Part splendor, part wasteland—that’s what the Russian River was back then. An hour north of San Francisco, million-dollar vacation homes mingled with dingy cabins. Between them all ran a river; above them towered redwoods. A little way off Armstrong Road was Sara and Spencer’s house, the house that their mother bought before she married their father, the house their father inherited after she died from complications from heroin addiction. She had gotten clean by the time she was hospitalized, but the damage to her heart was irreversible. Spencer was only three when she died and did not remember, but Sara was ten, and all of it was imprinted upon her: the tiny diamonds of the hospital gown, the flamingo-pink polish she had applied to her mother’s nails in careful strokes. Yellowed eyes, red bedsores, cracked white lips. The nurses’ concerned expressions and how their father had done his best to fool all of them into believing that he was a good man. He was so convincing—showing up daily, bringing magazines, even reading aloud—that when her mother died and they returned home without her, Sara expected him to know what to do next. Even a fourth grader knew that when something terrible happened, you took stock of your life. You didn’t go back to selling the poison that killed your wife.

But on the day Annie disappeared, Sara was sixteen and harbored no more illusions. She had been spending her nights in her bedroom closet for months when the phone call cut through her sleep. She heard her dad yell out to Spencer—strange, since he was only nine and no one called him on the phone, and especially not this late—but then she heard their dad again: “It’s for your sister.” Footsteps down the hallway, turn of her doorknob. She slid open the closet door, and her brother handed her the phone. His hair was matted on one side, his eyes sleepy.

“It’s Dave,” he said, and yawned. Instead of leaving, he stepped into the closet and sat next to her.

Cold receiver against her ear. 


“Is Annie with you?”

“No,” she said, cheeks flushing, first from embarrassment—Do they know about us?—until she registered his worry, and saw that it was one thirty in the morning, and flushed deeper from fear. “Maybe she’s with Lily?”

“I’ll call her next,” he said.

“Call me back, okay?”

She hung up. Spencer was sitting close enough to have heard Dave’s side of the conversation, and now he said, “I bet Annie and Lily are together. They were probably helping out at the church and got tired from all the mopping and fell asleep on the bench things.”

Sara nodded. She rested her cheek on his head.

“You know the bench things with the Bibles?”

“The pews.”

“I bet they’re napping in the pews.”

“It’s too late for that,” Sara whispered. “They wouldn’t be cleaning the church so late at night.”

The phone rang again. “She isn’t with Lily,” Dave said. “I don’t know where else she would be. You’re sure she isn’t with you?”

Of course I’m sure,” Sara said. She felt the sting of tears but didn’t want to worry Spencer.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“When school got out. When I said goodbye to both of you. Then I went to work, and then I came home.”

“My parents are going to call the hospitals and the police now.”

She nodded, unable to answer. 

Dave said, “I’m hanging up so they can use the phone.”

Sara still couldn’t speak.

“I’ll call you if we find out anything.”

The tears came anyway. Where was she?

“Wait,” Spencer said. “Shouldn’t Dave be able to figure it out? Like if he closes his eyes and concentrates hard enough?”

“What are you talking about?” Sara asked.

“I thought twins could do that,” Spencer said. 

“Oh.” Sara took his smaller hand in hers. “I don’t think it works that way.”


* * *


In the morning Sara felt too sick to eat, but she made their usual scrambled eggs for Spencer. Their father kept a different schedule. He was asleep in his bedroom or passed out at the house of a friend or a woman. They rarely knew his early-morning whereabouts, and they were, in many ways, not relevant to them. Mornings were the two of them at the table in the living room. Two plates of eggs and bacon. Two glasses of water. Sara cooked; Spencer cleared the dishes. They did the last of their homework in silence and tucked the worksheets into their folders. Together, on the porch, they put on their shoes before heading in opposite directions to their schools.

This morning Sara kept her backpack light in case she’d be heading straight out again. Better not risk a run-in with the hall monitor by going to her locker. Stepping off the bus across the street from campus, she hoped to see Annie out front—her curly brown hair and jean jacket, her bad-girl posture undone by the sweetness of her face. You scared me, Sara would yell, and Annie would grab her around her waist, and they would try to look like just friends. Sara imagined tugging at Annie’s belt loop. Don’t scare me like that again, she’d say. Promise me.

