Searching is not the same as finding. Right now I don’t want to do either. But right now isn’t about me. It’s about this crowd of most of the entire town, huddled beneath the pines, listening to my uncle Tom. It’s about the instructions he’s giving about how we’re going to look, and how we’re hopefully going to find. It’s about the who we’re trying to find. Or, depending on how you look at it, the what. It’s about Mary.
“So once we’re in the woods, stay as close as possible. Move as a line, and go slow. I can’t overstate that. Move like you’re looking for your car keys. If you find anything out here that seems like it doesn’t belong, or that might be Mary’s, you blow that whistle around your neck.” Tom looks us over and he catches my eye, holds it for a long moment, and then nods to the group.
We turn, take our places, and start walking.
It’s been a week since the Amber Alert went out, since the town began worrying for their “daughter,” and then as the days passed, started wondering if a killer’s on the loose. No one has slept or eaten or prayed without thinking of her. No one with a heart.
It’s been seven days since Mary fought with her boyfriend, Calder. Seven days and one hour since she fought with her dad, Reverend Matthison.
Now, I walk with my friend Charlie and my girlfriend, Beth, with Calder and Mary’s father side by side amid the reverend’s congregation, who are all holding hands. I’ve got my eye on Calder and Reverend Matthison. We do. The entire town does. Religious or not, they were the last to see her alive, and everyone knows that statistic.
“Hey, Avery, you all right?” Charlie asks, bringing my attention back to center, to the ground before me.
“No.” It’s all I can say, because what I’m thinking, what I’m imagining, are too much. If I said them, my uncle would have to lock me up for questioning just to appease everyone within earshot. Fortunately, Charlie nods, scratches his beard, and moves on.
Beth puts her hand in mine, squeezes tight. I squeeze back.
We keep walking, heads down, wordless, and soon step over a dead, moss-covered tree. It’s rained for a week straight, and we sink into the mud on the other side.
Charlie and Beth get free quickly, but my right foot is covered. “Give me a hand.”
They both offer one and pull me loose. My foot makes a sucking fart sound. Charlie smiles. I try not to, but fail. “Did you shit your pants, Av?” he asks.
I laugh and check my pants as a joke. “Nope, looks good.”
Beth laughs, too, but then to our left we hear deep male voices. “Quit messing around, Chase. We all know it’s just a shit show down there.”
“You wearing a fake dick today?” one of them says to me.
The jokes sting, but I refuse to look at these assholes. It’s what they want, and I’m long past giving anyone here what they want.
Charlie doesn’t mind speaking up. “We’re all here for one thing, right? Let’s just do that.” His voice is a growl.
“Your point?” another one of them asks.
Beth steps to them, her red hair snapping along her back as she does. “Really? You need it explained more?”
One of them says, “Whatever. Move on, you fucking freaks.”
I bite my lip and close my eyes, wishing them away. But we move on.
When we’re far enough away from them, Charlie whispers “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” I say.
We step over wet leaves and patches of mud and heaps of pine needles. The only noise is the sound of cracking twigs and the occasional low voices. It’s maddening, all this plodding and silence. No one’s blowing a whistle or yelling about having found anything. Part of me hopes it stays this way, but the rest feels like an overwhelming truth: Mary’s out here. We wouldn’t be searching the woods if we were just looking for evidence of where she might have run away to.
The silence continues until we come to a bend of the stream that runs through these woods. One I know too well. I stop and I listen to the present and to the past.
Third grade is when I realized I wasn’t like the other girls. It was more than not wanting to play with their toys and hop in on their games of dress-up or playing “mommy” or gossiping. I felt a distance between us. An absolute difference in who they were and who I was. Nothing I had the ability to articulate, except in my drawings. In them I dressed myself like Dad, in a shirt and tie. Mary loved those drawings
But she didn’t love them when the other boys drew themselves that way. I think once they saw the cute, ponytailed girl giving me attention they copied me in hope of similar affection. It didn’t work that way. Mary liked that I, who looked like a girl, with my hair still long, drew myself as a boy. “Why?” she asked.
“Because that’s who I am,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She pressed into me, getting a closer look at my drawing. I loved that contact, relished how her face lit up at my answer.
