by NICHOLAS LEPRE
They searched for Francine every Thursday afternoon, after school, in the hidden spaces of the neighborhood. They were halfway to the reservoir, the September sun at their backs, the green leaves beginning to brittle. Kenna in her Spider-Man costume, with Stephanie and her big, dumb brother, Jake. He always tagged along because he didn’t have any friends his own age. The costume rode up Kenna’s torso as she stepped over stones and sticks. It was nearly a year old and frayed at the neck hole and sleeves—a boy’s Halloween costume her father bought her a few months before he left for good.
On Thursdays, they could go anywhere. It was the single day each week that Kenna’s mother didn’t work or have class at C.C.R.I. She needed quiet to study, which meant that Kenna could stay outside until whenever she wanted. The rest of the week, when Mrs. Trotter watched her, she wanted to know where Kenna was going and when she’d be back.
Her shoulders were sore from carrying her knapsack. She slapped a bug on the back of Stephanie’s neck. Jake usually had food and Capri Suns in his backpack, and she hoped he’d share this time. Stephanie had a hand-drawn map of the neighborhood in hers. Kenna had a green JanSport with a broken zipper that Mrs. Trotter fastened together with three safety pins from her sewing kit. Inside were Band-Aids and a brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide, along with a red flashlight that her mother kept in the junk drawer, and a notebook where she could write down what they found and where they were when they found it.
In the days and weeks after Francine Moss was taken, there were thousands of volunteers. They searched all over the state. They combed the streets and woods. Kenna watched them on TV and then through the living room windows of Mrs. Trotter’s house. They walked with their arms locked and flashlights in their hands. Mrs. Trotter said not to worry; they would find that poor girl. But the days passed, and Kenna circled each of them on the Greenwood Credit Union calendar. X’s felt too negative. The circles piled up like the dead leaves in the woods that separated each of the streets in her neighborhood. There were millions of places a person could disappear. Concrete tunnels and fallen trees that no one knew about. The dirt pile behind T.F. Green airport at the end of Industrial Drive. And if the adults couldn’t find Francine, Kenna would.
“We have to look underwater,” she said.
“What?” Jake said.
“When we get to the reservoir. I betcha no one looked underwater.”
“Yeah they did, ya dumb baby. Divers checked every pond in the whole state.”
“I brought goggles and a bathing suit,” Kenna said.
“Lotta good that’ll do.”
“Where are you gonna change?” Stephanie asked.
“You can just turn around.”
“I’m not turning around,” Jake said.
“Pervert,” said Stephanie.
They walked past a log that Kenna had carved with all the bad words she and Stephanie knew. It was part of their secret swear club. Shit. Hell. Crap. Condom. Asshole. They both stared at the log on the side of the trail. Jake didn’t seem to notice.
“This is stupid,” he said.
“Then why did you come?” Kenna said. He turned around and parted his thick lips like he wanted to spit. His teeth were oatmeal gray and he smelled like dried blood.
“You know what? Where did your dad go, Kenna?”
Stephanie told him to stop it, but there was no point. He’d already said it. He tried everything to hurt Kenna and it worked. She thought about running away, and then she thought about punching Jake in his big, ugly face.
They were walking down a dirt hill between two of the streets. A shallow stream bisected the mini-valley, the water less than a foot deep, and twice as wide that afternoon.
Jake said, “Why do you wear that dumb costume?”
She hated him. Every little thing that made Kenna different from other kids was a dagger he used against her. She didn’t call him names just because he was fat. She didn’t tell him no one liked him. She wouldn’t even tell him she didn’t want him around when he tagged along with
Stephanie. The words she thought and the words she said aloud would always be different after Francine was taken. People disappear, she thought as she resolved not to shove Jake into the stream.
“It’s not my fault,” Kenna said, but no one answered.
Francine’s birthday party turned into a sleepover at night, after the boys left, after the Jurassic Park sticker, Super Ball, and Blow Pop goodie bags were passed out. It was Kenna’s first slumber party. She spent most of the day with Stephanie, running in circles in the back yard.