I promise, Annie would answer.

And the panic would be over, and they would go to class, two sixteen-year-olds secretly in love.

But Annie wasn’t there. Dave and Lily were huddled in a group with Crystal and Jimmy and Jane. Sara joined them.

“What should we do?” Crystal was asking.

Leave,” Dave said. “Split up and look for her. It’s such bullshit that my parents dropped me off here.”

“I have to stay until third period,” Jane said. “Mr. King won’t let me make up the exam. But I’ll go after that.”

“I’ll look all over town,” Crystal said. “But I’m kind of freaked out. Shouldn’t we double up?”

Jimmy nodded. “I’ll go with you.”

“I’ll get Megan to ditch with me after English,” Jane said.

“You two can look together,” Sara told Dave and Lily. “I’m fine by myself.”

“You sure?” Lily asked, and Sara nodded. She wanted to be alone. How could she bear this in the presence of anyone else?

“I have my car. We can go to Monte Rio,” Lily told Dave, and Dave agreed.

Sara felt her backpack’s lightness, felt a fierce and desperate hope. 

“I have to be at work at four. If anyone finds her, call the motel, okay?” Her friends nodded. She said, “I’m going to the woods.”


* * *


It struck her every time—the way the air changed as she entered the forest. The cool wet of it, the fresh dirt of it. She could almost feel Annie’s hand in hers as she strode past the ranger’s booth and toward the trail they liked best. Tourists came from all over the world to visit their redwoods, and Annie and Sara understood why. Sometimes it felt good to feel small. Oceans could do it, and sky could do it, and these trees could too. But even though they understood why the families came with cameras around their necks, walking the paths and pointing upward, they didn’t want to be among them. So they chose the steepest trails, hiked up and up until they were eye-level with the redwoods’ branches, closer to the sky. 

Up she hiked now. She would find Annie—she was certain of it. But would Annie be okay? They had always felt safe in the woods, isolation a solace. They had been naked together in that forest just yards from the trail, had made blankets of their jackets and sweaters, had felt each other’s wetness, pushed their fingers in. They’d felt the press of breast against breast, blushed as they made their way down ribs and waists. They’d frozen at the sound of cracking branches and then laughed at their jitters. Once after sex they had lain still, Annie’s head in the crook of Sara’s neck, and watched a banana slug inch its way toward them, onto Annie’s green sweater, onto Sara’s stomach and across it, and then over Annie’s. It had taken an eternity. They laughed when it had found its way to the other side of their bodies, leaving a glittering trail of slime on their skin.

They had not been afraid then, and if something was going to happen to them, wouldn’t that have been the time? When they were naked and lost in each other? But still. She braced herself for the moment she’d find Annie, hurt or unconscious, bleeding or broken. Or worse. It was foggy and cold. She called Annie’s name but was met with silence. She climbed higher and higher until she reached the end of the trail. A sign asked visitors to stay on the path, but she went farther until the forest grew too wild and she knew Annie wouldn’t be there.

She searched for more than six hours, on path after path, some familiar and others new, and to calm herself she imagined finding Annie cross-legged, leaning against the soft wood of a tree trunk, smiling at the sight of her. She imagined their kiss, Annie’s singsong voice as she asked Sara what was wrong. There Annie would be, perfectly fine, and the world would be right again, and she would not lose another person she loved.

And then her watch read three o’clock. She would have to leave the woods in order to make it to work on time. So she told herself that the phone would be ringing when she reached the office of the Vista Motel. It would be Dave, and he’d say they’d found her. She left the damp shade of the forest and waited in the sun for the bus to take her to Monte Rio.


* * *


The Vista Motel was one town over. There was nothing luxurious on the Russian River yet, and this motel was no better or worse than the others. Its main office had a supply room off the back. All the buildings—each with twenty single rooms and three suites with mini kitchens—were a single story. Visitors could drive right up to their room doors. And behind the rooms was a private lawn for motel guests only with access to the river. People would sit in lounge chairs under white umbrellas and sip whatever beverages they’d brought with them, and when the weather was warm enough they’d walk down the stairs to the rocky beach and swim.

“Did anyone call for me?” Sara asked Maureen when she got there. 

Maureen, working a crossword, shook her head without looking up.

“You’re sure?”

