Maria and I went missing on a Tuesday afternoon. We dissolved into the edges of the parking lot by the high school and for a while, no one seemed to notice that we’d gone anywhere at all. The late summer light muddled each static, sure thing into a warm-headed mirage of softened colors, stretched and melted August heat, sudden bleeding mouthfuls of it. No one was thinking about us.
While we were busy disappearing, our mothers were sweating and swearing by the edges of the public pool, gossiping about their friends’ husbands and their own blistered marriages, about the newest Oprah-approved thriller and who made the best tortillas on our block (Roberta, of course). Our fathers — the vague, spectral myths of them; more husks or outlines than real people — well, I don’t know what they were doing, but I’m sure it didn’t involve us. The sweetest abyss gorged open for us, a whole afternoon of it, and summer was ending, and we wanted to suck the sugar from its skin. We were like mosquitoes, blood-sniffing and love-hungry, waiting for an unsupervised arm to bite. We were fourteen and on the precipice of high school, and we couldn’t keep our voices lowered anymore, couldn’t contain the needy, jolting movements of our hands, how far and often they reached.
You want to know where we went. You want to know what everyone wants to know. As if we could answer. As if we still had our mouths.
We’d spent the day, up until that final hour, on our skateboards, careening through one-way streets and yelling out the most creative insults we could conjure up, singing pop songs and wasting time. There’d been fruta con chile y límon, Tajín dumped on top of cucumber, watermelon, mango, and shaken sideways, and cold tamarind soda. Our mouths stung, we wore our bikini tops underneath our tee-shirts and cutoff shorts, scorched our flip-flopped feet on the asphalt, tripped over our own legs. We could barely keep track of ourselves; our bodies were blooming liabilities, brown, rude, desiring and desired.
It’s not like we were irreplaceable. We were girls, after all.
Our favorite place to skate: an empty swimming pool in the backyard of someone’s recently vacated house. We didn’t know who had lived there before, but they’d left only about a year ago, it seemed, and the For Sale sign still lingered on the front lawn like a hangnail, the house so swarmed with mold and rotting furniture, bloated with inexplicable things, empty beer cans and stray fuzzy socks, cigarette butts and crumbled eyeshadow palettes, the windows intact but the screens poked through, that it’d become a black sheep of a space, nothing buyable, nothing livable. We didn’t know why they hadn’t torn it down yet. No one wanted that kind of open-faced decomposition, long beyond all chances of renovation, or anything close.
Kids went there to fuck around, to smoke and spray-paint meaningless shit on the walls and make out and probably worse. We didn’t really go inside the house, though, Maria and I. We crawled under the ever-expanding hole in the fence, boards passed between us, and tried to trick ourselves into grazing some approximation of pleasure, doing tricks and jumps that bruised our legs, scraped our elbows, sprained our ankles more than once. We weren’t that good, neither of us, but Maria knew a little more than me. She had an older sister who’d taught her how to skate, one who’d left a long time ago, so she communicated techniques to me in a half-coherent way, secondhand and unformed. Still, those days in that sun-splintered pool kept us out of our houses, out of our heads, the world softened and made alien from the center, the deepest point, the sky the only visible remnant of anything beyond our breaking, catapulting bodies. We could’ve stayed down there forever.
Where were you?
Don’t stay out so long.
If you come home after dark one more time, I swear to god, hija — voy a matarte.
But she didn’t. They never did. They noticed once or twice, until we slipped from their thoughts, loose change amongst more pressing things — paying bills, drinking, working, getting the kids out of their rooms, making dinner, sleeping all weekend, trying to forget where they were and how they got there.
Those girls were always missing. They went out every day. Every night. What were we supposed to think? It wasn’t like they were easily intimidated. They were anything but. Look at their pictures. Those girls weren’t delicate things, weren’t void of common sense, street smarts. They knew how to get out of a hairy situation. They should’ve known.
