Nancy was still young the summer her sister disappeared, only eleven, and Mozy just three years older though she looked sixteen. The year was 1994 and Nancy had begun to notice how other people—men, mostly—stared at her sister, a double-look across their shoulder or a tip of the head to better see over the rim of their sunglasses. Mozy didn’t let on whether she observed the attention, but she didn’t have to. The thing about being beautiful—about being Mozy—was that people were always staring, which meant they saw you, and being seen was power. Nancy wanted to be noticed, too.
“Parker’s at the pool today,” Laura said, the words tossed off as if she didn’t care, her blond hair swinging down her back.
“Parker is so sexy,” Jessica giggled, pecking at her sandwich. Nancy rolled her eyes, her sweaty bulk dampening her t-shirt. Mozy and her stupid friends wouldn’t stop talking about this dumb lifeguard, the one they all thought looked like a rock star. Nancy had seen him once. He wasn’t that hot. His teeth were too white and his hair was shaggy like a mutt’s.
The girls stretched their bodies in languid poses, soaking up the shade from a patch of dogwoods clumped across the asphalt parking lot from the neighborhood city recreation center. Summer mornings they were hostage to the mandatory classes their mother selected “because it’s cheaper than a babysitter.” In those stuffy, fluorescent-lit rooms decorated with cheerful posters—GO FOR YOUR DREAMS. THE SKY’S THE LIMIT. RUN WITH THE STARS.—Nancy composed sunny watercolors from nine to ten, made jewelry out of beads and pasta from ten to eleven, and sang camp songs from eleven to twelve before she and her sister were released to the danger of the unstructured afternoon.
Mozy crossed and uncrossed her long legs, skin kissed tan by the sun. “Parker and I are going to do it by the end of the summer.” Nancy gasped. Mozy leaned over and pinched her arm until she squealed. “Don’t you dare tell mom and dad, you fatty.”
The director of the rec center program waved to them from the door of the building, his other hand raised against the sun. Mozy and her friends called him the bald eagle and imitated him by narrowing their eyes and running in circles, arms flapping, their voices shrill caricatures: You girls stop gossiping and finish your work. Do you want me to separate you? Ladies, this is not social hour. This is a photography class. Nancy hated when they made fun of people. Mr. Peebles was nice enough.
Mozy stood, a gazelle with little mounds of breasts, and handed the remainder of her PB&J to Nancy, who gnawed it as she trailed the group of girls across the searing blacktop. In Mozy’s bedroom at home, they changed into their bikinis while Nancy dished chocolate ice cream into a bowl. Laura had forgotten her towel at home. Jessica complained she was fat. Monica wove her long hair into a braid and said her sister had bled through her bikini bottom once, right after she started her period, and they all made a face and then glanced at Nancy, the kid in the room. She followed them with her bowl of ice cream, a smear of chocolate on her chin. They didn’t think she knew what a period was, but they were wrong.
Nancy hated the pool. She was the ugly sister, the one with the chipped front tooth whose hair frizzed into a brown halo. She hated the thick body that refused to squeeze into any bathing suit and the skin that turned phosphorescent from the chlorine. She had no friends, really, not like Mozy, so it was fine with her that Mozy wanted to sneak off to the city pool every afternoon, even though their parents had forbidden them to go. With their father working overseas all summer and their mother trapped at work until five, who was going to tell them no? Nancy loved not having her sister around because she could watch TV and eat ice cream in solitude without being called whale and pork rind. No one ever had to know and for three summers running, they didn’t. Only after Mozy vanished did Nancy tell her frantic parents about the arrangement.
While Officer Benton took notes from the armchair, Nancy eagerly told him all kinds of stories about Mozy, even if the words sometimes tangled in the pit of her stomach. She was happy for someone to listen to her, to finally notice her, so she told him about the secret trips to the pool and Parker the sexy lifeguard. She told him where Mozy hid her cigarettes. She told him how, one afternoon, she had surprised Mozy and one of her friends in an embrace on the living room sofa, how Mozy sat calmly in the girl’s lap, petting her arm, their faces close. Nancy had watched silently until they kissed and at her gurgle of surprise Mozy jerked her head up and yelled, “Get out of here your dumb kid!” It was the only thing Mozy had said to her all week because her sister had the magical ability to look at her and see through to the other side.