“Been right here since eight a.m. Parakeet,” she said, and filled in the letters. Then she took a clipboard and handed it to Sara. Only six numbers were checked. The peak season was over now, which meant fewer rooms for Sara to clean.

“I’m waiting on a call. It’s important. If it comes while I’m cleaning, will you come get me?”

Maureen nodded.


In the supply room, Sara pulled on a pair of latex gloves. She found the rolling garbage bin without a busted wheel and put in the caddy full of Windex and sponges and cleaner and garbage bags and a roll of paper towels on top. She pushed it out the back door and into Room 5. Off came the sheets and the blanket. She emptied the trash from the bathroom and beside the bed. She grabbed empty beer bottles from the dresser and newspaper pages from the floor. Annie had always suggested they sneak into a room one day, use it for just a few hours. “Doesn’t it sound good?” she had whispered into Sara’s ear. “A locked door? A bed.”

“Believe me,” Sara had told her. “There is nothing appealing about any of those beds.”

“Why not?”

“They’re gross.”

“It’s only people,” Annie had said. “Only bodies. What’s the big deal?”

So, just a couple of weeks ago, on the afternoon of Annie’s birthday, Sara cleaned Room 12—one of the nicer rooms that overlooked the lawn—as well as she could. She bought six candles from the drugstore and carefully peeled off the pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary before setting them up: one on each of the bedside tables, three on the dresser, one on the TV stand. She brought her boom box from home with Janet Jackson’s latest LP because Annie always nodded and swayed when “That’s the Way Love Goes” came on the radio. 

That night, Annie met her a few blocks away for ice cream, and when they were finished, Sara said, “I forgot something at work. Come with me?” 

As soon as they were off the street and out of sight, Sara grabbed her hand. “Are you ready for your present?” she asked. 

Annie blushed. 

Maureen had already given her the room key, so Sara took Annie straight to the door and let her in. She lit the candles. She started the song. She opened the mini fridge, where the half bottle of pink wine that a couple had abandoned in their suite that morning awaited them, and divided the liquid between the two stemmed glasses that the motel supplied to guests. Then she turned to see Annie watching her, eyes shining, and Sara felt herself catch her breath. To be looked at in that way. To be loved by this beautiful girl. She might have lost composure had Annie not stepped forward right then, put her hands through Sara’s hair, and kissed her.

The night was perfect. Well—almost. There was the moment Sara went to kiss the inside of Annie’s elbow and saw a mark there. 

“What’s this from?” she asked.

A moment of quiet.

“Sixteen-year checkup,” Annie said. “Vaccinations.”

But the mark was too familiar, too much the stuff of her father’s friends, of the people who took up space in her living room, of why she slept in her closet most nights. Too much like the marks on her mother’s arms. She wanted to stay in the moment with Annie, in the candlelit room with the music and the pink wine and Annie’s soft lips, but her mind was taking her to a night when her mother had sat her down on the sofa next to her for a talk. She had looked into Sara’s eyes and apologized, and explained how addiction worked, and told her what she had done to get better. She’d told her about her sponsor, about the county rehab she had gone to, about the meetings she attended every night. Her face had twisted in pain as she’d spoken the words, but Sara was only a child, not sure what her mother needed until her mother opened her arms. It was as though Sara had been a missing organ now let back in. 

But she couldn’t think of that then, not on Annie’s birthday, not on that romantic night. She couldn’t think of it at all, because what came only months after that embrace on the sofa was the end. 


* * *


Sara thought of the mark on Annie’s arm as she ran the vacuum over the carpet. That night, she might have seen a couple more of them, faded and almost healed, but the only light was from the candles and she couldn’t be sure. And from further back the memory of her mother’s arms came to her. The way she’d fit inside them. How safe she had felt for those few minutes on the sofa, how certain she’d been that every painful thing was over. 

She unplugged the vacuum.

Where was she?

Dave must have heard something by now. She would dump the trash and then go check in with Maureen. Maybe the call had come when she was busy with a guest. Or maybe Maureen hadn’t taken her seriously when she’d said it was important. She rounded the corner to the dumpster and startled. A boy was there—just a couple of years older than she was, standing knee-deep in trash.

He froze, eyed her warily. She knew Maureen would have told him he was trespassing, would have made him leave immediately. But Sara just needed to get through this step and back to the office, where she was certain she’d hear that Dave had called, that Annie was fine, that all of this had been a horrible misunderstanding. 