Between Kenna’s and Francine’s second-grade classes, there were thirty-eight children. Twenty-two of them came, Kenna knew, because of a thing Francine kept saying. She was delighted to have twenty-two guests for her birthday! The words sounded phony—like something Mrs. Moss said the night before, or something she told Francine to say. Some kids were like that, more macaw than person, Mrs. Trotter would say. Francine didn’t play tag outside—she was showing off a trunk full of costumes that her parents bought her for her birthday. Some of the girls were playing dress-up in her bedroom, and Kenna and Stephanie weren’t invited in.
The trees beyond the chain-link fence swallowed the sunlight, and Mr. Moss started a fire in the yard. None of the other kids seemed to notice Mr. Moss—he was just another grownup to them. Kenna asked him questions about the fire. He showed her how to build it so it would stay lit—like a little teepee, he said as Mrs. Moss handed out kebab sticks and marshmallows. There wasn’t just cake and ice cream, there were s’mores too.
When he walked away, Kenna said, “I wish I had a birthday party like this.”
Francine joined them in the circle around the fire, wearing a princess costume with a long, purple train that dragged across the lawn. She stuffed four marshmallows on a kebab stick and roasted them until they were golden brown.
“What are you doing?” said Kenna.
“Making s’mores for my best friends,” Francine said. “It’s called being a good host.” She assembled one perfect sandwich for each of the girls who followed her outside.
“Will you make me one?” Kenna asked.
“Maybe,” Francine said, and seemed to consider it. Kenna had never eaten s’mores before, only seen them on T.V. Francine handed the roasting stick to a girl named Stacey, and snapped four graham crackers in half.
“It’s not that hard,” she said to Kenna, as she sandwiched the goopy marshmallow and chocolate bar. “You can make your own.”
The other girls didn’t even need napkins; their entire s’more stayed together as they ate. Kenna’s drooped all over her hands. She could tell the ones that Francine made tasted better, too. They must have.
Francine asked the girls from her class to go inside with her. Before they walked away, she told Kenna she had marshmallow on her face.
The sky changed from stone to slate and the fire burned down until Kenna and Stephanie were the only children outside. Kenna rubbed her face until it hurt. No matter what she did, it still felt sticky. Stephanie said the marshmallow was gone, but Kenna didn’t believe her.
They followed Mr. Moss inside when he said he was going to build a blanket fort. She imagined something with multiple rooms, interconnected across the entire Moss basement. Inside the house, the Jennifers were staring at the mountain of presents on the dining room table. Francine sat on the dining room rug, tearing the shining wrapping paper off the presents. She unwrapped a long, skinny box that Kenna could tell contained a Barbie, and as soon as she saw the pink cardboard, she put it back on the table.
No matter how much Mr. Moss tried to corral the girls down the stairs, Francine insisted on opening more presents. She barely smiled, just ripped the wrapping paper at the corner, like she was in a rush to be done with it. It reminded Kenna of the way Mrs. Trotter opened mail.
“Stop,” Mr. Moss said.
“It’s my birthday,” Francine said. He wouldn’t shout at her, no matter how awful she acted. Kenna’s father would have got on his hands and knees and screamed in her face if she disobeyed him. She imagined his hot breath on her cheeks, and the clammy foot smell beneath her bed where she would hide and recover. He was gone forever now, and there was no one left to disobey.
In the pile of presents, Kenna’s stood out like a bottle cap washed up on a seashell shore. Hers was the only gift wrapped in newspaper. Not even the funny pages, because the party was on a Saturday, and last week’s had already been thrown away.
“What’s this?” Francine asked.
No one replied. Half of the girls were talking about the gifts Francine already opened. Some of them were trying to free a tyrannosaurus rex from its packaging. Others were waiting, intently, for Francine to tear into their gift.
“It’s newspaper,” Kenna said.
“We didn’t have wrapping paper.”