And from then we were friends, not inseparable, but close. She kept to skirts and dresses while I cut my hair and wore jeans. I watched her while I played tag and capture the flag. She laughed and played her part in the girl drama of who liked whom and who was popular and who wasn’t, but always with an eye out for me. And when I’d go to her house, there was an effortless way about her that I couldn’t understand. So one day I asked, “Why are you different with me?”
“You mean than with the other girls?”
Her saying it that way didn’t even sting. Maybe that’s because I was still wondering who I was, or maybe it’s just because Mary had said it. Either way, I said, “No. You’re different with me than you are with anyone else. You don’t mind when I don’t want to play princesses. You let me be the dad when we play house.” I paused here. I remember how nervous I felt about what I was going to say, even though I knew Mary was fine with it. “You don’t laugh at me when I say I’m a boy. Why?”
She smiled and her cheeks tucked up around her eyes. “That’s because there’s no one else like you, Avery.”
And if there was any question as to whether I loved her it was obliterated by her smile, that answer.
But in eighth grade there was an intensity in Mary that I’d never seen before. She felt it, too; I could tell. The way I’d catch her looking at me told me so. She was seeing me with my short hair and my budding breasts flattened into nonexistence by my binder, and liking what she saw. Mary was looking at me in the way Beth looks at me now.
She was still willing to spend some of her summer with me, the times when her father was busy with work. Because if he so much as saw me coming up the driveway, I’d be banished from the house. So when he was busy with his flock, we’d hang out like we always had, cutting through the woods or keeping to the shadows of her property to stay cool, because I wouldn’t swim. Not until that day. And only because she asked.
“Come on, Avery. No one’s home. Mom’s out with my aunt, and Dad’s working on his sermon.” Mary sat on her bed and leaned forward with her pleading eyes.
Everything in me screamed no, but I said, “Okay.”
She bounced up and clapped. “Yay! It’s just so hot today. I need to get in the water.”
She went to her drawer and pulled out a bikini.
Mary saw the look on my face when she turned. “Oh, right. You don’t have a suit.” And she doesn’t have a brother. Yet, she held up a finger and scampered out of the room. I expected her to come back with one of her dad’s bathing suits, which would have been three times my size, but she held up a pair of board shorts.
“Are those Calder’s?” I asked, a little surprised, a little jealous. How could I not be? He had the official status of boyfriend.
She blushed. “Yeah. He left them last week.”
I turned away because I didn’t like how seeing her so excited made me feel so dispensable. “How long have you been together?”
“Three months, two days.” She giggled and I shook my head. I couldn’t be angry with her for being happy. But I could be frustrated that I wasn’t the one she was happy over.
“All right. Grab me a towel. I’ll change in the bathroom.”
Mary’s bathroom, fortunately, has only a small mirror, which I easily avoided. I wriggled out of my binder, immediately pulling my T-shirt back on. Calder’s shorts were a little loose, but they felt awesome on me, like I’d stepped into his skin for a moment.
And maybe that’s why things happened as they did, because I felt right, inside out, which has been a rarity my entire life. Or maybe it had nothing to do with Calder’s shorts and everything to do with Mary: how beautiful she looked in her bikini, her hair pulled back and eyes so open, taking me in. Or maybe it was her gentle way. Mary hopped into the swimming hole down the hill from her house, the one fed by the stream, and then coaxed me in. She had to, because I wanted to run away, back to the house and change and to stop feeling what I was feeling. I was overwhelmed in that moment, so much that the cold water did nothing to dampen the surging inside.
I dipped underwater to try and calm down, but when I came up, nothing had changed. Mary was staring at me with more desire than she ever had before. I don’t know what it was about that moment or how I looked to her, but it changed everything between us.
I didn’t stop her from moving away from the edge and swimming across to me. I watched her approach and I pleaded with my eyes, and she understood.
Mary kissed me. My first. And there are times when life sucks and no one sees me and I remember this moment, the first time a girl accepted who I am. Mary pulled me close and held nothing back. And I was hers, forever, even though I knew that could never happen.
Staring at the water rushing by, swollen with the rain, I am overwhelmed again. I move to the base of a tree and sit. The ground is wet and I will look like I shit myself, but it doesn’t matter. Mary’s gone. Some monster in this town got her. I feel it like I felt that moment, startling me awake.