The boy had greasy hair that fell into his eyes. His clothes were grungy, but that was the style, after all, so it didn’t tell her much about him.

“Hey,” he said.

“Gross,” she said.

He grinned, relaxed now. “These are perfectly good magazines,” he said, lifting a few of his finds up where she could see them.

She rolled her eyes and dumped the contents of her bin. He started toward the new trash. “Nothing good in this one,” she said, and went to wheel the bin back around the corner.

“Hey, wait,” he called. She turned back, impatient, as he hoisted himself out of the dumpster. “I was wondering … any chance I could take a quick shower in one of the rooms you haven’t cleaned yet?”

At first she thought she’d say no, but she saw hope in his face, and it sparked her own. She would let him use the shower. She would wait outside the door. And while she did this good deed, while she helped someone who needed it, Dave would call with good news.


* * *


But even though she did it, and the boy thanked her afterward with wet hair and a clean face, Dave hadn’t called her. And he still hadn’t called her when she checked back after an hour, either. When the sheets were drying and she went in again, Maureen walked around to the other side of the counter. She took Sara’s face in her hands. 

“Honey,” she said. “I know you. I know you wouldn’t tell me something was important if it wasn’t. If anyone calls for you, I’ll be out this door yelling your name before they are finished saying hello. Understand?”

She wasn’t old enough to be Sara’s mother, but Sara let herself imagine it for a moment anyway—that this was how it might feel to have a mother you were tall enough to look at face-to-face, who would see that something was wrong, who would know the right things to say. 

“Okay,” Sara said.

“Anything you want to talk about?”

“No,” she said. “But thanks.”

She couldn’t give words to it. Not yet. She wanted to keep Maureen the way she was—with dyed-black hair and her low-cut shirts, all business and kindness, the kind of boss who just two weeks ago had handed her the key to Room 12 with no questions asked. She didn’t want to hear what Maureen thought or see her face grow concerned. She needed to believe this could be nothing significant for just a little while longer. 

So when she saw the boy again from the window of Room 20, this time brazenly on one of the lawn chairs under the white umbrella, flipping the pages of a magazine, she told herself that once she was finished making the last of the beds, if he hadn’t left by then, she would go out there and sit with him.

He saw her walking toward him and lifted his hand in a wave.

“You’re bold,” she said. “Where do you get off just lounging like this?”

He shrugged. “Isn’t that what people are supposed to do here?”

“If you’re a paying guest, yeah.”

“Are you here to kick me out?”

She shook her head. 

“Then join me.”

She sat on the chair next to his, but not before scooting it a few inches away. She was blond and pretty. Tall like her father. She was used to keeping her guard up so that boys and men didn’t get the wrong ideas about her. Sometimes she felt like if she even smiled they saw it as an invitation. But there was something about this boy that told her he was okay. He didn’t seem interested in her at all. Then she recognized what magazine he was reading and understood. A lot of gay guys came up for the weekend from San Francisco. 

She relaxed into her chair and folded one ankle over the other. Her feet were sore from searching all morning and cleaning all afternoon.

“This is a nice place,” he said. “I can’t believe people actually live here. It’s like paradise.”

“Not quite.”

“Are you kidding? I mean, look at it.”

“No, I know,” she said. “It’s beautiful. I know.” She understood why people came. Why they sat where the two of them were sitting. Why they loved the river and the redwoods. “What are you even doing here?” she asked.

“I’m headed to LA, but I need new spark plugs.”

“There’s a garage a couple of blocks away.”

“Yeah. They said they could fix it in an hour, but I’m a little short on cash at the moment. Any ideas where I could get a short-term job?”

Sara shrugged. “Not really.”

“Well, here,” he said. He wrote something on the corner of a magazine page and then ripped it out and folded it. “If you hear about anything, page me?”

“Okay,” she said, slipping the paper into her pocket.

“Until then, I’m going to enjoy my time in Paradise.” 


 * * *


Later, she made pasta for Spencer and managed to eat some herself. She waited for the phone to ring, but it didn’t. And when it seemed that the evening was going to stay quiet, that their father wasn’t going to burst in with his friends and turn the house dark with their loud voices and their bodies, she told Spencer she would be back soon and headed out into the night. She walked toward the Pink Elephant. They were too young to get in, but they met there anyway most nights under the neon glow of the sign. She would show up and wait and they would have news and everything would be okay again. 