“Francine. Enough,” Mr. Moss said. She stopped asking questions and tore the classifieds off Kenna’s gift. It was a Dr. Alan Grant action figure in a panama hat with a blue shirt and khakis. There was nothing fun about a man in khakis, Kenna thought. He looked like Mr. Moss, or the way Mr. Moss would look on a safari. She was already embarrassed, before Francine even reacted.
“I already have this!” she said.
“Francine,” Mr. Moss said, “what do you say?”
She got off the floor and ran to the top of the basement stairs. “It’s fine. We can exchange it for something better.”
Kenna decided to take the figure home for herself; Francine wouldn’t even notice.
In the dirt, in the wet brown dirt that turned to mud and met the reservoir, where the brown grass grew and mosquitos slept, Kenna took off all of her clothes. Stephanie turned around and gave her privacy, but Jake stared at her—her ghost white, floor-flat skin reflecting the sun. When Francine was kidnapped, Kenna asked Mrs. Trotter why a person would take someone else’s kid. Mrs. Trotter scoured the white stovetop after dinner. How could a person want a child bad enough to steal one, when some people didn’t want children at all? She told Kenna that some adults have a sickness, that they touch children when they don’t want to be touched.
Stephanie pulled at her brother’s arm to turn him around, but he wouldn’t budge. He slapped her hands away.
If Kenna could be brave for one day, maybe Francine wouldn’t have to be.
“Let him stare,” she said, before she unzipped her JanSport and took her bathing suit out. The air was warm on her body, and she thought of a woman who lived not far from the reservoir who sunned in her backyard. She sometimes waved to Kenna and Stephanie as they walked past, offering them lemonade that Kenna never accepted, because her father always told her never to ask for anything and especially never to take anything she didn’t ask for.
She slapped at a fly on her stomach, and her fingertips left three grape-sized marks on her skin. Jake looked at the marks and then locked eyes with her. He turned away and took a cellophane-wrapped Devil Dog out of his backpack and began to tear at the crinkly plastic.
“Give it to me,” Kenna said.
“Give it,” she said, and walked toward him, still undressed. He retreated, nearly tripping over his own feet.
“What’s the matter?” Kenna said, “You’re afraid of me?”
“No.” Jake handed it to her. “Stop being stupid.”
He said something about finding rocks to skip, and walked further to the stream that fed the reservoir. Kenna unwrapped the Devil Dog and ate three bites. The brown cake sponged on her fingertips and the palms of her hands, its crumbs tumbling down her chest and onto the pebbly earth beneath her bare feet.
“Will you put some clothes on?” Stephanie said, and Kenna gave her the remainder of the Devil Dog.
Jake hunched over the edge of the stream digging out pebbles, with his back to Kenna. Without clothes, she was more powerful than him.
“What do you think is happening to her right now?” Kenna asked.
“To who?” Jake said.
“Francine, you dummy,” Stephanie said, and then, “I don’t know. Maybe she’s sleeping.”
“Why would she be sleeping?” Jake asked. “It’s like six o’clock.”
“Shut up,” said Stephanie. “What do you think?”
Kenna wanted to say what Mrs. Trotter said about the sickness. She wanted to tell Stephanie that it was real and it happened. She imagined a swarm of armless hands on Francine’s naked body, the fingers twisted and cocked in all directions, freckled and bruised, grabbing at something they’d never reach. She couldn’t say it out loud.
Most of the girls wore soft pink and purple pajamas with matching tops and bottoms. Stephanie wore a long J. Geils Band t-shirt that belonged to her mother. She didn’t have pants, and Mr. Moss offered to get her a pair of Francine’s.
“No,” said Francine.
“What did I say about sharing?”
“It’s my birthday,” she said. Kenna didn’t understand why Francine wouldn’t share. If she had twenty pairs of pajama bottoms, she would just give them away to anyone who wanted a
“That’s okay,” Stephanie said.
“What did I say?” Mr. Moss repeated.
Francine said, “Fine,” and stomped upstairs.