No one came screaming. No one dug up every inch of ground in sight searching for our bodies. No one tweeted about us, inflamed the loss of us in viral hashtags and TV documentaries, no one catapulted our child-faces into public consumption. No mountains moved. No one outside of our families — and even they got tired — split their worlds apart trying to reach us. We were no white- faced, angelic figurines to be crystallized and strung up on a mantle of victimhood. We weren’t made martyrs of our town, weren’t called innocent, weren’t perfect students or perfect daughters or anything close. Our chipped-tooth childhoods, our every moment of misbehaving, of talking back, of being sullen or bitchy or shameless swallowed any remainder of sympathy you might’ve had for us. We weren’t sweet or pretty. We couldn’t be read through the typical imagery of girls worth saving.
Before we disappeared, we’d watched our mothers watch Insider Edition, hear Nancy Grace blasting from the kitchen over the familiar simmering of ground beef, and this way, we learned every possible way a girl might be unmade, piece by piece, and how somehow, after all this violence, she grew into a god worth remembering. Most of the women in our town learned English through the language of ligature marks, autopsy report, cause of death, strangulation, blunt force trauma, person of interest, through the blood-shock corniness of death and cruelty, so over-the-top that we’d snicker in the hallway, rolling our eyes, never thinking twice, avoiding the insistent and fungal reality of the stories in favor of making fun of our mothers. White girls, it seemed, grew into their belovedness after death. White girls might not get their murders solved, but they got to become legends, myths, jewels, seductive and precious.
Don’t laugh, they scolded us. Those poor girls. They were just kids, same as you. Always blushing and lovable, always easy to digest, easy to mourn. Sometimes we envied those girls on the TV, hated them, even. Our mothers seemed obsessed, magnetized, pouring their attention into these horror stories with more passion than they did us. So, yes. In the dark of our bedrooms, cramped and too-warm, our laughter sharpening to something else, something saltier and angrier, we’d whisper the feelings we wanted not to feel: they deserved what was coming. It’s good they’re dead. They were stupid, reckless, naïve. Putas y idiotas. They weren’t any kind of saints.
But we didn’t question how, even after this steady transfiguration, of girl into idol, child into saint, she never came back to life. She stayed just as gone, just as dead, as before.
Maria’s mouth always tasted new: the first time, like a Tootsie roll, from her brother’s stash of leftover Halloween candy, and, after that, something different every time. I kissed her first. We’d played Spin-the-Bottle with some kids from school that night, and we’d each sat blankly while a row of flavorless boys mashed their mouths against ours. Nothing stirring, nothing ripening in our bellies. We watched each other, laughed and rolled our eyes, spoke without speaking, in this glowing, decadent secret language we’d concocted, a flushed rhythm of looks and nudges, raised eyebrows and barely-hidden smirks. Afterwards, we’d walked to her house, and she’d stopped mid-step, gestured at me to be quiet. Her brother, inside, screaming, a rote barrage of cruelties, all drenched in contempt, and we could imagine him, an open flame in the middle of her kitchen, their mother staring outside, not hearing, not flinching, not doing much of anything. We knew what would happen the second we walked in: Maria would tell me to go to her room, which was more of a closet, and I’d hear him shove her into the wall, call her things I’d want to unstick from my brain, send her back to me with a bruised lip and a trembling chin, gaze emptied, her mimed ferocity a dart to my chest. So we turned around and walked in the direction of my place. I’d grabbed her hand, pulled her into that empty parking lot, touched her face and tilted her chin, pushed my mouth to hers. She didn’t push me away, didn’t grimace or yell. Instead: she kissed me back. Dove into me, cut me open, and we stood there blurring our lives out of sight through hands in hair and lips on necks, spit and candy-mouths and fumbling movements. We didn’t talk about it. But at night, we’d sneak out of our houses and go to our spot and kiss for hours.
No one ever saw us. But if they had, we wouldn’t have really cared. It’s not that we imagined ourselves to be untouchable — just the opposite. We’d already learned about hands and all their capacities for violence, about shame and its scarring rituals, about men and mothers and hurt building new hurt in younger skin. Even then, at fourteen, we didn’t trust anything beyond our own tongues, our own tenuous and night-covered altars, no matter the damage their meanings might’ve wrought.