She saw that people were outside already, and she hoped it was them. And it was. Dave was sitting on the curb, his head in his hands. Lily’s arm was around him, and Crystal was talking and talking the way she always did when she was nervous. 

“They’re gonna drag the river,” Dave said when Sara reached them.

First all that registered was his swollen eyes, how sick he looked, the way a person could waste away over the course of so few hours. And then: his mouth, the same shape as Annie’s and just as soft. Sara thought maybe she could close her eyes and kiss him, open her eyes and find him transformed into his sister.

And then she said, “What?” and he said again, “They’re going to drag the river.”

She closed her eyes. Opened them. There they were, still, under the fluorescent light of the pink sign. “I don’t understand,” she said.

“It seems too soon, doesn’t it?” Crystal said. “She hasn’t even been missing for that long. I don’t know why they’d do it so soon. I think it’s probably a mistake? I mean, why rush to the worst-case scenario? Are you sure the hospitals aren’t wrong?”

“They’re going to drag the river,” Sara repeated. 

Lily wiped her eyes and looked at Sara. She nodded, solemn. 

“She hasn’t even been missing for that long. It has to be a mistake. How can everyone be so sure she isn’t in a hospital somewhere?”

“Because we’re fucking sure, okay, Crystal? We’ve called every single hospital. We’ve looked everywhere. We are 100 percent fucking sure.” 

“Sorry,” Crystal said. “Okay. Sorry, Dave.”

Lily clasped her hands together and lowered her head in prayer.


* * *      


After Sara’s mother died, they returned to the house, three of them now. A little boy, hardly more than a baby, who could not be consoled after the tiniest sadness: milk gone curdled and dumped out of the glass, a hole in his sock, a missing toy. A man who joked and laughed with his friends but howled in his bedroom at night so loudly he woke his children, who sat in their own rooms, trying not to hear him. A girl who was now an organ without a body, something that would surely die. Every part of her was tender and ragged. It hurt to eat and it hurt to be hungry. To be awake was to be in despair, but her muscles were sore from inertia. 

Then Spencer came in one night and scooted his body against hers in a way he hadn’t before. They’d cuddled often, of course. She’d smoothed his hair when he had cried. She’d kissed his forehead. But on this night he nestled his face between her shoulder blades. She felt his belly rise and fall against her back. She could make out the steady beat of his heart. 

It brought her back to life, beat by beat. 

He needed her. He needed her. He needed her.

She needed him. She needed him. She needed him.


* * *


The river. She couldn’t get it out of her head. Back home that night, she went to Spencer’s room and climbed into his bed.

“Hey,” he mumbled.

“Can I sleep here?” she asked.

He nodded, and she turned over so that her back faced him. She waited for him to put his arm around her but he didn’t, so she scooted her body until she felt his stomach against her back. She waited for the feeling of his breath. She waited for his heartbeat.

She prayed, in her way, that her brother might still possess the power to heal her. But no. Her fear was a wild, dangerous thing. Her body shook with it. Spencer didn’t notice. As soon as he was sleeping again, she went back to her room. 

The river. The mark. Diamond-print hospital gown. Pink polish. The slug and the redwoods. How it felt to be held, and how it felt after. The hope turning black and hollow. The panic was so powerful she thought she might double over from it, didn’t know how to be still. She buried herself in blankets in her closet and screamed into her pillow. Her eyes were swollen, and she wanted to stay in there, but she needed to use the bathroom. Her stomach churned and ached.

When she opened the door, her father hovered in the doorway as though he had been listening. He squinted past her at the empty space where her mattress had been and scanned the room until he saw it in the closet.

“What is this?” he asked.

She didn’t have an excuse to offer. It was what it was. Simple. The sheet was tucked around the mattress as snugly as she could manage in such a tight space. She had always been good at keeping things neat. She could have made something up for him, told him that she wanted more space in her room. But she was raw with fear and here was her father and she wanted to tell the truth.

