The New Yorker
KANSAS
September 4th 2006
By Antonya Nelson
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


300E-203-003

The girls left early, the two‑year‑old being driven to Montessori by her seventeen‑year‑old cousin. Three of their four parents lay in bed hungover; the fourth had risen unsteadily to fix breakfast, nauseated by her new pregnancy. Standing dazed at the stove, Anna had felt grateful to her niece, Kay-Kay, for her morning cheer, her willingness to dress little Cherry Sue, settle her in at the table, wash her face and hands ‑ one of them bound in a bright green cast ‑ and then carry her off to school. Cherry Sue had been singing about babies, waving her bandaged fist like a maraca. She sang about everything these days, gesturing wildly, as if her life were a musical.

"Don't forget her plug," Anna told Kay‑Kay, meaning the pacifier.

"My plug, my plug," Cherry Sue chorused.

Anna was in despair about her second pregnancy, and furious with her husband, Ian, for having announced it to everyone. Now she had no choice. In her daughter's songs the new baby already had a name ‑ 'No White or Toto ‑ and everyone at Montessori had congratulated Anna. She was still exhausted from having Cherry Sue, who had only this month finally been weaned ‑ by force. Just when Anna had thought she might actually repossess her body, here she was a hostage again. In more ways than one. Having another child with Ian meant that she was further delayed in leaving him. If it weren't for Cherry Sue, she and her husband would have gone their separate ways years ago, but now their fates seemed impossibly knotted. He refused to use condoms, and he failed to withdraw because he wanted her pregnant, the baby was a weapon that he could plant like a bomb. Cherry Sue loved him, and so would the new child; children didn't know any better. He was like the Devil, Anna thought: somebody who kept his deceits hidden until it was too late, until you were already implicated in them.

"Bye, Aunt Anna," Kay‑Kay said, with Cherry Sue hoisted on her hip, riding her cousin like a horse. Anna sniffed sentimentally. The girls were the only two people in the house who got along a hundred per cent of the time. Often mistaken for sisters (even, alarmingly, for mother and daughter), they were both fair and freckled, light‑eyed, and plump in a healthy way.

"Bye‑bye, Mama," Cherry Sue sang out. "Don't cry, Mama."

"Don't cry," Kay‑Kay joined in, smiling brightly. Four years ago, her adolescence had descended on the household like a lit match in a powder keg. Now the disaster had passed. Gone were the frightening clothes, the angry music, the Sharpie-marker makeup. Restored was the pretty child who bathed every day and made conversation with her family.

"Goodbye," Anna said, sighing and waving at the girls.

It was a sunny day in Wichita, the birds were pouring their hearts out in trees just beginning to bud, and Anna fell asleep in the back‑yard hammock, waking later with a sunburn, the skin on the backs of her thighs imprinted with hemp netting like a rump roast.

The family cell‑phone plan had seven subscribers, their numbers each one digit apart. Kay‑Kay's was the easiest to remember, 246‑2460, and she was the one most frequently called.

Her father, Henry, often forgot to turn on his phone or to charge it; he left it places ‑ restaurants or jacket pockets. (Cherry Sue carried around one of his phones that had gone through the wash.) Henry was the oldest parent in the house, fifty-eight, a psychiatrist, a mild man who let life happen to him, let the people he loved talk him into things ‑ like cell phones or children or trampolines. This was his third marriage, and his wife, Emily, Anna's sister, was a generation younger than he. He kept marrying women in their twenties, having a daughter with them, then divorcing. Probably this would be his last marriage and daughter; he'd stayed in this one the longest, seeing Kay‑Kay into puberty and beyond. The other girls he'd left when they were still in grade school, two half sisters whom Kay‑Kay barely knew. One had married a cop. The other was a lesbian whose lover had been a patient of her father's. Wichita was just that size, big enough for lesbians and psychoanalysis, small enough for impractical, coincidental cross‑pollination.

Anna and Emily's mother ‑ known to everyone in the family as Nana ‑ remembered to carry her cell phone with
her, but she often mistook it for other objects: the TV remote, a radio, her glasses case. Nana lived across town in a condo that she left only on Tuesdays, when she made her "rounds": hairdresser, physician, bridge club, grocery. Occasionally, Kay‑Kay stayed over at her grandmother's. That had been one of her dodges, during the time of trouble ‑ saying that she was with Nana when she was simply at large. She had also thrown parties at Nana's condo, Tuesday‑afternoon blowouts, where she shared with her friends the old woman's pharmaceuticals and liquor. Some late nights she had sneaked off with Nana's car. For Christmas this year, however, Kay‑Kay had embroidered a set of pillowcases for her grandmother, with bluebells and daisies, sheep and a shepherdess, and "I Love Nana" in rose-colored thread. The rest of the family was still taking in this revised self, this hellion turned hausfrau.

