. It was a steep cantilever bridge, and it was leaning toward old now. It was a one-way bridge now, as another bridge had been built to take on some of the traffic, but it was still somewhat narrow.
Alex parked her car on the side of the road a few yards away from the beginning of the bridge, then began to uncomfortable trek up to the top of the bridge, ignoring the curious and occasionally annoyed looks she received from drivers passing by her. She wasn’t sure how long it took her to reach the peak of the bridge; her heart was in her throat the whole time and she could only concentrate on breathing and moving. When she did reach the top, she placed her hands against the thick bridge-supports and faced the water. Just as in the pictures, the water was brown and dirty looking. A few ships could be seen in the distance, possibly headed for the Port of Beaumont.
The wind was strong this high up, but still hot as a blast furnace — it was, after all, Southeast Texas. It blew her straw-blonde hair into her face, and scraped raw against her cheeks. Before long she could feel the sweat trickling down her spine and beading on her forehead. She took a deep breath and smelled the slightly briny scent of the river; they weren’t all that far from the gulf here. The sun glinted off the water and she squinted as she looked down. Exhaustion rushed through her like a particularly hard gust of wind, and she swayed on her feet. The sensation of falling made her thoughts swim and blur. Then she blinked hard and shook her head and glared down at the water.
She tried to imagine what it would feel like to jump off this bridge. The air rushing up and around and past you. The river coming up to meet you. The pounding in your chest and throat and head. Alex was afraid of heights and was already feeling that pounding in her chest and throat, but could not quite imagine what the fall would feel like. Would you be scared — even knowing that you jumped willingly? Would you have time to regret your decision. Was this high enough to make the impact on the water’s surface resemble hitting concrete? Would you still be alive as you plummeted into the water? Unconscious? Unable to reach the surface before drowning, even if you could swim? She couldn’t imagine it, and on second thought, really didn’t want to.
Mara had told her once that while she wasn’t afraid of heights — could look out windows in very tall buildings and even over the edge of the Grand Canyon without blinking — the sensation of falling from any height, even a three-foot stool, frightened her. And yet that fear had been half-panic and half-adrenaline rush, thus her obsession with roller coasters. Would jumping off a bridge be more fear or rush for Mara? If Mara was looking for escape, for release, would that rush to the river give it to her? Alex closed her eyes and clenched her teeth, as she imagined Mara laughing — a slightly manic laugh she had heard once when Mara sat down in the middle of a suburban street at midnight and didn’t blink when a car came toward her and screeched to a halt. The driver had screamed and waved his arms, and Mara had only laughed as Alex grabbed her arms and dragged her out of the way.
It hit her only then that she would not be at all surprised to discover Mara really had killed herself. She shuddered.
The next day, the police began searching the Neches River for bodies.
“I saw her!” Ms. Ackers cried a couple days later, coming home from work. “I saw her standing right in the middle of the highway, and then car drove right through her, and she was gone.”
Alex spoke slow and soft: “Are you sure you didn’t just imagine it.”
“The driver of the car slammed on his brakes and stopped. He actually got out of the car, and the rest of the traffic had to swerve around him. I stopped to help him. He saw her too. It wasn’t just me. He saw her and thought he’d run her over. But then she wasn’t there anymore.”
Tears ran down Ms. Ackers face, and scrubbed her face with both hands. “I swear to God I saw her!” she sobbed.
And Alex found she believed her. After all, hadn’t Arthur seen her too. Hadn’t a couple dozen strangers seen her? Hadn’t Alex seen her three times already? It couldn’t be a coincidence.
“I believe you,” Alex whispered. Ms. Ackers looked up, gratitude and hope so bright on her face that it hurt Alex’s heart. “But…” she breathed.
“What if… what if what we’re seeing is… is a…”
“A ghost?” Ms. Ackers finished. Alex nodded, feeling pathetic. She had never believed in ghosts.
“I’d thought of that too,” Ms. Ackers admitted. “It’s… it’s definitely a possibility.”
Alex nodded. At this point, she she wasn’t sure anything would surprise her.
The next night, having fallen asleep despite herself, she awoke at 3am. She wasn’t sure why; no sound or movement seemed to have been the cause, and she didn’t remember any dream that might have startled her awake. And yet, here she was sitting up and staring into the darkness, feeling startled and out of breath. Then she looked down. And there, beside her on the bed, was a rose. Frantic, she leapt from the bed to turn on the light and turned, expecting the flower to have disappeared with the final haze of sleep. But it was still there, laying atop the sheet. It was long-stemmed and yellow. Her favorite kind of rose.
