I don’t respond. New Year’s Day was three days ago. My mom starts to speak again, and her words tumble out, overlapping, grappling with each other for space.
“She’d been in such a good mood since she started visiting you, but she was a complete nightmare again over Christmas. We didn’t know what to do with her. It was like having you back, at your very worst. She didn’t want to be here, and we thought it couldn’t hurt for her to stay with you, especially as we knew you were out of action. How can I stop her anyway? You try telling a sixteen-year-old anything. You should know better than anyone how imposs—” She breaks off.
I rest my head in my hands and try to understand what my mom is telling me. Three days. Esme’s been by herself for three days.
“Maybe she went to stay with a friend instead,” I say, trying to keep my voice calm. There is silence on the other end of the line.
“Grace?” my mom asks eventually, her voice barely above a whisper. “Where’s your sister?”
I put Laurel’s car keys in the ignition and take a deep breath. I didn’t consider when I asked to borrow it that I hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car since Christmas Eve. I stretch my knee out carefully and then turn the engine on with a roar, pulling the hand brake off quickly, before I can change my mind. I ignore my heart rattling in my chest and the deep, glowing pain in my knee, and I keep my eyes focused on the road ahead, taking one stop sign at a time, just like my mother taught me.
* * *
? ? ?
I pull up outside my parents’ house, which has been painted a pale blue since I was last here, and make my way to the front door as fast as I can in my incapacitated state. I ring the bell and my dad opens the door within seconds. When he sees me standing there on my crutches, with my battered face, he takes a step back, gripping the wall to steady himself.
“Grace,” my mother says quietly from over his shoulder. She’s standing behind him in a purple velour tracksuit. “You look awful.”
I shuffle toward her, every single bone in my body still sore. She hugs me for longer than usual, and I try not to pull away too early, even though all I can think about is finding my sister.
“How are you feeling?” my dad says, patting me on the shoulder. I try to smile reassuringly and then end up shrugging instead.
“Still kicking,” I say, and it seems to be enough for them.
I turn to my mother. “What exactly did Esme say before she left?”
“I already told you. She said she was going to stay with you for a couple of days. You weren’t answering our calls, but there isn’t anything out of the ordinary there,” my mom says, but her heart isn’t really in it. She seems even smaller when she’s frightened.
“She’d been staying with a friend in Ojai, and then she came home in the morning and just started packing.”
“How did she seem when she got home?” I ask my dad. He looks at my mom, but neither of them seems to know how to answer.
“I think she seemed fine,” my mom says helplessly. “But maybe I don’t know her anymore. Do you really think she’s at a friend’s house? Do I need to call the police? How am I supposed to tell them we just . . . lost her?”
We all stand in silence, and I can hear my dad’s watch quietly ticking on his wrist, each extra second a reminder that Esme is missing, until I can’t take it anymore. I turn back toward the front door.
“Where does Blake live?” I ask, and my mother looks up at me in surprise, as if she forgot I was even there. Her cheeks are flushed, and I think she’s about to start crying. I can’t remember ever having seen her cry before.
“Five houses down on the left,” she says dully instead.
I hobble out of the house and down to a bungalow that is identical to my parents’, but a pale yellow. I ring the bell and it plays “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A small woman with blond curly hair opens the door.
“Grace Turner!” she says, her delight palpable. She is wearing a pearl necklace, drawing attention to her sun-damaged décolletage.
“Hyde,” I say, forcing a smile through my impatience. “My parents are your neighbors? The Hydes?”
“Oh, I know. Esme’s parents,” she says, nodding with recognition. “What can I do for you?”
“Is Blake in?” I ask, peering past her into a house filled with taxidermy and American flags. A framed copy of the Second Amendment hangs on the porch next to me. I’m having trouble picturing Blake anywhere near this house.
“By the pool,” Blake’s mom says, shaking her head. “He’s always by the pool.”
I follow her through the house, trying not to touch anything, and I step through the screen door leading out to the backyard. Blake is sitting in a baggy black T-shirt and khaki shorts, with her legs dangling in the pool, even though the sky is now a threatening shade of dark gray. I think Lana was right, that the drought might be about to break.
Blake’s mom hovers by the inside of the door, and I smile at her politely even as I slide it closed, shutting her back in the house.
“Wow,” I say.
“I know. Meet Anaheim Blake,” Blake says, pointing to something next to me. Resting against the glass window are two pro-life placards, one of them showing an unborn fetus in the womb, and another filled with the words SMILE! YOUR MOM CHOSE LIFE! in hot-pink letters filled with gold glitter.
“My mom’s really thrown herself into this pro-life campaign,” Blake says. “It’s almost like she’s trying to make up for something.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I rest on my crutches and squint at her. My knee is throbbing in the damp air, sending waves of pain up to my hip and down to my ankle.
“What can I do for you?” Blake asks, as if she’s just realizing how weird it is that I’m at her house.
“Blake, do you know where my sister is?”
Blake looks at me sharply.
“Like right now? I thought she was with you?” Blake asks.
“What happened at the party?” I ask, not really wanting to hear. I feel exposed when I think about Esme, about that short tuft of hair in front of her ear, as if my chest has been ripped open and my heart is on the outside.
“It was bad,” Blake says, shaking her head.
“Blake, come on.”
“It was a dumb plan. I wish she’d told me about it first,” she says.
“I knew about it,” I say, and something in my voice makes Blake start to talk. As she does, fat drops of rain start to fall down onto us, but neither of us moves.
“Everything was going how she thought it would, like she spent ages setting the room up—finding the perfect angle so that she couldn’t possibly miss the shot of Jesse without any clothes, and then the time came when they were supposed to meet. Esme went into the room, and Jesse was in there, only it wasn’t just him. All of the girls from her school were there, too, hiding under the bed and behind the curtains, and they were livestreaming her. She didn’t get the chance to tell them what she was doing. They made out like she was so crazy to have thought he wanted to hook up with her again, and she ended up running out of the house and hitchhiking all the way back to Anaheim. When she got here, we talked about everything and I thought it was okay, like maybe she had calmed down and was going to be able to forget about it? I even dropped her at your place in the morning,” Blake says, looking at me hopefully. “Are you sure she wasn’t with you?”
I’ve already turned around, my hand on the screen door.
“Thanks, Blake,” I say, looking one more time at the placards propped against the window and Blake’s drab clothes. “How much longer have you got before you go to college?”
“Two hundred forty-three days, seventeen hours and”—Blake checks her watch—“twenty minutes.”
* * *
? ? ?
The rain tumbles down as I leave Blake’s house, making up for months of baking sunshine. The sky is a thick blanket of charcoal gray, and I am already soaked by the time I get back into Laurel’s car.
It’s the first rainy day in months, and we are all sliding across oil-slicked lanes that shimmer like rainbows in the car headlights, but I drive as fast as I can. I wish I could communicate to the other drivers that I’m not just another person on the road racing to a spin class or a lunch meeting in Santa Monica, but I know it doesn’t work like that. Everything feels like it’s the end of the world until you’re actually faced with the end of the world.
I pull up outside my house at Coyote Sumac, the wheels of the car skidding across the sludgy dust. I swing myself over to the porch on one crutch, holding my other hand above my head so that I can see through the pounding rain. When I reach the top of the steps I freeze, horror spreading through me.