Pajamas weren’t something Kenna ever thought to want. Most nights, she slept in her underwear, like Stephanie. Mrs. Trotter told her she had to bring pajamas to the slumber party, but she didn’t think it would matter until she was in the basement, watching Mr. Moss pile pillows and canopy comforters between the sofa and loveseat. He knew how to do so many things, and he was completely wasted on Francine.
She went into the bathroom and changed into her Spider-Man costume while Francine was upstairs. At least she had matching pants. When she came out, everyone was looking at her.
“I like your pajamas, Spider Girl,” Mr. Moss said.
“Spider-Man,” Kenna said.
“But you’re a girl.”
The Jennifers from her class didn’t seem to care, and Stephanie was used to the costume, being the one neighborhood friend that Kenna ever saw on nights and weekends.
When her father gave it to her a couple of days before Halloween, her mom argued she already had a costume, she was supposed to be Ariel. Her hair was mermaid long and the green sequined tail was adorable. Her mom insulted the Spider-Man costume. It had a stupid plastic mask. It was cheap. Nobody even likes Spider-Man, she said. But it made Kenna’s dad happy, when he was around, to see her in the costume. The less her father came around, the more she insisted on wearing it. She wore it every day. On Thanksgiving. On Christmas. She wasn’t allowed to wear it to school, and that was one of the only rules her mother ever made.
Francine came back downstairs with a pair of pink and white striped pajama pants. She threw them at Stephanie when Mr. Moss wasn’t looking, but Stephanie didn’t say anything about it. She always avoided arguments.
“What are you wearing?” Francine asked.
“She’s Spider Girl,” Mr. Moss said. “Sorry, Spider-Man.”
“Spider-Man,” Kenna said.
“That’s a Halloween costume.”
“Let’s talk for a minute,” Mr. Moss said. He pulled Francine to one of the corners of the basement and whispered something about guests and respect. She had a pouty look on her face, like a puffer fish.
When the blanket fort was finished, Mrs. Moss brought bowls of popcorn down from upstairs, played The Rescuers on the basement VCR, and turned off the lights.
“If you girls need anything, just come upstairs, okay?”
No one answered.
They watched the movie and a few of the girls fell asleep. Kenna could stay up all night. The popcorn stabbed her gums like tiny shards of glass, and she used her fingernail to scratch her teeth.
“I don’t like this movie,” she said in a whisper, “it’s boring.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie said, but she watched it anyway.
They were lying on blankets outside the canopy, in front of the TV. Francine’s class was underneath. Most of the girls from Kenna’s class had left, and many of them hadn’t come to the party to begin with.
“Do you want to get under the fort?” Kenna asked.
“I don’t care,” said Stephanie.
“It’s not fair.”
“There’s not enough room,” one of the girls said.
“Yes there is, just push over,” Kenna said, and shoved the girl. Her name was Candace, and she always gave away stickers at recess. Girls in the other class would put them on their shirts or backpacks. When she had asked her for one, Candace said she should get her parents to take her to The Land of Ahhs in the Warwick Mall and buy her some of her own.
“I’m telling,” Candace said.
“Just make room,” said Kenna.
“You’re ruining the party.”
“Stop it! You’re not even wearing pajamas,” Francine said, “Spider-Man is stupid.”
Kenna stood up and ripped the blankets out from behind the sofa, and the fort collapsed on the girls. They all started screaming and before long, the basement lights came on.
“I can probably swim to the bottom with my goggles on,” Kenna said.
“You shouldn’t have let him see you naked,” Stephanie said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, and walked to the edge of the reservoir, where the gray water lapped into the black edge. She stuck her foot in and said it was cold, but it was warmer than she expected. The same temperature as bathwater at Mrs. Trotter’s house after thirty minutes.
“We’re not supposed to swim here,” Stephanie said.
“Says who?” Kenna asked, but she already knew the answer was everyone. It was dirty water. It came from people’s toilets. It was full of mutants and monsters that would drag you to the bottom.
“What if you get sick?”
“What if she’s down there? We have to look.” The wind whipped their hair around and
Stephanie said she wasn’t going in.
“I’ll walk around the reservoir and look for her.”