“I get scared at night sometimes,” she said. She saw him flinch and blink. She hadn’t expected him to react that way. He placed a hand on her shoulder, the gesture full of regret. She hadn’t been touched by him in a long time. She felt the tremor of memory, something long ago buried—a time before Spencer, a time before death, a time when she was a little girl who laughed with her parents in the bright sunshine on the bank of a river.

A time before she knew the river could swallow a person whole.

She said, “My friend is missing.” When she looked at him again, his cheeks were wet and his eyes were closed. It had been so many years since she had seen him this way. 

“I miss Mom,” she said. She told herself that his hand on her shoulder meant that he loved her. “I don’t think we’re okay. I don’t like your friends or how much they’re around. I wish you would stop doing all of this. It’s bad for all of us, especially Spencer. There have to be other ways to make money.”

He took back his hand. 

“Hope they find your friend,” he said before retreating to his bedroom. Later that night, when she was crying in the living room, staring at the television to try to banish the vision of Annie at the bottom of the river, he passed her on the couch without looking at her.


* * *


It was morning. In just a few hours, Dave and Annie’s parents would be out on the river in one of the boats, where they had requested to be. Lily and Dave would sit in silence on Dave’s deck, overlooking the water, and Sara would not be with them. They had seen this done before. Every summer tourists poured in, most of them college kids with rafts and inner tubes and too much alcohol. They crowded their streets, left trash on their beaches, and every couple of years, one of them drowned. Sara had seen bodies lifted by hooks out of the muddy water, but never the body of someone she loved. 

She made the scrambled eggs; she let Spencer clear the plates. She helped him with his homework but did not bother with her own. Together they left the house, and she saw with relief that their father’s truck was not in the driveway. She and Spencer set off in their different directions, her on foot, Spencer on his bike, but once she was certain he was out of sight, she turned and went back home.

The folded paper was still in her jeans pocket. She opened it and saw his name for the first time. Grant. She dialed the number and entered her own. She hoped the page would wake him up. He’d hear the beeping from where he slept, curled on the back seat of his Honda Civic, and look at the screen, and find a pay phone. 

While she waited for the phone to ring, she packed a bag with her own things, wrapping the bottle of flamingo-pink nail polish in a sock to keep it from breaking. She packed a bag with Spencer’s favorite clothes, his baseball glove, and the Discman they shared. And then she went to the end of the hallway to her parents’ bedroom. She hadn’t walked through its doorway for a long time, and even though she knew her father wasn’t home, she felt his hand on her shoulder and saw his tears—tears she still couldn’t understand. She might have eventually come to understand them had he not turned away. But maybe she was the one at fault. She had said too much. She knew it. For years they had kept their guard up around each other, and he had finally slipped, exposed a tender regret, and she had dug her fingers in.

She pushed open the door. As she rifled through the drawers, ran her hand under the mattress, slid open the closet and took boxes off shelves, she wished she had on her cleaning gloves. Touching his things felt like touching the dirty sheets of strangers. Once he had swept her up in his arms, set her on his shoulders so she could see from a great distance, feel powerful in the world. Once they had loved each other. But now even his clean clothes felt grimy to her. She thought of Grant, unfazed, digging through the dumpster. It had been at least half an hour since she’d paged him.

It took her another twenty minutes to find the money—a thick stack of fifties and hundreds, wrapped in a scarf that used to belong to her mother, tucked in a TV stand behind the VHS tapes. She didn’t take it all, but she took a lot. She took enough that she’d never be able to change her mind.

Grant’s phone call didn’t come, so she waited at the bus stop with a duffle bag over each shoulder and a hummingbird heart. She rode the bus to the motel. There was a car by the side of the road, and when she got close enough to see in, she exhaled. He was still there. Still asleep. His legs bent in like a paper doll’s, his mouth open. It rushed over her—a moment of doubt. He was a complete stranger, after all. But then she thought of the hope in his face when he had asked for a shower. Of the way they’d sat together in the lounge chairs and how he’d mistaken this place for Paradise. Clearly she knew more about the world than he did. 

She banged on the window. He startled, saw her, sat up.

“I was getting my beauty rest,” he said.

She thrust three hundred-dollar bills at him. “I’m going with you to LA,” she said. “Let’s go get your car fixed.”


* * *


The garage was down a mechanic, so even though the repair took an hour as promised, they had to wait for a long time before the work was started. Sara had hoped to pull Spencer out of class—everyone in town knew she was responsible for him—but it was already two by the time the car was finished. She spotted him on the street ahead of them, riding his bike home.