And she knew, absolutely knew, that neither Ms. Ackers or Sterling would ever give her a rose of any kind, let along a yellow one. She tried to think of how many people even knew that yellow roses were her favorite: her parents, her brother, an ex-boyfriend, a couple friends, and Mara. Slowly, she stepped back toward the bed and lifted the rose from the sheets between thumb and forefinger. She gazed at the soft yellow petals and breathed in the sweet fragrance. Then she looked around nervously.
“Mara…?” she whispered. A part of her, a larger part than she cared to admit, waited for Mara to reply. She was beginning to fear for her sanity. And yet, she could not deny the existence of this rose, nor the fact that it had appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
In the days following the appearance of the yellow rose, the reported sightings of Mara became few and far between. By the time the first month anniversary of her disappearance came, the sightings had stopped completely. Even Alex had not seen her again. The police had not found a body either. Alex couldn’t decide if this should concern her or not. Perhaps all their assumptions had been wrong. Perhaps Mara had been kidnapped or something. She shuddered. It was not a comforting thought.
Alex had not returned to L.A. once during this month of searching and hoping and waiting. But now it was coming close to time to go home, to return to her job and her life. She was not ready to give up on finding Mara, but she slowly realized that there was nothing more she could do. Now all that was left was the waiting and the praying. And she knew that there was a good chance she would never learn the truth of what had happened to her dearest friend.
A month and week after she had come to Houston to do what she could to find Mara, Alex walked onto a plane headed for LAX.
Alex dropped heavily onto her own sofa in her own apartment, and stared blankly at the broken television she’d been meaning to fix or replace for months. She was tired. More than tired. After the last month and more of waiting for some sign of Mara, she had difficulty feeling anything else anymore; exhaustion had become her default setting, her overriding state of being. With a soft sigh, she closed her eyes and willed herself to sink into the sofa cushions. She didn’t want to think anymore. She didn’t want to spend hours speculating about Mara, picturing her bound and gagged in a basement, or killed in a hit-and-run, or throwing herself off the Rainbow Bridge into the murky frigid alligator-infested river below. She was tired and heart-sore from imagining all the horrifying things that may have befallen Mara. Or self-inflicted by her. She knew a part of her would never stop looking, but for now, she needed to be able to close her eyes and not see Mara’s pale, cold, dead face staring back up at her. She needed to stop. Just for now. Just for awhile. Guilt, at the thought of giving up or abandoning Mara, surged like a tidal wave through her. But she knew she was making the right decision for her own sanity.
With a second sigh that just barely avoided turning into a sob, she opened her eyes. And felt the sofa dip beside her, and saw someone out of the corner of her eye, and turned to find Mara watching her.
“Hi Alex,” Mara said softly. Her expression was serious and unsmiling, but not angry or upset, somehow more at peace than Alex could remember seeing her.
“Hi, Mara…” Alex whispered. After so many sightings of Mara’s faraway form, waving or smiling or whispering her name, it was difficult to be shocked to find her now sitting on Alex’s sofa. She blinked, expecting the apparition to disappear when her eyes opened again. But Mara was still sitting there, one corner of her mouth quirking into an almost-smile. The sofa still dipped around Mara’s form — she had weight and substance. She wasn’t just a ghost, as Alex had imagined.
“Am I dreaming?” Alex asked, just to be sure.
If she wasn’t dreaming, well then…
“Are you dead?” Alex whispered next, tears pricking her eyes.
“No,” Mara said again.
“You’re really here?”
Well, then… Mara had some serious explaining to do.
“Where the hell have you been?!” Alex demanded then, her voice hoarse and thick with tears, her eyesight blurring like a bad watercolor painting. She swallowed sharply, trying to fight back the tears.
Mara paused a moment, her face scrunched up just slightly as she tried to gather her thoughts and think of a response. “I’m still not entirely sure, actually,” she said finally.
“What do you mean? What happened? We thought you were dead, Mara!” Alex exclaimed, her voice cracking and squeaking.
“I… I just went for a walk. Grabbed my house key, and my cell phone just in case I needed it, and went for a walk around the neighborhood. Just a quick little walk, you know? But I… I fell into… something…”
Mara shrugged, uncertain and embarrassed by her lack of knowledge. “A hole, of a sort, I guess. A black hole maybe, or some kind of rip in the universe, or a portal into another dimension.”
Alex gaped at her, trying to absorb what she was hearing.
Mara gave her an embarrassed half-smile. “I know, it sounds insane. I don’t know what it was exactly. But I ended up somewhere… else. Somewhere… not Earth.”