“Who do you think it is?”
He squats down next to me. “What do you mean?”
I scowl. “Don’t pull that. You know what I mean.” Charlie and I became friends because of our interest in forensics. We’ve stayed friends because he’s as understanding as my father.
He sighs and looks deeper into the woods. “You know you shouldn’t think like that. She could have just run away.”
Beth clears her throat. “Listen to him. It makes sense. I mean, everyone loves her. She has no enemies.”
“That’s not true,” I say.
“What isn’t?” Beth asks.
“Everyone has enemies.”
Charlie shifts his position. “Name one.”
I have only one for Mary, but he’s too close, and I don’t know if the memory has been distorted because of all that has happened, whether I’m remembering correctly, or if I’ve unearthed only pieces and have left too much buried. But if I’m right, then he’s here, searching, and aware of whether or not we’re in the right place.
I pull into my driveway, cold and wet and sore. I dig into my car’s console and pull out my pack of mini cigars and lighter. The flame feels good in my cold hands and the smoke smells sweet. Both are welcome, because my body is numb and I am sick of the smell of mud and woods. It wasn’t as bad as last week when we slogged through the rain, searching. Then it was one useless excursion after the next, just like Tom said it would be. The rain poured so hard, visibility was for shit. Today, Tom called off the search party because it was getting too dark. At least we made it that long. But he also called it because we found nothing. Just like before. Not a trace of anything. That rain. One week of it could wash away anything.
I take a last puff of my cigar and flick it out the window, except it bounces back and falls into my lap. I pick it up and stare at the ember, feel the heat of it close to my nose. I say “I’m sorry, Mary,” and hear the high-pitched break, not the rasp I’m working on. I want to jam the ember in my eye to keep the tears back.
I rein them in and head inside.
Whatever Dad’s cooking makes my stomach growl. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I am compelled to open the oven. The heat and the aroma are heavenly.
“Hey, Av.” Dad stands up from his computer in the office nook across the room and makes his way toward me. “I am so sorry, buddy. Tom called me a little while ago. Told me it was a bust.” He wraps me up and squeezes so tight. I relax into his embrace.
After a moment I pull away. “It was. But we covered a lot of ground. We’ll cover more tomorrow.”
“That’s good. Tom okay?”
He still worries about his brother like I do Tyler. I like that Dad checks up on Officer Chase.
“I think so. I’m sure he’s exhausted.”
“He’s been exhausted for years.” Dad claps me on the shoulder. “Go shower, you reek of”—he sniffs—“vanilla?”
“Yeah.” I look at the floor.
“Exactly. You’re detracting from the aroma of my fine creation.”
I point at the oven. “Pot roast?”
“Yes! With this awesome seasoning from the farmers’ market.”
“All right. How long?”
Dad checks his watch and guesses a half hour. Mom’s schedule eludes us all. I grab a banana from the basket on the counter to tide me over and head back down the front hall toward my room. The door opens and Tyler bounds in.
“Av. Hey. Mom’s not home yet, is she?” He looks panicked.
“No, you’re good.”
He smiles at not being late for dinner, and then his face twists into a frown. “Shit, Av. I heard. Nothing? How could, like, the whole town be out there and find nothing?”
There are a lot of ways, but I keep them to myself. “Yeah. Nothing. But, hey, don’t swear. You got another year before high school.”
He shakes his head and sniffs like Dad. “And you got another year until you’re eighteen. You know, a real adult who can say shit like that.”
“Good point.” I rub his head and make my way to the bathroom. My clothes feel as if I’ve already showered in them, and I’m glad to peel them off my body. But my binder’s damp and that sucks because this is my favorite. I’ll have to settle for another while this dries.
I step in the shower and turn my back to the nozzle, waiting for the heat to untie the knots in my back. All the walking, all the memories, all the things I tried not to think have stitched me up inside out. And my body refuses to loosen. Because it knows. It always knows before I do. It always wants me on guard. For good reason.