“I don’t think you’ll find anything,” said Kenna. It was obvious Stephanie didn’t care as much as she did, and the thought made her feel sad. She considered the possibility that she was born too late, centuries after everything had been discovered and claimed, into an impossible world where you could be stolen from your front yard and never, ever found.
The water seemed as deep as the ocean. At first, she couldn’t see much beyond her hands when she went under, but after a couple of attempts, her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The bottom, or what she thought was the bottom, deep beneath her body, looked like a starless night sky. There were green plants and dead leaves all over the place. It was covered in papers and garbage. Old tires. Empty bottles. Car parts. Trash barrels. Like the Johnston dump. Where did it all come from?
Every time she came up for air, the sky was a darker shade of blue. Stephanie said she would walk around the perimeter, but each time Kenna came up for air, she and Jake were right where she left them. At one point, he said ticks would eat them and their dad would have to burn them off with matches. They didn’t find anything except empty liquor bottles, which Jake tried, unsuccessfully, to skip like stones on the reservoir’s surface.
“Did you find her yet?” he hollered, sarcastically.
“No,” Kenna said. She was getting desperate to find Francine, to find any sign of her. To make things right, she would swim deeper and hold her breath longer than she ever had before.
“I think we should go home soon. It’s probably supper time,” Stephanie said.
“You’re never gonna find her,” Jake said.
“Maybe she’s in California,” said Stephanie.
“Why would she be in California?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why would you say that?”
Kenna sucked in as much air as her lungs could hold and dove down one last time. Without the sun above the reservoir, she could barely see anything anymore. She pushed herself as far down as she could, and let all the air seep out of her nose. There was nothing living underwater, nothing she could see, and she realized why there weren’t any mallards on the reservoir’s surface. There was nothing here for them, she thought. Nothing here for anyone. The water seeped into her goggles and burned her open eyes. She shook her head to right them and slapped at her face so the suction would hold, and then, she inhaled and started choking. The water reminded her of steroid pills she had to take for a sinus infection—acidic and bitter on her tongue. She struggled to the surface and thought for sure she’d die before she reached it. She inhaled again on her way up, and everything started to turn brown. It felt like a thousand-pound weight was resting on the crown of her head, holding her under. She screamed as she reached the surface. If Francine was at the bottom, she’d never find her.
“Are you okay?” Stephanie yelled.
She crawled out of the water and lay face down on her hands and knees on the muddy earth, spitting and gasping for air. Warm tears ran down her cheeks and she punched at the ground with both of her hands.
“I’m dying,” Kenna repeated between coughs.
“Hold still,” Stephanie said. She slapped her on the back and Kenna threw up in the dirt.
Stephanie asked if she was okay three times. She wasn’t okay, and neither was Francine.
“We should have left earlier,” said Stephanie. “Next week, let’s go to the dirt pit behind the airport.”
“What’s the point? We’re never gonna find her,” Jake said, “and even if we do—you’re looking underwater. Do you know what that means? That means she’s dead.”
He was right.
“Nuh-uh,” Stephanie said.
He was right.
“Yes. It does,” Jake yelled. “It means she’s dead. It means she’s gone forever.”
Kenna considered forever. She thought of a field trip the second-grade classes took to the Warwick Public Library last spring. A librarian with long, brown hair told them the library had over seventy-five thousand books. Seventy-five thousand is so many, she thought, but if she walked through the library with a pair of scissors and cut every word out of every book, the amount of time it would take her still wouldn’t be close to forever. If she repeated the same task in every library in the world, it would take her ten trillion years, probably, and that still wouldn’t
even be forever.
Jake grabbed a big stick and smashed all the skunk cabbage he could find. The mustard air made them all cough. When she unzipped her JanSport, she realized she hadn’t packed a towel. She put her Spider-Man costume on over her wet bathing suit.
The costume drank the water on her suit and skin, and she felt cold in the twilight air. She smelled the dirt on her skin. Like mud and the bark on the trees. They walked back through the night trail, tripping over downed branches and stones that protruded from the earth.