Her mother stared hard at Nancy. She was suddenly thin and old, not like her mother at all. “You were supposed to stick together,” she said. Nancy lowered her head. She wanted to be brave in front of Officer Benton. She didn’t want to cry like a baby. “You were supposed to watch out for each other. What happened?”
Nancy didn’t know what happened. Mozy had so many people watching, there was no room for her. With that many people around, how much could Nancy possibly matter?
“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “Mozy went swimming.”
Her mother’s eyes were black bullets as she stood up, her heels a hard click, click, click over the floor. She went outside and threw the door closed behind her, leaving Nancy alone with Officer Benton, who stared down at his notepad.
The police searched Mozy’s bedroom for signs that she meant to disappear, ignoring her mother repeating over and over: She didn’t go anywhere. Something happened to her. She didn’t do this on her own. Nancy didn’t need to see his face to know that Officer Benton was not convinced. Girls who smoked cigarettes in secret and had sex with lifeguards earned a certain reputation.
It took her father two days to get home from his work overseas after her mother called him. By then Mozy hadn’t been seen in four days. Her father arrived rumpled and exhausted, most of his luggage still abroad, his face gray ash. He squeezed Nancy to his chest, and then told her to go to her room and close the door. Instead, Nancy pressed her back to the wall just beyond the living room as her father inquired about details, anything her mother might remember that could tell them where Mozy had gone. “She’s been on trips with the Everetts before and forgotten to call. Are you sure you just haven’t overlooked something?”
Her mother’s voice sounded like knives. “You don’t think I’ve thought of every possible place she could be? You don’t think I’ve spent hours thinking over every sentence she’s said to me in the last week?”
Even though her mother had already talked with all of the parents of Mozy’s friends, her father sat at the kitchen table with a handwritten list and a glass of whisky and placed calls, checking off the names one by one while her mother stood at the kitchen window, staring at the streetlight that bordered the yard and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Nancy sensed that the other parents, sympathetic at first, began to feel harassed, first with Mozy’s parents calling and then with police at the door during dinnertime wanting to talk to their daughters when their daughters hadn’t done anything wrong. What more do you want? They went to the pool together, that’s it. How should my daughter know what happened?
That night, exhausted with his phone calls, her father locked himself in his study. In Mozy’s room, her mother shuffled through old school photos in albums with broken bindings and dusty covers, her fingers tracing Mozy’s outline over and over, the dark moons darting from under her eyes. Left alone, Nancy curled on her bed with Mozy’s favorite stuffed animal clutched to her chest and cried.
Nancy wanted to confront those stupid, cowardly girls who called themselves Mozy’s friends and ask them why, if Mozy was their beloved little star, hadn’t they stopped her? Why had they let her gather her towel and backpack and walk forever away? What convincing thing had Mozy said that not one—a single one!—had gone with her when she left the pool? She wanted to drown those dumb girls in tubs of chlorine.
Nancy began to write letters to Mozy that she left around the house and yard, hoping her sister might find them. She tucked them into the couch cushions and left them under Mozy’s pillows. One went between the pages of Mozy’s diary; she taped another to the top of Mozy’s make-up case. She left them in coat pockets and shoes, dropped them between bushes in the yard and underneath Mozy’s favorite box of cereal in the cupboard. She sealed the white envelopes and wrote her sister’s name in tall block lettering across the front of each one. Inside, every note read the same: Mozy, I’m sorry.
Two weeks after her sister’s disappearance, Mr. Peebles knocked. Her father was on his third glass of whisky when the door opened to the balding man and his shrill face, his features arranged in condolence. He sat on the couch with her mother’s only touch of hospitality, a glass of water, sweating on the table beside him. His few words of sympathy were accepted without comment. Nancy hadn’t been to the rec center since Mozy disappeared. The optimism of those tiny rooms was a harsh slap that her parents no longer trusted.
“Maybe I should have brought this to you earlier. I just…. well, I didn’t think about it. I don’t know why. It’s just that with Jane disappearing—” the director was the only person who called Mozy by her birth name instead of her self-christened one—“the center’s been a bit chaotic and I guess it fell through the cracks. Anyhow, I’m sorry.” He fumbled with his briefcase and thrust a manila envelope at them.