Emily and Anna had programmed into their cell phones the identical ring-tone for Kay‑Kay's calls, an assaulting electronic jangle that ended on a sour interrogative. Recently they had discussed changing it, since it no longer seemed to suit Kay‑Kay. She had become someone more dulcet, they said. They had yet to settle on a new Kay‑Kay ringtone, though they were reminded of the need every time the girl called, setting off that noise that never failed to startle.

Ian's phone had a lock on its functions. Because he violated others' privacy, he assumed that they would violate his. He had his phone in his possession at all hours, clasped in his palm like a gun. It was set to vibrate so that he alone would know when he'd been summoned. When Kay‑Kay had stolen his cocaine stash, Ian had been frustratingly unable to report the theft to anyone but his wife. In debt himself ‑ to Anna and her family, to his boss, to all his friends ‑ he'd felt especially outraged. He was owed, by somebody: an apology, a sum of money, carte blanche.

The seventh phone belonged to Kay-Kay's ex‑boyfriend Wesley. For two years Wesley had lived in the house, eighteen when he moved in, yet not in any way an adult; Kay‑Kay, only fifteen back then, had seemed more mature. Wesley's parents were divorced, living in different states; he had no real home of his own, no address or phone num­ber. Including him on the family plan cost an extra $9.99 a month: nothing, really. Henry paid the bills without giving them much thought. He was generous by nature. And, as a therapist, he made a lot of money, his life financed by other people's troubles. Why shouldn't he contribute to the welfare of his daughter's boyfriend? When Wesley had needed a root canal, it was Emily who made the appointment. The family had coached him on his A.C.T.s, and he still stopped by to consult about perplexing pieces of the grownup world ‑ student loans or car insurance. He was a working boy who had loved Kay‑Kay dearly, and who, when he lived in the house, had kindly tolerated her teasing, about her status as a minor and his as a statutory rapist. Now he had a new girlfriend, Lucy, who was exactly – exactly - like the Kay‑Kay they’d known three years ago. She even sounded like the old Kay‑Kay whenever she happened to answer Wesley's phone ‑ sullen, stoned, suicidal. For just a second, you could be fooled, suddenly jerked back into the nightmare.

Midmorning, Emily rolled out of bed. In the kitchen she found the usual mess: Anna's sloppy breakfast makings, eggshells, milk left out to spoil, as well as the residue of the previous night's drinking ‑ empty bottles and glasses, a crusty bowl of salsa, the tart odor of pickle juice, desiccated cheese rinds. Emily muttered as she ran hot water. She had been forever in this role: a mother first to her little sister, through their childhood and beyond, then to her husband, and then, of course, to Kay-Kay. Now, since Ian had declared bankruptcy and he, Anna, and Cherry Sue had moved in, she was a mother to her brother‑in‑law and her niece as well. And then there was Nana, who seemed more and more in need of mothering herself ‑ unpleasant mothering, of the variety that involved wheedling and deception, and that would soon include feeding and diapering.

Responsibility was plaguing. Sometimes, to fight it, Emily was purposely irresponsible ‑ she drank too much. She enjoyed drinking, the bright pup of the wine bottle relinquishing its cork, the gentle bell of stemware leaving the rack, the silly conversation over snacks and music, her brother‑in‑law showing his most tolerable self in service to the party, Henry just so happy to see everybody get along.

Emily had turned forty a week before. She hadn't thought she'd mind it, but evidently she did.

She drank cold water, then hot coffee. Some days, there was nothing but fluid.

Kay‑Kay had left her school binder behind in a pool of syrup on the kitchen table. Emily pried it off and carried it upstairs to her daughter's bedroom, where she stood at the door. For years she'd snooped in Kay‑Kay's life, read her diary, slit open the seams of her coat, turned over the dresser drawers, shoved a hand between the mattress and the box spring. She didn't want to do those things anymore. Suspicion was soul‑killing. She told herself that Kay‑Kay deserved her trust. She tossed the binder onto the bed and shut the door.

