I sat cross-legged on my family’s blue couch in a sleep-deprived haze, my long brown hair tucked into a messy bun to keep it out of my face. I was clutching a steaming hot mug of coffee in my hands like it was a life preserver. On any other day, in any other situation, my mother would have made some comment about the coffee. I had started drinking the stuff early, when I was just thirteen. My Mom had warned me that it would stunt my growth. Of course, once I hit my growth spurt, she switched to shooting me disapproving looks. This morning though, we had other things to worry about.
I held the coffee up to my face, breathing in the steam. Then I gulped it down. I needed to be alert and if it was going to take a heart-stopping dose of caffeine to keep me awake, then so be it. I watched my mother pace back and forth as she talked to Mrs. Martinez on the phone. She was a blur to me. My whole world right now was a blur. I didn’t have my contacts in and I was as good as blind without them.
I might not have been able to see much of my mother’s expression, but I could hear what she was saying and I knew it wasn’t good. My Mom had done a full 180 from last night. She had given up on trying to convince Mrs. Martinez that Gwen would be checking in any minute and was now trying to comfort her. “It’ll be OK,” she kept telling Gwen’s Mom in a whisper. Mrs. Martinez must’ve been crying. I told myself crying wouldn’t help. I needed to do something. “We’re here for you. Anything you need,” my Mom said. “I think Justine would be more than OK with coming down to help. She can be there this afternoon if you like.” Now I was wide awake, and reflecting on how awesome my Mom could be.
My Mom hung up and walked over, sinking into the chair across from me. Despite her insistence last night that there wasn’t much to worry about, the dark circles under her eyes told a different story. “I assume there’s no way I can convince you to go to school?”
No way in hell. I had never skipped school, but I had never had a friend go missing. I shook my head, ready for the question. “I haven’t missed a single day this semester, and how could I concentrate on my schoolwork anyways?”
As it turned out, my Mom didn’t need a whole lot of convincing. “I figured as much,” she said with complete understanding. “Here’s the deal,” she said, leaning forward. “Gwen’s parents have checked the hospitals, talked to all her friends, and filed a report with the police. There’s been no word from her since last night. The police have recommended that her parents blanket the area with fliers in the hope that someone’s either seen her or knows something about her disappearance. I know you’re worried sick, and so am I, but so far there’s no evidence of foul play. The police just think it’s best to be aggressive in the search for her. If you want to help with handing out fliers, you can take today and tomorrow off from school. With the three-day weekend coming up, that’ll give you five whole days to help look for Gwen. Hopefully you won’t even need all that time. How’s that sound?”
There was always a deal with my Mom, but she was fair. Still, I could see what she was doing, channeling all of my fear and anger into something she thought would keep me safe. For some reason, my Mom seemed to think I’d try something risky. It’s almost as if after sixteen years on this planet, my Mom knew me. “That sounds good,” I said, managing a weak smile. She had given me five full days to search for Gwen, I’d work with that.
“I’ll write you a note, but you need to be back in school by Tuesday,” my Mom continued. “Mrs. Martinez said you’re welcome to stay in their guest bedroom if you like. Or you could stay with your father…”
I screwed up my face, as if my coffee had suddenly turned into acid.
“Or you could stay with the Martinezes,” my Mom said. She came over and gave me a kiss on the head. I hugged her back. Moms really did have a way of making things a little bit better. “It’ll be OK,” she promised me. “When you go down there, you’ll call right away if there’s any news about Gwen?”
“Sure,” I said. “Do they have any better idea of what happened last night? I mean, where was Gwen last seen, things like that?” I was trying to play it off like it was an innocent question, my brown eyes all wide and sad.
My Mom loomed over me, her lips pursed into a thin line. “You’re not the police, you are not to act like the police. You stay out of their way and do whatever you can to help Mr. and Mrs. Martinez out.”
“I know,” I said, glancing away.
“I mean it,” she said. “We’re worried sick about Gwen, we do not need to be worried about you as well.”
“I understand,” I said, letting out a little sigh. Of course, the best way to help Mr. and Mrs. Martinez was to find Gwen. I just couldn’t be stupid about how I did it. The whole plan was to make things better, not worse, but first, I needed to find out where my best friend had disappeared. “Would it really hurt though if I visited where Gwen was last seen? If I didn’t cause any trouble? Just poked around?”
Sometimes, much to my sleep-deprived surprise, the direct approach worked. My Mom gave in, a little too easily I thought. “Well, you’re going to find out anyways, but on one condition: You get some rest before you head out on the road. You got, what, three or four hours of sleep last night, max?”
Probably more like two and a half. It had been a hard night. I had fought off sleep for as long as I could, and when it finally came, I kept on jerking awake, thinking I had heard the phone ringing. Given how my eyelids were fluttering closed, even with the dose of caffeine, my mother’s demand wasn’t a bad one. “OK, one way or the other, I’ll make myself take a nap before I go,” I told her.