Everyone loved Tim. A good guy. A great guy, even. Unremarkable species of greatness; all tepid smiles and friendly interest, never a sign of disarray, of distortion. Everyone trusted him to fix their cars. Yeah, an old gringo, but not a rich one, not one with a wrench up his ass. A guy you’d never be able to place, with the face of any other garden-variety middle-aged white man in this place, a guy with a nice smile and a nice head of hair and the most unthreatening kind of handsomeness. He didn’t strike any sort of feeling into anybody besides baseline appreciation, maybe a little mild attraction, but uninteresting stuff, really. The married and sort-of-married women of the neighborhood liked to flirt with him, to lean over the counter and ask questions about their cars, stuff we knew they already knew, but for these women, the ones who’d never had an inch of care directed their way, feigning helplessness, contorting themselves into question marks, felt like a vacation from their hard-edged lives. They liked to dabble, to dangle their legs over the water, but never really thought about diving in. Tim was a nice thing to look at, someone who’d kindly entertain their benign fantasies, not someone they’d give up their worlds for. He didn’t incite that much passion.
Which is to say, no one was paying much attention. Or, rather: the right kind of attention. Not even us.
We thought we were clever, audacious. We were, sometimes. But the light soon faded and we’d sprint home at the sound of anyone walking past. We could be wolves with each other, gorging, biting, snort-laughing, cursing everything, but once someone shone a light our way, we went quiet, snarling but ultimately holding our tongues. We shoplifted, but only occasionally, with the deadly mixture of bravado and self-doubt puncturing our every stolen lip-gloss or lighter.
Once, Tim caught us stealing from the little store he ran, conjoined with the auto-repair shop. But he didn’t tell on us, didn’t guilt-trip, didn’t call the cops or our mothers. He watched us try to walk out with our pockets thickened with packs of cinnamon gum and chocolates, and he only spoke as our feet met the doorway, seconds before we took off into the afternoon. Girls, come on now. You’ve got to be more discreet.
We turned red, trembled, mumbled excuses under our breath, flimsy apologies. He shook his head, gestured for us to come forward, and bent over the counter, a portrait of that slick male nonchalance. He talked to us like we were co-conspirators, and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t like it. How about this. I won’t tell on you if you come help out around the shop a bit, alright? I’ve been needing some new employees. Just for a day or two. And maybe I’ll even help you refine your thief skills … I’m not against stealing from the big guys, but stores like this? Not cool. He paused. Sound good?
Yes, we practically sung. Of course.
It wasn’t a day or two. We kept working there, went a few days a week after school. He’d let us pick out any snacks we wanted, paid us in bags of Doritos and extra-large Slurpees. The real reason we kept going, though, had nothing to do with any physical object, any $3 treat.
Tim’s gaze directed towards us felt like a secret currency, like a bullet of unimaginable power. He watched us and smiled at us, kept us tucking our hair behind our ears, our lip-gloss in our tiny jean pockets, our shorts tugged up our waists. We’d never been the girls to get looked-at, not really, not by anyone we liked. He kept our bodies intact: we maintained our wispiness, our smallness, contorted our limbs and smiles and selves into the loveliest of compositions, mimed effortlessness that we thought, at the time, believable.
No one knew where we went, those afternoons — not that anyone asked. He kept no record, had no cameras in his store, and we only went during off hours, the days without much business but plenty of shelving and stocking to do.
Maria and I — we’d passed nights kissing, touching, but some sharp, jaded pearl of fear locked us into a slippery, cruel desire for a man’s gaze cemented right on us. Like we couldn’t fathom ourselves real, or important, without it. We’d been taught to position ourselves in the eyeline of men if we wanted to be true actors in our own lives, that men alone could corroborate our existence.
We played with fire, courted it. We were loose, frenzied creatures, dismissed and deprived of attention. We barely believed in our own bodily presence, and there he was, a real man, watching us.
We were so perfectly built for the ending he had in mind.