But I try to give in to the pull and sit in the tub, letting the water cascade all around. I’m wrong about Mary. She’s out there, safe. She’s run away. Maybe she’s hiding out somewhere until she’s made her point. My lower back loosens, and I stretch out over my knees. My breasts brush my legs, but I ignore them. I have to.
Mary’s smart enough to have pulled it off. Maybe the fights with her dad and with Calder were on purpose. Maybe she was trying to throw all of us off her tracks. Maybe Calder knows the truth and is playing along. My shoulders slump, and I can practically kiss my shins.
Or not. Word is he wanted sex; she didn’t. Or, depending who you listen to, they already had and she didn’t want to do it anymore. Either way, she told her dad, thinking he’d help. She couldn’t have been more wrong. Ran from her house, screaming. He hurled insults from the door, and that’s the last time she’s been seen.
The heat of the water has thawed me out, and my brain’s working again. I don’t have to keep imagining Mary in a shallow grave, or worse, discarded under a tree or in a ravine. Because when I was searching in the woods, that’s all I saw wherever I looked. Her. Dead. Demanding answers.
I ease up to my feet and wash my hair and scrub the rest of me, all the parts that I could live with, and those I could certainly live without.
I rinse and towel off, and as I head to my room, hear my mother’s voice downstairs. I dress quickly and go with a sports bra and really loose T-shirt.
Mom stands at the bottom of the stairs. I don’t understand why she’s standing there, coat on, high heels still strapped to her feet. She doesn’t have her severe work face. She’s not checking her phone. When she looks up, I feel like a child, because whatever it is, her face screams that she wants to protect me from it.
Uncle Tom comes down the hall from the kitchen as I hit the bottom stair. Dad’s behind him and his eyes are filled.
I sit. And I shake. And I know.
Tom sits next to me. He looks down, between his knees, and then up and over. “There was this hunter with us today, knows that section of woods well.”
Each word paints a picture I don’t want to see.
“He, uh, he kind of deviated from the course because he had this feeling. Knew about this old access road.”
I want him to stop. I want to scream and to find this hunter and kick him in the balls for what he’s made real. But I sit, silent, and wait.
Tom swallows. “He was right, Av. Found Mary’s body. She’s dead.”
I stare into my palm, open and close the fingers around it, but the shaking does not stop. “You’re sure?”
The answer doesn’t come immediately. Tom doesn’t say, “Yes,” right away. There’s a pause, however brief, before he says, “It has to be.”
Mom asks something and possibly Dad, too, but their words are muted, background noise to what I see. Tom’s eyes are everywhere at once. The black stubble on his face is almost as dark as what I see in his eyes. Something brutal has happened. Tom is reeling from the evidence. He’s trying to get it to filter, to make sense, and is failing.
I look back down and into my palm. I know all there is to know about hiding and about being evasive. Tom is playing my game. He is not my uncle right now. He’s Officer Chase, delivering official news that even he does not understand. But I do.
“It wasn’t an accident, was it?”
He shifts, uneasy. “I’m not really sure what’s what.”
“That’s not what I asked,” I say.
“She’s dead, Avery. That’s enough for now.” He tries to stand, but I grab his wrist and pull him back down.
“No, it’s not. Tell me how.” My brain is charging through all the chapters I’ve read, all the websites, all the online chat groups, all the assignments for forensics. There are a million things that can be done to a body. I only want to know one.
But more than that, more than any forensic specifics, I need to know why this has happened to Mary. Because that moment almost four years ago solidified my truth. Who I am is not what they believe. Mary was the first to understand this.
Tom stares, his jaw set. And then he softens for an instant. “Someone killed her, Avery.” He stands and then the door opens and he goes through it, Dad with him.
The shaking that may have stopped, or that I may have only ignored, jars through me, reenergized. I try to stand, but can’t. Mom comes to me, but I don’t hear what she says. I feel the rough touch of the carpet against my cheek as I lie on the stairs.
I envision Mary out there in the cold and rain, just like I did today. But now there’s no censor, no need to tell myself I’m wrong. Because all that I saw is true. Mary’s naked eyes, wide and unseeing, rain pelting her skin, and all the parts of her that I loved. All of her, which someone decided could be discarded.
The shaking turns into a shudder, and my tears finally fall. And I hate every last one, because they don’t fall hard enough.