What was the last thing you said to me?
Something about the weather.
Not very poignant, but you didn't know. You thought you'd be back in an hour. I could see the orange Lycra straps of your tank top criss-crossed in the back before you pulled your jacket on and opened the front door. The detective asked me later if I remembered what you were wearing. An orange tank top, I told him. Black leggings, black windbreaker.
You wanted to get in a run before it started raining. I could always count on you to know the forecast. You'd say things like, "Put mittens in your backpack, Abby. It's going to snow. " Or "Don't forget your sunscreen, Sis!" You were always prepared.
In the doorway, holding one foot behind you in some sort of runner's stretch, you said, "You should rest. Pretty soon you can kiss sleep goodbye. When my niece gets here. "
"Or nephew. " Sitting on the couch, I shifted my belly, pulled your yellow fleece blanket up to my chin. When my OB/GYN had asked if I wanted to know the gender, I said no. It made it too real. You would have found out. You liked to know everything. When I was seven, you showed me your old Ouija board, rested your fingertips lightly on the plastic dial, and told me about how, when you were a kid, you would try to ask the spirits what you were going to be when you grew up, where and when you'd meet the man of your dreams, how you'd ultimately die. Seven-year-old me asked the spirits if Mom and Dad would let me get a hamster--which they totally didn't, because I'm the daughter who forged Dad's signature to explain my missing homework, who ran myself a bath and then got distracted watching TV and let it overflow, who opened my Christmas presents when our parents weren't looking and then tried to re-wrap them.
A niece. You knew. You knew you knew.
With the front door open, I could see bruised clouds hanging low in the sky, the sun beginning its slow descent for the summer night. I said, "It looks ugly out. " Pregnant at eighteen. Maybe I should have asked the Ouija board some more serious questions about my future.
You slid your windbreaker over your shoulders. Smiled. Zipped. Said, "I can outrun this storm. See you in an hour. " You turned. Your dark ponytail swung.
I slept. I dreamed of having a C-section, of doctors lifting out each of my organs, one at a time. Lungs, liver, intestines, heart. Mom wouldn't let you be in the room when I was born, even though you really wanted to. Sorry--my mom, your stepmom. I always forget to word it the right way.
But you, you never forgot anything. You would have remembered all the details--not just the orange tank top, black leggings, and black windbreaker, but the grey running shoes with pink laces, too. You would have remembered that the black windbreaker had a slim silver stripe from shoulder to wrist cuff. You would have remembered the black plastic digital Timex watch you always wore on your right wrist. I didn't remember that stuff until later, after other people mentioned it. And you would probably have remembered the stuff none of us could remember either, like whether you were wearing earrings, and, if so, which ones?
You wouldn't have fallen asleep on the couch instead of waiting up for your sister to come home to have dinner together. Not you.
I awoke to the thick, humid scent of bubbling gravy. My stomach growled. What time was it? Were you late getting home? Had you run for longer than an hour? You'd said, "See you in an hour," right? Maybe you'd come home, but you'd decided to let me sleep. You must have forgotten to turn off the Crock-Pot. You'd gone into your room to read or to make a phone call. You'd come in quietly, not wanting to disturb me. You--
My bladder tightened. I swung my legs over the side of the couch. Stood up. "Natasha?" Squinted. Pushed up off the armrest. Padded into the kitchen.
The light on the Crock-Pot glowed green in the dark. I flicked on the overhead light, lifted the clear glass lid of the Crock-Pot, almost scalding my hand. The lid clattered to the floor. Brown slop had crusted along the edges of the pot; the stew inside had congealed, a sludgy mash. On the kitchen counter sat your cellphone atop a stack of bills labelled with sticky notes in your handwriting.
Upstairs, in your room, your bed was made, as usual, the top edge folded over, exposing the floral under layer of your dark purple bedspread. A lavender lace bra with scalloped edging hung by one strap from the inside doorknob. My own breasts felt swollen and heavy.
My room. Both bathrooms. Down the stairs. I called your name again. "Tash?"
Back in the kitchen, the microwave blinked at me, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00. The storm must have reset the power. I leaned against the counter, rubbed at my belly where some contour of the baby forced itself, probably trying to escape.
Had I missed the storm? Through the blackness outside my window, I couldn't tell. Maybe you'd gone inside somewhere to wait it out. Or maybe you'd come back and then left again. I opened the door to the garage. There was your black Mazda, parked tight against the left wall to leave space for your bike and winter tires.
I got the cordless phone and sat down on the staircase by the front door, staring at the space where I'd last seen you. Dialled.
I hadn't talked to Cameron in eleven days.
"Abby?" Cam's voice sounded thick. "What the fuck? Are you in labour? It's one in the morning!"
One in the morning? A fist closed around my breastbone. "No, I just--I need help, my sister is--"
"I told you not to call me unless you were having the baby. " Dial tone.
Back in your room, I found your silver watch on top of the dresser, the watch Greg gave for your last anniversary. You wore it for special occasions, swapping it with the plastic Timex you never left home without. You hadn't worn the silver watch since you and Greg broke up, but you hadn't put it away in your jewellery box, either. 1:17 a. m.
Work. Maybe you went into work. Maybe you got called into the hospital last minute for a shift. But--without your car? Without leaving me a note? I phoned anyway.
"Natasha Bell? She's not on shift right now. " The nurse's voice sounded too chirpy for one a. m., too chirpy for the burn unit. That day, before your run, you'd told me how you'd bandaged the rotting, pus-oozing, third-degree flesh of a drunk undergraduate who'd tripped and fallen face first into a fire-pit trying to roast marshmallows. A not so subtly disguised lesson about substance abuse for your little sis.
"Are you sure?" I felt the hot pulse of my bladder.
"I haven't seen her tonight. But I can page her, hang on. "
I shut my eyes, leaned against the staircase railing.
"She didn't answer. If she comes in, or if I see her, I can call you back. What's your number?"
I brought the phone with me into the main floor bathroom and peed a furious stream into the toilet, legs shaking. Tash, what the fuck? Where are you? I pulled myself to standing. I put a fist against my chest, inhaled sharply. I reached for the phone, but knocked it noisily into the sink.
I couldn't breathe, but I dialled anyway. The phone rang and rang and rang.
You'd said you weren't going to get back together with Greg. But, where else could you be? Maybe you did leave me a note, and I just didn't see it. Maybe it fell behind the counter or something.
Then--Greg's voice, groggy: "Hello?"
"Is Tash with you?" I blurted.
Pause. "Uh, no. Why? What time is it? Is everything okay?"
The baby heaved itself into my ribs.
And I thought of you, at the door, a dark ponytail, a stretchy orange shirt. Your bangs pinned back. Your left cheek dimple. The wisp of a cool summer night creeping through the open door.
Had I even said goodbye?