“Slow down,” she told Grant, and leaned out the window to call Spencer’s name. He glanced at her and stopped, and they pulled up behind him. She meant to open her door and get out but found that she couldn’t, her palms suddenly sweaty, a knot in her throat. Spencer squinted at the unfamiliar boy in the front seat with her and then walked his bike to her window.

“I need to talk to you,” she said from her seat.

He smiled, head cocked. “Okay,” he said. When she didn’t move or say anything else, he opened her door from the outside, and she stepped out.

“I’m leaving, and I want you to come with me.”


“Los Angeles.”

He smiled, and relief flowed through her—he needed to leave too; he had been waiting for her to save him in this way—until he said, “Ha. Funny.”

“I’m not joking,” she said. 

“We don’t have money.”

“I have enough for a little while,” she said. “Enough for both of us.”

“Where would we even live?”

“We’ll find somewhere. You don’t need to get anything. I already have your bag packed. We’ll just go right now. Like this. We’ll start over. We don’t need anything.”

“What about Dad?”

“What about Dad?”


Spence. There is nothing for us here.”

Her hands were shaking. She tried to still them but couldn’t, so she hid them behind her back. 

“I can’t,” he said. “Things aren’t that bad. We can make them better.”

“No,” she said. “I have to go.”

Spencer looked at her face. He looked at his handlebars. He touched the bell with his thumb, gently, and it chimed so quietly she could barely hear it. He did it again and again, over and over, as a minute stretched by and then another.

What was happening? All those meals she had cooked for him. All the times she’d tucked him in and kissed his forehead and said I love you. She was his parent far more than their father was. How could he not see it? 

But then a new truth crept in. He was no longer three years old and magic, ushering her back into the world with his heartbeat and his tiny body. Maybe they had already lost each other. Maybe this moment had been coming all along.

“Okay,” she finally said. A sob rose in her throat, but she turned to the concrete and forced it away. Found her voice. “I’ll call you when I get there. As soon as I have a phone number I’ll give it to you.”

Spencer nodded, but she could see that he didn’t understand. He didn’t know what was happening, and she barely did either. Only that she could not find out what was at the bottom of the river. Could not be rendered so tender and ragged. Could not, again, be an organ outside of a body, something sure to die. She opened the trunk, chest heaving, and got out the bag she’d packed for him. He took it with a frown, set it down, and hugged her. She didn’t want him to see her cry, but how could she help it? She had known he would go with her and then he hadn’t. She had known she would never leave him and now she was. She folded herself into the car. Managed to shut the door. Grant started the engine, pulled onto the road, and Spencer stood watching her, eyebrows furrowed, as they passed him and went on.

“It would be hard to have a kid with you,” Grant said. “Probably better this way.”

Sara turned to the rear window. There was her brother where she had left him, staring at the car as it disappeared. They drove down River Road, past all the shops she’d been going to all her life. Past the Pink Elephant and the liquor store and Lily’s dad’s white-steepled church, and then Grant steered the car toward the bridge. They would have to cross the river to get away. She tried not to wonder if the boat was still on the water. If everyone was out there, searching. She pressed her hands over her eyes, not trusting herself to keep them shut. She saw her father’s twisted-up face. I hope they find your friend. She thought of the searching she had done, how she had imagined, again and again, that she would find Annie cross-legged under a redwood tree. A smile and a kiss. And there was Spencer again, watching her abandon him, and it was too much, but how could she ever go back? The stolen money. Her mother’s grave. Annie’s body, lifted by a hook from the river. Or, if not that, the endless searching, the poisonous hope, the ghost of her.

The feeling of the road changed, smoothed out beneath them.

“Here we go,” Grant said. “We’re officially out of Paradise.”



For the last fifteen years, characters for a novel for adults have been living inside of my head and in different iterations on paper. Two of these characters are Sara and Spencer, ten years older than they appear in this story, when they reunite for the first time after this separation. When I was asked to contribute to FORESHADOW, I found their voices to be especially loud, so I decided to write their origin story. I knew the people they became, but who were they before those ten years without each other? And who were they even before that? I wrote this story to find out.

{ Edited by Denise Conejo. }