We visit the marina the night you disappear. It’s almost Christmas and the pier is lined with red ribbons, garlands and colorful lights. We follow close behind your mom and my parents, laughing as we walk. You’re nine, I’m twenty-three, and we’re walking toward the water despite the bad weather.
Bundled in our coats and scarves, we huddle together like the clusters of seagulls on the sand, seeking warmth in numbers. Your mom and my dad follow us to the shore, joking about the day he pulled all the heads off her plastic dolls. “You loved bullying your little sister,” your mom says, and my dad chuckles at the memory, puffing on his cigarette. We watch his smoke waft into the sky. My mom holds out her iPhone to take our picture. In a flash, light illuminates our faces against a storm-tossed sea.
Overhead, we hear other families chatter, meandering along the pier. We brave the cold air, exchanging the comfort of our shoes for the icy bite of sand. It’s so cold that your cheeks turn red and your breath floats skyward like my dad’s smoke. You poke my waist and ask if you can play games on my phone. I say yes, but instead of games, you open up Snapchat and run my face through a gender-changing filter. You giggle, tilting your head sideways. “You look the same,” you tell me. I smile. “Yeah, I kinda do.” Rain falls on our faces.
We toss our hoodies over our heads and smash our toes into the sand. Under the sloppy raindrops, the ocean becomes restless. Silence and stillness hang over us, but the landscape roars. I look at you and recognize the signs of your boredom, your disease. Anxiously your fingers grab and pull at threads of dry seaweed. Anxiously I think you find me boring.
I want to pique your interest and make myself entertaining. Desperately I search for something to say. As the waves hit the shore, I reach for the first thought that enters my mind. Pointing at the ocean, I mumble softly, “We don’t know where the water came from.” Smiling, you tilt your head, asking, “What do you mean?” I tell you that scientists don’t know how water arrived on Earth, but they have a few theories — you’re growing curious, you stop me, asking eagerly, “What’re theories?” I think about it for a moment. The concept is tricky to define, but I try my best, “Good guesses; thoughtful explanations for what we don’t understand well.” I tell you that theories help us reconsider what we sometimes overlook.
“Like the water,” I add. “Some say the planet had water for years but stored it deep below the Earth’s surface. Volcanic eruptions must have released it as vapor, like the mist above the ocean. Others say the water came from space rocks, comets or asteroids rich with water. Rocks must have crashed into Earth and brought the water with them.”
I wonder what you think. Your eyes are sparkling, “It’s like a mystery!” Just when I begin to respond, “y—” your mom calls out from the stairs, “Come on, guys!” The tide rushes to our feet and you bolt to the stairs, socks and shoes dangling in your hands. I run after you, but I’m too slow to catch up.
At the pier, a colorful glow permeates all the restaurants. Your eyes flash as quickly as my mom’s iPhone at the sights of neon candy canes, silver tinsel, carolers singing and twinkling Christmas trees spilling into our view. Souvenir stores swell with people. Families sip cocoa and take pictures of their smiling faces, peering from cardboard cut-outs of reindeer and elves. Holiday music fills my ears, but my eyes return to the water, now black, blended into the obscurity of the distant sky.
Seagulls yelp up and down the walkway. One of them, perching on a lamppost, suddenly spreads its wings and drops a wet splash of bird poop right next to you. Shocked and confused, we stare at the floor. We notice the bird poop sprinkled across the wooden planks, splattered in the style of an expressionist painting. My dad — desperate to hear your laugh — exaggerates his usual toilet jokes: “I wish I were a bird so that I could shit all over the world.” You laugh like it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. Your smile grows so big that I see your pink gums and the soggy bread caught in the spaces between your teeth.
Like my dad, I also fill the silence with jokes. We laugh more than we talk because I haven’t yet learned how to talk to people your age. We peer into the same shop windows filled with gingerbread houses, but your eyes are wide with excitement, while mine only see the fake snow and generic copies of holiday figurines. I can’t remember what it felt like to be young, alone yet connected to the adults around you.