“Thank you,” her mother replied automatically, reaching for the envelope. It was bulky and fell instead into Nancy’s lap. She turned it over and traced the sealed edge with her chubby fingers.
Mr. Peebles nodded, hesitated. “I-I thought perhaps, well, it would be welcomed.” He coughed and sipped water from his glass. “Something to, I don’t know…. something to add to her room.” He shrugged and looked around. “Have the police… do they know anything about what happened?”
Her parents said nothing. Nancy had learned to hold her breath for long periods to make the room entirely still.
He ran his finger over the tabletop, squinted at the dust. “It must be hard to talk about.” He wiped his dusty finger on his pants. “I just thought, well, maybe something to tell the parents, so they don’t—so they aren’t so… worried.”
“Thoughtful,” her mother murmured. Mr. Peebles nodded.
“They don’t know,” Nancy’s father said. “That’s the problem. No one knows. She went swimming with her friends. Nancy was here. She left the pool by herself.”
And she never came home, Nancy thought.
Her father stood. “You’ll understand that we’re tired and about to turn in. Thank you for bringing….” He gestured limply to the envelope. Her father escorted Mr. Peebles to the door that was closed and bolted in his face even as he struggled for a proper good-bye.
The envelope contained Mozy’s work from the center’s classes: a watercolor of geraniums; black and white photographs of her friends; an essay, in French, on swimming. Her mother squeezed a sob from between the hands that covered her mouth. Her father looked deflated, like a doll with its stuffing pulled out.
They went to bed early that night, weighted by Mozy’s sudden, fleeting presence. Nancy was the last to leave the living room. On the couch where Mr. Peebles had sat were items fallen from his pocket: two pink plastic beads and a penny.
When the sediment of summer settled into the dead leaves of fall, the hope that Mozy would be found withered. Her parents no longer jumped to answer whenever the doorbell or the telephone unexpectedly rang. Her mother stopped ordering Mozy’s favorite carryout—Chinese—and finally stopped eating altogether. Her father drank and locked himself in his study to work, often sleeping nights there with the door closed.
They held a memorial service at the church, her father clutching her sobbing mother in the front pew while Nancy sat apart and alone. She couldn’t cry because there was no casket, only colorful flowers and a giant picture of Mozy propped on an easel, her smile wide. Nancy thought that maybe Mozy was still out in the world somewhere, still trying to find her way home. The city wasn’t that large. There were only so many places she could be.
No one understood that disappearance was not the same as death. Walking through the hallways at school, Nancy sometimes saw Mozy on the stairs ahead, her long hair swept back. She saw Mozy walking down the street behind the school playground or standing at the edge of their yard at dusk, waving to her in the half-light. At night Mozy was a ghost who tripped through Nancy’s dreams. She saw her sister everywhere.
Mozy’s friends attended the memorial service but didn’t look at Nancy, the sister left behind. She was like someone in a photograph taped to a window, vaporized by the sun until nothing remained but the tip of a finger or the collar of a shirt. Mozy was the sun, a bright and shining star. Nancy stared at the white slivers of her tennis shoes during the service that peaked from beneath the hem of her too-long black dress. Her parents hadn’t noticed. Her parents saw her less and less since her sister had gone.
As everyone shuffled from the church afterwards, Nancy watched Mozy’s friends skitter across the waxed floor in their black heels and scuttle down the sidewalk in a tight group, pert and perfect girls with breasts and nail polish, periods and boyfriends. She thought about following them as they walked home, an invisible shadow trailing behind. She wanted to make them invisible. She wanted them to disappear. Then those girls who called themselves Mozy’s friends would know. They would finally understand.
Lacey N. Dunham’s fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares’ blog, Midwestern Gothic, Saltwater Quarterly, The Collagist, and Full Stop, among others, and she reads submissions for the literary journal A Public Space. She received her degree in creative writing from Hollins University, where she was awarded the Melanie Hook Rice Award for Creative Fiction. She lives in Washington, DC.
Image: Flickr / Thomas Martin