All the Missing Girls

All the Missing Girls

Megan Miranda



For my parents





PART 1

   Going Home

   Man . . . cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him.

   —FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE





It started with a phone call, deceptively simple and easy to ignore. The buzzing on Everett’s nightstand, the glow of the display—too bright in the bedroom he kept so dark, with the light-blocking shades pulled to the sill and the tinted windows a second line of defense against the glare of the sun and the city. Seeing the name, hitting the mute, turning my phone facedown beside the clock.

But then. Lying awake, wondering why my brother would call so early on a Sunday. Running through the possibilities: Dad; the baby; Laura.

I felt my way through the dark, my hands brushing the sharp corners of furniture until I found the light switch in the bathroom. My bare feet pressed into the cold tile floor as I sat on the toilet lid with the phone held to my ear, goose bumps forming on my legs.

Daniel’s message echoed in the silence: “The money’s almost gone. We need to sell the house. Dad won’t sign the papers, though.” A pause. “He’s in bad shape, Nic.”

Not asking for my help, because that would be too direct. Too unlike us.

I hit delete, slipped back under the sheets before Everett woke, felt for him beside me to be sure.

But later that day, back at my place, I flipped through the previous day’s mail and found the letter—Nic Farrell, written in familiar handwriting, in blue ink; the address filled in by someone else, with a different, darker pen.

Dad didn’t call anymore. Phones made him feel even more disoriented, too far removed from the person he was trying to place. Even if he remembered whom he’d been dialing, we’d slip from his mind when we answered, nothing more than disembodied voices in the ether.

I unfolded the letter—a lined journal page with jagged edges, his handwriting stretching beyond the lines, veering slightly to the left, as if he’d been racing to get the thoughts down before they slipped from his grasp.

No greeting.

I need to talk to you. That girl. I saw that girl.

No closing.

I called Daniel back, the letter still trembling in my hand. “Just got your message,” I said. “I’m coming home. Tell me what’s going on.”





DAY 1

I took inventory of the apartment one last time before loading up my car: suitcases waiting beside the door; key in an envelope on the kitchen counter; an open box half full of the last-minute things I’d packed up the night before. I could see every angle of the apartment from the galley kitchen—exposed and empty—but still, I had the lingering feeling that I was forgetting something.

I’d gotten everything together in a rush, finishing out the last few weeks of the school year while fielding calls from Daniel and finding someone to sublet my place for the summer—no time to pause, to take in the fact that I was actually doing this. Going back. Going there. Daniel didn’t know about the letter. He knew only that I was coming to help, that I had two months before I needed to return to my life here.

Now the apartment was practically bare. An industrial box, stripped of all warmth, awaiting the moderately responsible-looking grad student who would be staying through August. I’d left him the dishes, because they were a pain to pack. I’d left him the futon, because he’d asked, and because he threw in an extra fifty dollars.

The rest of it—the things that wouldn’t fit in my car, at least—was in a storage unit a few blocks away. My entire life in a sealed rectangular cube, stacked full of painted furniture and winter clothes.

The sound of someone knocking echoed off the empty walls, made me jump. The new tenant wasn’t due to arrive for another few hours, when I’d be on the road. It was way too early for anyone else.

I crossed the narrow room and opened the front door.

“Surprise,” Everett said. “I was hoping to catch you before you left.” He was dressed for work—clean and sleek—and he bent down to kiss me, one arm tucked behind his back. He smelled like coffee and toothpaste; starch and leather; professionalism and efficiency. He pulled a steaming Styrofoam cup from behind his back. “Brought you this. For the road.”

I inhaled deeply. “The way to my heart.” I leaned against the counter, took a deep sip.

He checked his watch and winced. “I hate to do this, but I have to run. Early meeting on the other side of town.”

We met halfway for one last kiss. I grabbed his elbow as he pulled away. “Thank you,” I said.

He rested his forehead against mine. “It’ll go fast. You’ll see.”

I watched him go—his steps crisp and measured, his dark hair brushing his collar—until he reached the elevator at the end of the hall. He turned back just as the doors slid open. I leaned against the doorframe, and he smiled.

“Drive safe, Nicolette.”

I let the door fall shut, and the reality of the day suddenly made my limbs heavy, my fingertips tingle.

The red numbers on the microwave clock ticked forward, and I cringed.

It’s a nine-hour drive from Philadelphia to Cooley Ridge, not counting traffic, lunch break, gas and restroom stops, depending. And since I was leaving twenty minutes after I said I would, I could already picture Daniel sitting on the front porch, tapping his foot, as I pulled into the unpaved driveway.

I sent him a text as I propped the front door open with a suitcase: On my way, but more like 3:30.

It took two trips to drag the luggage and remaining boxes down to the car, which was parked around the block, behind the building. I heard the beginnings of rush-hour traffic in the distance, a steady hum on the highway, the occasional honk. A familiar harmony.

I started the car, waited for the air to kick in. Okay, okay, I thought. I rested my phone in the cup holder and saw a response from Daniel: Dad’s expecting you for dinner. Don’t miss it.

Like I might be three hours later than I’d claimed. That was one of Daniel’s more impressive accomplishments: He had perfected the art of the passive-aggressive text message. He’d been practicing for years.



* * *



WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I used to believe I could see the future. This was probably my father’s fault, filling my childhood with platitudes from his philosophy lectures, letting me believe in things that could not be. I’d close my eyes and will it to appear, in tiny, beautiful glimpses. I’d see Daniel in a cap and gown. My mother smiling beside him through the lens of my camera as I motioned for them to get closer. Put your arm around her. Pretend you like each other! Perfect. I’d see me and Tyler, years later, throwing our bags into the back of his mud-stained pickup truck, leaving for college. Leaving for good.

It was impossible to understand back then that getting out wouldn’t be an event in a pickup truck but a ten-year process of excision. Miles and years, slowly padding the distance. Not to mention Tyler never left Cooley Ridge. Daniel never graduated. And our mother wouldn’t have lived to see it, anyway.

If my life were a ladder, then Cooley Ridge was the bottom—an unassuming town tucked into the edge of the Smoky Mountains, the very definition of Small Town, America, but without the charm. Everywhere else—anywhere else—was a higher rung that I’d reach steadily with time. College two hundred miles to the east, grad school one state north, an internship in a city where I planted my feet and refused to leave. An apartment in my own name and a nameplate on my own desk and Cooley Ridge, always the thing I was moving farther away from.

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