At a barbecue, ten years later, after we’d stopped taking up much residence in anyone’s prayers, after everyone’s sympathy and terror and grief met its expiration date, after we no longer lived on the tips of tongues and the image of us had evaporated and congealed into a murky, lukewarm film on the surface of our families’ hearts, after the ending — that’s when he spoke of us. Just once. A throwaway comment, plucked from his mind and tossed out like a fish, writhing and flopping on dry land, wanting someone, anyone, to notice what was missing from the water. A lime-topped Corona in one hand and a sagging plate full of carnitas, fresh tortillas, made by our mothers, probably, he watched the little kids run and scream and play, and he said it quietly, barely audible.
I wish I hadn’t hurt those girls. No one knew what girls he was talking about. No one thought to ask.
Blood, yes, but also, dust. In our eyes and throats.
We were just hanging out that day. We weren’t doing much of anything.
He appeared like we’d summoned him: promised us cold sodas, bags of Takis. We followed him. We followed him.
How many times did we cry laughing, did we lock hands and run towards an open cliff without thinking about the bottom, without thinking about punishment and sins, only about what it’d feel like to dive.
Were we wrong to do that? To be kids? To jump?
Maria peed her pants. Her shorts, I mean. I told her to stop crying. I told her to be quiet. To toughen up. As if we could grow calluses overnight, could poker-face our way into an escape. I should’ve screamed, too. I should’ve made a mess. Split my body and mouth open trying to get out of there. But. I didn’t.
Our families didn’t leave. Not right away, not ever. We’d disappeared, but they couldn’t follow us, couldn’t outrun their grief, so, they stayed in the same houses, with the same people, but things frayed around the edges. Things grew mold. Everyone drank too much. Our mothers went rancid, blank-eyed with rage, with need, with the questions holding them hostage here, in this town, in this non-answer. Without bodies: what to do? Where to deposit all the pain? We could be anywhere. We could be nowhere. We weren’t scars you could press into with your finger — we were full-body aches, soreness unlocatable and dead-ended. Mi amor. Dondé estas? Come back. We’ll do better. We’ll leave the porch-lights on.
Near the highway, about a year after we’d gone missing — Some sneakers. Some socks. Probably some strands of hair. But who could’ve known?
No one called it in.
When we left, we weren’t arranged like wreaths, all knots of dried flowers and twigs. We just dissolved. We were people and then we weren’t. We didn’t get a mystery, a character arc, a plot-line homewards. We never got a proper burial. Or tombstones. Or real funerals. Instead, our families had loose dirt falling through their fingers. Memories like wadded gum. Old photographs and mundane, angst-ridden diaries. Grief that couldn’t quite arrive anywhere, ever. An arm extended into the dark — you can’t see our fingers anymore.
He likes us. He’s nice to us — I don’t get it? What happened? What did we do to — Why is he doing this?
Because he likes us, I told her. Could barely speak but we forced the words through. He likes us too much. They’re always nice.
My first word was sí. My mom must’ve clapped, must’ve squeezed my cheeks and given me a kiss on the forehead, beaming. But the problem is I never unstuck myself from that word — sí. Yes. Yeah. Of course. I never got a hold of its necessary opposite, its spidery glue: No.
If the word had come more organically, maybe things would be different. But probably not.
I can’t entirely blame my mother. Or my father. The cold space in my old bedroom, the way the little-girl bed mutated into a makeshift casket, an indefinite article, an incomplete gravestone. They didn’t make me go wherever it is we are now. They didn’t put us underground.
There’s a light, somewhere. Waiting, thrumming, another bloodstream, another river slick with time and ruin to dive into. There must be. What is an ending, what is this mud in our hair, this shapelessness we’ve become, what is that smell.
Quiet. He’s coming.
What’s in his hand?
He’s opening the —
Close your eyes for this part.
Years, decades later.
Hold onto our images. Whisper to our blurred faces. Cradle our incompletion. Answer for us.
A girl lights a candle, builds us an altar in her bedroom.
It took forever, but someone broke the bitter quiet, said, a cold case isn’t an empty one. Those girls went somewhere. Years and years ago, but there’s no statute of limitations on being found.
We’re gone, it’s too late, but listen: there’s always something left to unbury.
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