Francine had been missing for two months and already seemed lost forever, the way adults talked about her, the way kids repeated what their parents said. The police had a suspect, but no arrests were made, and nothing was known. The days in August passed by one after another with no news until the month stretched and snapped into September, and a new school year began without her in class. It was all they talked about. And yet, Kenna’s father left for good in the middle of the night last March, and no one except she and her mother even noticed.
Forever is how long she would wait to forgive him.
The girls in the basement were still screaming about Kenna. Mr. Moss half-heartedly rebuilt the fort and led her upstairs. She took a sip of the milk he poured for her without asking.
“I want to go home.” She tugged at the neck of her costume.
“You don’t have to,” he said. He was wearing glasses for the first time all day. His dirty blond hair was a little ruffled, the edges loose and uncombed.
“I want to.”
“You can sleep on the couch up here,” he said. “You’ll have the TV all to yourself. The girls won’t even know you’re here.”
“I want to go home,” she said again. She didn’t yell, because Mr. Moss was being nice to her, but she wanted to.
He dialed her phone number, but no one answered.
“Is your mom home?”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“What about your dad?”
“I don’t know where he is, either,” she said, which was true, but also masked the truth she was too ashamed to share with Francine’s father. He took the phone off the cradle and dialed her mother’s house again, and a funny thing happened—she began to cry. Large, heaving tears fell from her eyes and splashed on the laminate table and her Spider-Man costume.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Did somebody hit you?”
She shook her head.
“Did they call you names?”
She nodded but said that wasn’t why. She couldn’t get the words out without sobbing, and she punched herself in the leg for sounding so much like a baby. She worried that if Stephanie came upstairs and saw her like this, she would never speak to her again.
“Deep breaths,” Mr. Moss said. Kenna tried but couldn’t stop crying.
“Call Mrs. Trotter,” she said in four gasps.
“She watches me,” she said in three. He retrieved the White Pages from a cabinet next to the phone. Kenna knew her phone number but was too embarrassed to speak any more than she had to. Mr. Moss told her to lie down in the living room. He turned the TV on for her, Leave It to
Beaver, and went back into the kitchen. He called Francine’s name, and Kenna listened to him reason with her through the living room walls.
Francine came in and sat next to her on the sofa. She was still wearing her perfect pajamas, white with pink pinstripes, with matching slippers that had a keyhole for her pink toes. Kenna had changed into the grass-stained campfire dress she wore that afternoon. Her Spider-Man costume was in the plastic McKeever’s IGA bag at her feet. She stared at the television and tried not to look like she had been crying.
“We have cable,” Francine said. “I bet you don’t even have cable.”
“So?” Kenna said.
The living room felt dark. There were two tiny lights made to look like candles on the mantle, above the fireplace. Kenna did a trick with her eyes where she closed them as slowly as possible, and watched the room dim further, until it was pitch black.
“When will your mom be here?” Francine asked.
“You don’t have to wait with me.”
“Yes, I do,” she said, “my dad wants me to.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“Too bad. Why are you crying? Because you ruined my party?” She reached into the plastic bag at Kenna’s feet and pulled the Blow Pop out of Kenna’s goodie bag and unwrapped it.
“Hey, that’s mine,” Kenna said.
“But it came from me. So really it’s mine.”
It was the way she acted, or it was her curly hair and her perfect house, or it was knowing that Francine would always have everything that she never would.
“I didn’t ruin your party.”
“You did if I say you did, and you did.”
Her face felt warm, and she wanted to hurt Francine. She thought about everything that anyone had ever said to hurt her. She wanted to boil it down to something small and violent, and use it to cut Francine in half.
“You’re an ugly rich girl and nobody likes you. Even your own dad,” Kenna said. “He told me he hates you.”
“Yes-huh,” she said, and the words just kept coming, “he thinks you’re a spoiled brat and he’d be happier without you. I know he would. You ruined his life.”
