“Where is she?” I asked.
My step-sister’s classmate sitting in front of me twisted around. “Her mom came and got her out of class. Said she had a doctor’s appointment.”
I glanced out the bus window. “What?”
“You didn’t know?”
“She hasn’t been sick,” I said.
The girl shrugged and turned back to her friends. Well, good. Maybe I’d have the house to myself for a while. Though it seemed odd N. hadn’t mentioned it. Getting out of class was the sort of thing she’d love to remind me of. I was in the 4th grade. N. was in the 5th.
The bus stop was a 15 minute walk from our house. When I came around the curve, I was happy to see no car in the drive and those last few minutes of the walk I practically skipped.
The first thing I noticed missing was the dining room table. I set my my bookbag on the floor. A chair was missing from the living room. Throw pillows from the sofa. I reached N.’s room first. The shelves were bare and the closet empty. I darted to my step-mother’s closet. Empty, too.
I sat on Dad’s bed, and wondered how I felt. Glad. Yes, glad if she was gone. Angry that no one had told me this was coming. I thought about N. and wondered if she’d wanted to leave.
When Dad got home I waited for an explanation. He asked me how school was. “Dad,” I said. “Where’s J.?”
“You know, you remind me of Lana Turner’s sister,” he said. I knew what was coming. “Stomach Turner.”
She was gone. That would have to be enough.
Three months I came around that curve again. There was my step-mother’s car in the driveway. I stood on the side of the road and stared. I looked over at the cow pasture to my right and told myself I was imagining things. No. The car was still there.
I looked over at the house to my left. No. It had to be someone else’s car. I could see the sun glaring on the lake between the houses. Or it was her car, but she wasn’t staying.
The dining room table was back. The pillows. The pictures on the wall. The only thing not back were the Christmas presents she’d given me. She’d taken those with her and I never did see them again. They would hardly be the last gifts to disappear.
Over the next three years I learned to dread that curve. If N. wasn’t on the bus after school, my stomach would twist. N. had told me she never wanted to go. That she wasn’t told beforehand. Her mother would show up in her classroom and take her away.
A month or two would pass, and then the headaches started. The stomach aches. Any day now the car will be in the drive. My pace slowed as I approached the curve. I’d look at my feet. Though an empty driveway was no guarantee. Once I’d relaxed, only to walk in and see everything back in its place–she’d run to the store for groceries.
I’d walk by her car and look in the windows for some clue about where she’d been. I’d think about turning around and walking away. My step-mother offered no explanation, and when I asked N. where they’d been, she’d bite her nails and say, “Who cares?”
Stories have conflict. Tension. The dread of what is around the corner. I confess to trying to pull the tension as tight as I think a reader can stand, but it’s hard to know if I’ve pulled it off. Just because I feel the tension, doesn’t mean the reader will.
Tonight I went back to my first novel (an act nerve wracking in and of itself), and discovered how much I’d forgotten. I made myself nervous–actually anxious over what happened next. Frightened by my own writing–what is wrong with me?