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by Erika Purtell

page 1 of 3


  The electronic melody sliced through Caroline’s sleep like a knife. Her vision was blurred as she scrambled through her winter coat for her cell phone. She flipped it open.
  “Hello,” she choked. She cleared her throat. “Hello?”
  “Is this Caroline Anderson?” The voice on the other end was small, like that of a little girl.
  “Yeah.” Caroline managed. “I mean, yes. This is she.”
  Caroline put her glasses on. Her clock radio came into focus. 8:45 a.m. “Who is this?” She groaned.
  “My name is Pixie Lieber. I share an apartment with your sister?”
  “My sister?” Caroline’s stomach tightened. “What did Lydia do now?” She rummaged though her purse for her cigarettes. She found the pack of Marlboros and lit one.
  “This is hard to say, but…”
  Caroline’s gaze wandered about her dorm room. It was a nice space and she felt lucky that her roommate Adrienne had recently transferred out. She was more comfortable now without posters of rock and roll idols on the adjacent wall. She couldn’t live with paper eyes that watched her every movement. She also couldn’t live with a person who actually had sex with a boy once while she was trying to sleep. There was nothing she hated more than imprudence. Although she truly hated waiting.
  “What is it? This is costing me money.”
  “Well. Oh God, I don’t know how to tell you.”
  “You open your mouth and…” Caroline waved her cigarette, annoyed. “Just say it. If it deals with Lydia I won’t be surprised by anything you have to say.” She stared at the glowing end of her cigarette out of habit. She liked watching the paper turn to ash. She took a long drag. It sounded as though the girl on the other end of the receiver was crying.
  Caroline exhaled. “Look, I’ve known Lydia my entire life. What do you want?”
  “I think she really did it,” the girl moaned in Caroline’s ear.
  “Did what?” Caroline’s mind circled over the worst case scenarios she could think of. Did her younger sister rob a bank? Did she skip town with another person’s money or drugs? Was she prostituting herself?
  “She left a note. I think she really did it.”
  Caroline fixed her eyes on the cigarette again. The ash fell before she could catch it in the ashtray. It landed on her favorite silk sweater, the one that her father brought her from Italy last summer. “Shit,” she said out loud. Why didn’t she put it away after dinner last night?
  “I know, this is awful,” the distraught voice replied. “She’s been so depressed lately and since Art broke up with her, she hasn’t been herself.”
  “Art?” Caroline asked, even though she knew who he was. She got a paper towel and wet it in the bathroom sink. She sat on the closed toilet lid and gently dabbed the soiled sweater. Her head pounded with the onset of a migraine.
  “Yeah, her boyfriend. I mean, ex-boyfriend. So, like, for two weeks all she does is talk about suicide and stuff and…”
  Caroline paused in her cleaning. “Suicide?”
  “Yeah,” the girl on the other end sobbed quietly. “I think she did it.”
  “Listen,” Caroline said as she continued cleaning the sweater. “Lydia’s been threatening suicide since before she could speak.”
  “But she hasn’t been home for three days! It’s not like her not to call me.”
  Caroline sighed with relief. The sweater was saved. “Well,” she said, “she hasn’t called our parents in two years. What should I say? Sucks to be you?”
  She was met with silence. She hung the sweater over the shower curtain to dry and went back to sit on her bed. The cigarette was still lit and she took the last drag.
  “You really are stuck in your own little world. How can you be so cold?”
  “Lydia wants attention. I’ve dealt with it my whole life.” She stubbed the cigarette out and rubbed a temple with her free hand. “OK, so it’s been three days since you’ve seen her?”
  “Going on four.”
  “Have you filed a Missing Persons report?”
  “Maybe you have some doubts too.” Caroline sighed. When did she become designated to solve everyone else’s life problems? “You said she wrote a suicide letter?”
  “Yeah. I can’t bring myself to read it.”
  “Okay, I’ll look at it. What’s your address again?” She jotted directions down on a Post-It note and flipped the phone closed. She hurried to the bathroom again and swallowed two Tylenol with water from the tap.

  After a hot shower, Caroline blow-dried her long brown hair and put it back in a ponytail. Her bangs had finally grown long enough to fit into the rubber band and this made her very happy. She put in her contact lenses and looked at her reflection. She liked her face. Everyone liked her face and she made friends very easily. As she gained experience living away from home, she realized men seemed to like her body more than what she had to say. It drove her crazy. Now that she was 20, she was ready to be taken seriously! Although her eyes were a little on the sallow side, she decided against putting on make-up so early on a Sunday morning. She threw on a pair of Gap jeans and an old Banana Republic sweater.