Her condition met, my Mom finally seemed satisfied. She perched on the edge of the chair’s armrest as she spoke. “Do you know where Stone Harbor is?”
I nodded. Gwen had taken me there before. It was just south of Avalon.
“According to Gwen’s boyfriend, she called and said her car broke down on 96th Street. Don’t make me regret telling you that. You hear me, Justine?”
“All I’m going to do is take a look. I need to see for myself,” I said. Four hours ago, everything had changed. My best friend, one of the only friends I had in the entire world, had gone missing. I had to find out what happened.
I jumped into the shower, the warm water only succeeding in making me more sleepy, not less, and got dressed. I wasn’t a big fan of the educational institution known as ‘high school,’ so I wasn’t too broken up about missing a day or two. I enjoyed the learning, especially history class, it was the other kids that I despised. I had forever been branded ‘the fat girl’ by my peers. The fact that I kicked ass in cross country and had a black belt in jujutsu didn’t seem to count for much in my basketball and football-obsessed school.
Well, fuck those kids. I wasn’t fat. I was just big, and I was OK with that. My family was Polish, my last name was Kwiatkowski, but I must have had a great-great-grandmother in my family tree who was a Viking warrior. There wasn’t much else to explain how I had gotten to be 6 foot and built like a linebacker. Well, there was my father, who was 6’2” and built like a linebacker, but I didn’t want to dwell on the thought that I might take after him. When I had been younger, I had been tormented mercilessly by the other kids, except for Gwen, who always stood up for me, but the cross-country helped with the weight and the jujutsu took care of the bullying. I now knew from personal experience that you couldn’t shove an entire kid into a locker, but you could bash their heads into one if they were picking a fight with you. Or if you saw them trying to bully another student. I went from being “the fat girl” to “the mean fat girl,” with most of the kids in my school now keeping their distance, and I liked that arrangement just fine.
I came back downstairs to find my mother had spread out a huge breakfast on our white kitchen table. My Mom was far from an expert chef, mac n’ cheese with orange powder was a fairly regular staple of our diet, but the breakfast looked good. “Eat, sleep, then get on the road,” my Mom said, concern clearly etched upon her face. I could tell she was still in shock about everything that had happened, then again, so was I.
I sat down and piled eggs, bacon, and several wedges of cantaloupe onto my plate. Part of me just wanted to get going, but my Mom was right, I needed to take care of myself before I could help look for Gwen.
“Mornin’,” my little sister Rachel said with a yawn as she shuffled into the kitchen wearing fluffy purple bunny slippers. Poor kid. She was so cheerful and innocent. She hadn’t heard about Gwen yet and I didn’t know how to tell her.
Three years younger than me, Rachel was like a trimmer, cuter version of myself. With big brown doe-like eyes, she was also far more adorable than I had ever been. Rachel took one look at the breakfast spread laid out before her then one look at the tired and worn expressions both me and my mother shared and knew something was up. “What’s wrong?”
“Gwen didn’t come home last night,” my Mom told her as gently as she could. “No one knows where she is. Hopefully all this worry is for nothing and she’ll turn up soon safe and sound.” I was so thankful my Mom was there to explain it.
Rachel took a moment to let the news sink in, perhaps wondering if it was all a dream and she had never really woken up. “Gwen? Missing? She wouldn’t run away…”
I offered a solemn nod of my head. Rachel was a smart kid, she picked up quick. “Yeah, which is why we’re all worried. But like Mom said, hopefully she’ll turn up OK. I’m going down for a few days to help hand out fliers.”
Rachel pulled out a chair and stared at the piles of food, having lost any appetite. “She’s missing?” she repeated to herself. “How worried are you?” she turned and asked me.
Shit. I think I visibly winced at the question. How worried was I? Part of me couldn’t believe this was happening, the other part of me wanted to scream and hunt down whoever did this to Gwen. “Really worried,” I said, trying to sound as if I wasn’t scared out of my mind.
“But it’s too early to be leaping to conclusions,” my Mom said, leaning in to give Rachel a hug. “I’m sure Gwen will turn up.” My little sister made a big show of trying to avoid the hug, complete with a roll of the eyes for good measure. Ah, to be thirteen years old again. It wasn’t that long ago.
Rachel glanced over. “Gwen has to know you’ll be looking for her. I bet that makes her feel better.” I didn’t know what to say to that. I just shrugged my shoulders and looked down at my breakfast. Maybe Gwen was counting on me, if she was, then I couldn’t let her down.
“Think you might run into Dad while you’re down there?” my sister asked after a pause, realizing that if I was headed down to Avalon that I’d be close to our father’s place.
“Wasn’t planning to,” I said. “With everything going on, it’s not really a good time.” I could have said a lot more, but I did have it in me to be diplomatic when I needed to. I didn’t want to upset my sister, especially not today.
“Well, if you do, tell him I say ‘hi,’” Rachel said, ever the optimist. My little sister didn’t hold grudges quite the same way I did. At the moment though, that was the farthest thing from my mind. I had to figure out what had happened to my friend.