Francine began to cry, and Kenna could hear the side door open and Mrs. Trotter say hello to Mr. Moss in the kitchen. She stood and grabbed her plastic bag, and as she walked past Francine, she snatched the Blow Pop out of her hand and wiped it off on her dress before putting it in her own mouth.
“I’m not even sorry,” she said.
She walked alone to Mrs. Trotter’s house. She banged on the screen door and stood crying in the dark until Mrs. Trotter opened up and let her in. They stood beside the kitchen table, and Mrs. Trotter lifted Kenna’s jaw and asked what happened.
“I need to find her. I need to. I need to,” she said.
“You won’t,” Mrs. Trotter said. There was a pine candle shining on the brown kitchen table that Kenna couldn’t stop looking at.
The candle was nearly hollow in the center where the wick flickered. All the lights were off, and Mrs. Trotter was in her nightgown. She looked terrified, and they both understood that something she couldn’t control had grabbed hold of Kenna. She pulled Kenna into a hug and
begged her not to go back.
“I need to find her.”
“But you won’t.”
The dirt and scum of the reservoir overpowered the candle’s scent, and Kenna fell apart.
“I know,” she said.
“Then why are you searching?”
“Can I ask you something, dear?” Mrs. Trotter asked, and then paused. “What if you found her down there, at the bottom of the reservoir? What then?”
Kenna looked down at her hands. She could see the brown dirt and the black earth beneath her fingernails. It wouldn’t wash out, even after a bath. The dumb idea in her head was that if she found Francine, everything would be restored. Like beating a boss in a Super Nintendo game. Her dad would come back, and her mom would work less, and all the things that made her different from everyone else would no longer matter. She could escape the forever world that swallowed her up like a giant whale. But she felt so stupid, thinking of it now.
“What else can I do?” she asked.
The Spider-Man costume was sopping wet on Kenna’s skin and Mrs. Trotter asked her to come with her. She got something from her sewing table in the living room and led Kenna outside. She didn’t take her curlers out, or put a coat on over her nightgown. She didn’t even lock the door behind her. They got into her Dodge and drove five minutes, saying nothing, before Kenna recognized Francine’s street. Mrs. Trotter parked the car.
“Why are we here?”
The only difference between the Moss house and all the others was the fence—it was covered in shadowy ribbons. “You do what you can do,” Mrs. Trotter said, and stepped out of the car. Kenna followed her to the fence, and Mrs. Trotter dug a green ribbon out of her pocket and handed it to her.
At their feet were extinguished candles and teddy bears. Offerings. She thought of the way Francine’s school photo looked on the news, on the MISSING posters on every telephone pole. Her tired smile and the way her curly hair framed her face.
Wind wrapped the edges of the ribbon around Kenna’s hand and wrist. In the light of the streetlamp, it was green like watered lawns in July and the firework smoke that hung in the air between explosions. She tied the ribbon through a fence hole and Mrs. Trotter rubbed her back.
It didn’t feel like anything, tying a ribbon to a fence. People who didn’t know Francine could do that. People who didn’t cause all of this.
She took her Spider-Man costume off.
“What are you doing, dear?”
“Leaving something,” Kenna said. She wanted to remember the way the red cuffs hugged her wrists and the blue cloth slid over her elbows when she bent her arms. She wanted to remember how it felt to put it on every morning and hope that today would be the day her father would pull into the driveway, ready to love her.
She dropped the frayed shirt at the foot of the fence, beside a small pile of picture books. Where The Wild Things Are and Madeline.
She was ashamed of herself in front of the Moss house. Aware of the bathing suit clinging to her wet skin. She wanted to cover up, even in the dark, but she felt deserving of ridicule. The Spider-Man costume unfurled in the wind, the arms flailing like newly bare tree branches.
Nicholas Lepre’s short stories have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Minnesota Review, and elsewhere. Nicholas was a finalist in the 2015 Blue Mesa Review Summer Writing Contest and The Florida Review’s 2016 Fiction Contest. He recently completed his first book, Pretend You’re Really Here. You can find more of his work at www.nicholaslepre.com. He lives outside Boston, Massachusetts with his wife and infant son.