  The day was chilly and overcast. Dirty snow had been pushed toward the sidewalk and formed a three foot wall. The feeling of Christmas was in the air. Caroline walked two blocks to her favorite café. She knew she wouldn’t be able to study, but she carried her Physics book with her anyway. She ordered her usual French toast with extra-crispy bacon and a latte. She flipped open her cell phone, then closed it. There was no reason to call Mom yet.
  While she gazed out the window at people passing by, her mind turned to the time when Lydia first changed. It seemed to have happened overnight. Caroline started classes over 2 years ago. At first she felt flattered that her little sister was so broken up about her decision to leave the home front and live in the dorms in the city. They had never been close before, so this seemed slightly odd. During her first few months away, Lydia borrowed Dad’s car and drove out every weekend. It didn’t take long for the stress of her classes and her interest in joining a sorority to take its toll on Caroline. She simply asked Lydia to give her some space. In her opinion, Lydia had completely overreacted. Shortly after, she had moved into an apartment with a boy Caroline didn’t even know. In no time she had cut off all connections with Caroline as well as the rest of their family. The drama continued when Mom called Caroline in a state of hysteria because she believed Lydia had stolen their great-great grandmother Becker’s opal necklace. The heirloom was worth $2,000 when it had last been appraised. The piece was intricately cut in the shape of an angel with gold wings and halo. It had been handed down to each of the family’s first-born daughters and was destined for Caroline on her wedding day.
  If that day ever comes, Caroline thought bitterly. Her boyfriend Rob had come in but he hadn’t seen her. She sipped her Latte and watched him flirt with Adrienne, who sat at a table near the door.
  Rob reminded Caroline of a deer caught in headlights when he saw her sitting there. He approached and dropped his heavy backpack on the floor by her table. He eased into the booth across from her. He kissed her hand and said, “Hey, babe. What’s up?” She hated how predictable he was becoming.
  “Well, I got an interesting call from Lydia's roommate this morning. Seems she’s disappeared.” She sipped her coffee.
  “Disappeared?” His eyes probed her. She often had the feeling he didn’t believe a word she said. “What are you going to do?”
  “Well,” she replied, “I’m going to check into it. Her roommate sounded upset.”
  Rob scratched his thin goatee and said, “You know you should study.” His blue eyes were pale and seemed as cold and cloudy as the winter sky. “I thought I was going to help you with Physics. Finals are just around the corner.” His voice was degrading as though he was talking down to her.
  “I’m not going to be able to study now,” she retorted, more irritable than intended.
  He snorted. “It’ll just take a few hours. I’ll be back tonight.”

  Wet snow fell and Caroline trudged to her Lexus. As the car warmed up, she remembered when she confronted Lydia about the missing necklace. The day had been very much like today, cold and wet and miserable. The memory replayed itself in her mind as she pulled onto the gloomy gray road. It had taken a few days to find out where Lydia was staying. One of her girlfriends had found the address of the boyfriend, Art. When Lydia saw Caroline at her door, she gave her an enormous hug. She acted as though nothing had happened between them.
  The apartment was small, cramped with furniture and books. Caroline sat awkwardly as Art lit a stick of incense and smoked marijuana. She declined when he offered the joint to her. Lydia read poems she had written on napkins or menuss or other pieces of loose paper. They were unsettling words about demonic creatures, hearing voices, and the love of death. Lydia explained that her mind had been freed or expanded or something during the time since she’d left home. She strongly recommended Caroline to free her own mind from the shackles of human existence. After a polite silence, Caroline asked Lydia if she knew anything about the missing heirloom. The feeling in the room immediately shifted and Caroline felt her adrenaline skyrocket. Lydia threw a small tantrum. Caroline tried to reason with her, but she was written off very quickly. Lydia escorted her to the door. “I hope someday you find what you’re really looking for.” She smiled smugly and the blood that surged in Caroline’s cheeks felt even hotter. She left in a fury that night. Somehow she just knew that precious piece of jewelry had been squandered to appease the Lydia’s love of drugs.

  As ghosts of the past floated in and out of her consciousness, Caroline turned onto the highway that she so often took to go home. She examined the lemon yellow Post-it note with Lydia’s address. It was still the same place. She found it strangely coincidental that Lydia left home only to live a few miles from their childhood neighborhood. Another memory surfaced when an SUV cut in front of her. She was certain if she tailed it, there would be a fine with her name attached to it.

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© 2002 Erika Purtell