You see a miniature house in a toy store window and you wonder, “Why do they make it look so real?” I urge you to take a closer look and you squish your cheeks onto the glass, mumbling under your breath. I lean close and listen to your story unfold like epic verse. The house becomes a site for heroic adventures, conflict and moral lessons. I try to play along, offer you a few suggestions for your story, but I’m only feigning inspiration. Only your imagination brings the house to life.
Looking at you, I catch a glimpse of my younger self. I want to recall my childlike inventiveness to share that feeling with you, but the past is so elusive. Time weathers the mind, makes it brittle. We grow older, our perspectives change. Memories turn distant and indistinct. My throat tightens at the thought that I’ve been failing to remember my childhood while you’ve been experiencing your own. What I can’t say, even when you’re here, is that I think I’m failing you because I’m not a kid anymore.
We follow my parents and your mom into the restaurant by the pier. Every picture on the wall is blueish, sun-bleached, desaturated from the light of its earlier years. We sit around a wooden table, waiting for our serving of bread bowls soaked in clam chowder. You’re not looking at her, but your mom seems tired. My parents are asking her about her job and her voice is strained, slightly hoarse.
Her eyes fall and linger on my college sweatshirt. She asks me questions about college without interest while running her fingers through her hair. “What’re they teaching kids at universities these days?” Her question doesn’t make sense to you. Immediately, you ask her what she means by ‘kids,’ quickly reminding her you’re the only kid at the table. “You’re so cute,” she says, “Compared to me, you and your cousin are both kids.” Underneath the table, you start tugging on the fabric and fidgeting with loose threads.
Outside, after dinner, a thin crescent moon flickers between some shifting clouds. The sights and sounds of the festive season relax into a harmonic sigh. You’re growing sleepy and I’m feeling calm. We feel the tired touch of the cold night air on our shoulders. As a family, we agree it’s time to go home.
When you disappear, none of us notice until you’re gone. Turning the corner, we make a left and descend the stairs to the parking lot. It’s littered with vehicles, waste and gum on the concrete. Someone is screaming, I don’t know who. Maybe we’re all screaming all at once.
My dad and mom look at each other with horror and awe. Other families watch the procession without really grasping that you’re disappearing tonight. Your mom stands in the headlights with her heart in her mouth. She fumbles for her iPhone to call the police. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how you slip away without warning. How I fail to notice.
Police officers flock up and down the parking lot, dispersing across the pavement. One after another, they search for scraps of information: your last known location, your state of mind, your height, eye and hair color, weight, age, size. I shoo them away, warning them they arrived minutes too late. You’re already gone, your absence already resides in my chest. But none of them blink. Hundreds of expressionless eyes, smooth as weathered pebbles, observe and gawk at my petrified face.
Some police officers perch on vehicles and railings. Others waddle into the path of oncoming cars. The rest roam the parking lot, pecking and scavenging for witnesses, oblivious to the ambiguity of your disappearance. Under the mist, your mom turns her fear into anger, tossing anecdotes at the officers to salvage some leads.
The night you disappear, the officers tell your mom not to look for you. She begs us to do the same. She tells us to know our place. “It’s their job,” she says, “It’s crucial to the investigation… how officers safeguard children. You’ll only make things worse. They’ll find him, I’ll pray…” My body shudders.
She sends us home, pushing my mom, dad and me into the car. On the road, we speed down the highway without speaking. We pass the marina, the pier, the ocean, and drive into the valley.
After you disappear, I return to the marina. Christmas is over. It’s quiet, frigid. At the end of the walkway, a brush of wind sounds like your voice asking me, “Why didn’t you look for me?” The night sky sinks into the dark circles under my eyes. All the loss, fear and confusion block the air in my throat. “I tried,” I attempt to say, but the words are too weightless to pronounce.
Under my breath, I mutter that I shouldn’t have left you like this. Cousins shouldn’t speak to each other like this. Family shouldn’t sound like this. “However alone you might be,” I mumble carefully, inadequately, “I hope you find a chance at peace; hopefully, you also find someone better than me.”
Light comes from a pale crescent moon and lays down on the water. Its glow does not last, but continues to wane until the moon disappears altogether, slipping under the vacant and moonless horizon. Though too dark to see, I feel your presence. The wind spreads the murmurs of your disbelief.