Alex continued to gape for a moment as she attempted to comprehend the words pouring from Mara’s mouth. “Are you saying…?” she began, her voice choking in her throat before she could finish the question.
“…I finally got the one thing I’d been waiting for my whole life?” Mara finished for her. Mara grinned now. “Yeah, I got my adventure.”
And Alex felt something in her break free, and the tears tumbled from her eyes as she sobbed: “I was so scared, Mara!” And she was crying as she had not allowed herself to cry in the one month and one week she had been waiting for some sign of Mara. She sobbed and covered her mouth with one hand in a vain attempt to hold herself together. The flood of fear, grief, and desperation heaved and raged its way out of her, and she could do nothing but hold on.
“We thought you were dead!” she sobbed again. “The police are convinced you threw yourself off Rainbow Bridge and… and I thought you might have too… and your mother is a mess! And Sterling just sort of wanders around the house in between calling your dad to keep him updated. And Arthur has been inconsolable!” Now that Alex was shouting in the midst of her tears, she couldn’t seem to stop. “For weeks all I could see when I closed my eyes was your dead body! And your mother thinks you’re haunting her! Some many people claimed to have seen you. And I saw you! Three times, I saw you! And half-believed you were a ghost!” Tears streamed down her face as she stopped to catch her breath.
Through her tear-filled eyes, she saw Mara’s pale, guilt-stricken face, and swallowed her intention to keep yelling.
“I’m sorry,” Mara whispered. “I’m so sorry I scared you. I didn’t do it on purpose, Alex, I swear. I just went for a walk. I didn’t go looking to disappear. But I admit… once I realized what had happened… I didn’t try very hard to get back.” Alex stared at her, trying to decide how she felt about that admission. It hurt to know that Mara had not tried to return to her, or her parents, or any part of her life. On the other hand, she had apparently found what they had fantasized about for years. Could she really blame her for wanting to stay?
“As for the… the sightings…” Mara continued. “That was accidental too.”
“What? Wait. So all that was really you?”
Mara nodded. “It’s like the wall that separates here from there is rubbed thin in places… Sometimes its rubbed so thin that you can punch through. That’s how I got through to begin with. That’s how I’m here now. But sometimes its just thin enough to see through — like looking through a screen door. I had no control over it, or where I was when I came across a thin patch, or how long it lasted when I did come across one. I tried once or twice to talk to you through one, but…” Mara shrugged.
“You gave me the rose, right?” Alex asked. She was as surprised as Mara by the question. So many important questions she could ask, and that was what came out of her mouth?
After her momentary surprise, Mara smiled again. “Yeah… I thought it might make you feel better.”
“Are you coming back now?” Alex asked then, hope bubbling up in her chest. But the moment the words were out of her mouth, and Mara’s eyes became dark and solemn, Alex knew the answer.
Guilt and apology and determination lay heavily on Mara’s features, and she shook her head.
“No, Alex. I’m sorry, but I’m not coming back. You remember all those times we talked about what we would do if we found ourselves dropped into some other world, like a fantasy novel come true? And we could never decide how we would react, what we would do, if we would think it was a dream, or panic, and want to come home, or want to stay…?” She paused and took a deep breath. “Well, I know now. And I did panic for a little while. But I… I can’t come back.” And despite the guilt she obviously felt over leaving her family and friends, it was obvious that Mara had never been so sure, so calm, so at peace with her own existence than she was at that moment. Alex stared at her; she had never seen that expression on Mara’s face before. Resolute. Certain. Content.
Alex wanted to ask what Mara had seen and learned and done to have finally find contentment. Wanted to ask her what it was like in this place she had fallen into. But she didn’t. A part of her was afraid to know. Finally, all she said was: “I… I think I understand.”
“I am sorry,” Mara repeated. “I’m so sorry I scared you, and everyone. I’m sorry to do this to my mother. I’m sorry to leave you and Arthur and all my friends and even Sterling…” Mara gave Alex a wry smile at that. “But I… I finally feel like a belong somewhere. Even though I love my family and I love you and Arthur and I even loved teaching, I could never find my footing here. It felt like I was slipping on reality — like oil sliding across ice. Like there was just smooth surface, no texture, nothing for me to grab hold of. And even though there were parts of my life I loved, a very large part of me just wanted to escape. Needed to escape. And I did escape. And escape wasn’t what I thought it was, isn’t what I think it is… But I don’t slip here. There’s texture, and color, and depth here. Does that make sense?”
Alex nodded, unable to speak.
“Alex,” Mara whispered then, reaching out to take old of both of Alex’s hands. “You could come with me.”
“You always wanted this as much as I did,” Mara said. “Wanted this adventure, this freedom. I’m not going to lie; it’s not easy. There’s so much you have to give up, so much you have to say good-bye to. But I think it’s worth the sacrifice. I really do.”
Alex stuttered, “wha—? But..? I…”
Mara smiled gently. “I can’t stay here much longer. Those thin spots I told you about? I’m sitting right in the middle of one, right on the line that separates here from there. Any minute now, it’ll re-seal itself, and I’ll be gone. You’ll have to step through with me now if you want to come. I know it’s hard to make a decision like this so quickly. But the thin spots don’t show through as often anymore. Didn’t you notice that the ‘sightings’ have been less and less frequent lately? It’s because the wall seems to be repairing itself, or something… If you don’t come now, I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to.”
Alex stared at her. Her heart pounded in her throat. Tears still swam in her eyes. She looked down at their intertwined hands. Then she closed her eyes. Excitement warred with fear fought with love for Mara clashed with love for her family struggled with responsibility. In this five-way battle, indecision ruled. Silence clamored around them, waiting breathlessly for her answer. Alex had always been a little more willing than Mara to accept reality, to accept the challenges and textures of reality here. She wanted a family — a husband, children, family reunions with grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — things Mara had never seemed to have much vested interest in. That was its own kind of adventure, Alex realized. Not the kind Mara had been waiting for, but important nonetheless, and Alex’s for the taking nonetheless.
Mara watched her, her face neutral. No pressure, no judgment, just patience and understanding. She knew this was a difficult, even impossible, decision.
Finally, Alex shook her head. “I can’t, Mara. As much as I always wanted adventure, as much as I still do, I can’t. I have a life here; people I care about and who care about me, responsibilities, plans, dreams. Things I want to accomplish on this side. Life on this side can be an adventure, Mara. Adventures are waiting for me here, and I can’t turn my back on all that. I don’t want to.”
Mara took a deep breath, closed her eyes, opened them again, and nodded. “I understand,” she breathed. But Alex suspected she didn’t, really. Mara paused and looked to the side, as if she could see or hear something beyond what was real to Alex.
“It’s starting to close,” Mara whispered. She looked at Alex with wide hazel eyes. “Can I ask a favor of you?”
Anything,” Alex said.
“I have some letters… One for mom, one for Arthur, a couple others… Can you see that they make it to the right people?”
“I’m not sure if you should give mom hers… I don’t know if it would be better for her to believe I’m dead, or for her to know I’m alive and willingly chose not to return. You’ve seen her, seen how she’s reacted to my disappearance… Maybe I should leave that decision to you…? Wait awhile, and then do what you think is best with that letter. Give it to her, or save it, or burn it.”
Again, Alex nodded. She didn’t trust her voice.
“Help her if you can, please,” Mara whispered in a pained voice. “I know I’m being cruel to her. I know this might break her. But I…” She stopped, her voice broken.
Alex nodded. Tears dripped down her face.
“And take care of yourself. I know you’ll be alright in the end. You were always the strong one. But just… take care of yourself. And don’t ever forget that I love you. You are the most amazing friend I have ever had.”
“I won’t forget,” Alex said hoarsely. “I love you too. Always.” As one, they leaned forward and embraced each other fiercely. “Please take care of yourself. And… be happy.”
“I’m getting there,” Mara said. “I’m not quite there yet, but I think I’m finally getting there.”
Alex whispered into Mara’s shoulder, “good, good.”
“If I can find another opening like this again, I’ll come visit you. Alright? And I fully intend to ask you if you’ve changed your mind, so think about it from time to time, okay?”
“Okay,” Alex said. But she didn’t think she would change her mind, even if Mara did somehow manage the impossible task of coming back again. Still, Mara’s offer was a pleasant dream.
“Be safe,” Alex sighed.
“Goodbye,” Mara breathed.
Alex blinked back tears, and Mara was gone. There was a warm spot on the sofa where Mara been sitting, but it cooled quickly, leaving Alex to wonder again if she was just dreaming. But if she was, she decided, she didn’t really want to know. It didn’t really matter anyway.
And in a few hours she would find a few letters written in splattery black ink on rough paper waiting patiently for her on the coffee table. And she wouldn’t ask herself once if it might be a hoax. She could easily believe it was all real. Nothing surprised her anymore.
As should be readily apparent, this is a work of fiction, but it is based on my fantasies, and real people in my life.