Sometimes at noon Kay‑Kay came home from school. For a while, last fall, as she began her climb out of rage and wretchedness, she had brought friends back with her for lunch. She'd been proud of her quirky home life then, proud of her rambling old house with its many airy rooms, a place where you might come across her Aunt Anna sunbathing nude on the porch, or her father brandishing a civilized glass of Merlot at midday. "For my heart," he would say. "Purely medicinal." At noon, her boyfriend, Wesley, would be rising, zipping himself into his coveralls, ready for his shift at the lube pit; cute Cherry Sue would be humming in her high chair, Emily serving up lasagna or soup. It was a capacious kitchen, with a dining table made from an ancient farmhouse door, eight expectant chairs. Flowers in vases, fruit in bowls, cursing in the conversation.

But these days Kay‑Kay mostly came home alone. She was getting ready to leave: high school, her friends, this house. Her future, Emily hoped, held college, Europe, Africa; what else had they been prepping ‑ as well as preserving ‑ her for but departure? Once upon a time, Emily had believed that she would do these things herself: attend Harvard, adopt orphans, observe the world from the basket of a hot‑air balloon. But then she'd fallen in love with Henry ‑ scandalously her elder, and married, to boot - and then with this funky old house, and then her daughter had been born.

Today, Kay‑Kay didn't come home for lunch.

Indulging his hangover, Henry rose from bed only long enough to cancel his appointments and lumber back. Fridays were half days anyway. Emily doubted that he'd even opened his eyes between bed and phone. He was a bear, gruff, kind, loyal to a fault. He had grown soft in their nineteen years together, she was his last wife, he always said, last and best. He'd had a starter wife for practice, and another for refining his skills. Now he performed with forbearance, faith, and patience, permitting Emily to be the hotheaded one while he stood by.

"Admit it!" Emily had accused him crazily on her fortieth birthday. “I’m the oldest woman you've ever slept with! Old women are witches! No one even notices them, let alone finds them attractive. You don't find old women attractive, admit it!"

"Not yet," he'd confessed mildly.

Still woozy now, Emily decided to join him in bed, nudging herself against his furry chest. They lay together into the afternoon, bound in a cocoon of indolence: it was spring again, and they had arrived here with their girl, after a long, treacherous journey, and it seemed that only now, just now, were they safely out of the woods. Henry slept, wheezing, and Emily lay in his arms, and it wasn't until three o'clock, when Anna borrowed Emily's car to pick up Cherry Sue, that anyone realized that something was wrong.

"You phoned this morning," Miss Juliet said, proving it by producing the form with the time, Anna's name, and the fact that Cherry Sue wouldn't be coming to school today. All the Misses at Montessori had the same voice, blameless and assured. If Cherry Sue wasn't there it wasn't their fault.

Kay‑Kay's cell phone sent all calls immediately to voice mail. Her greeting was a leftover from the year before. "Kay‑Kay says shut up and fuck off" a boy yelled, Sid Vicious‑ly. It wasn't even Wesley but a stranger, with Kay‑Kay's slurred laugh­ter in the background.

The next number Anna hit was her husband's. Like Kay‑Kay, Ian was sending callers to voice mail. Shaking, Anna phoned her sister, and Emily (who always answered) advised driving to East High. "School’s not out yet. Maybe she took Cherry Sue with?" "Maybe."

"Show‑and‑tell?"

"Sure."

At the house, Emily closed her eyes, thrown instantly back into the grim fright of the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that: her daughter, a force of nature, out wreaking havoc. "God damn it, Henry!" He sat up blurrily, his face imprinted with his own palm, as if he'd been slapped. She clapped the phone shut and threw it at him, fear leading directly to rage, and her husband, right there, ready to receive it.

School was letting out when Anna arrived.  The wind had picked up, and dirt filled the air, trash flattened into the chain link. She drove against the current of muscle cars and trucks surging around her, unnerved by the exuberance with which the teen‑agers handled their vehicles, their lives. They yelled and honked and screeched their tires, lighting cigarettes and popping up through sunroofs and out back windows, some riding on hoods, dust and exhaust whirling as they revved their engines. Anna scanned desperately for her niece's gold Celica, still willing to forgive Kay‑Kay if she found her there. Plenty of students came to school with their babies, or with their big embarrassing bellies held before them like basketballs. Anna guessed that Kay‑Kay wasn't beyond vying for some attention, a different kind of attention than she'd been accustomed to getting these past few years, when she'd been warned and suspended and flunked and arrested and handed poor marks not only in performance and attendance but in attitude and appearance as well ‑ in personality, it seemed.

Often, Anna had defended her niece, even envied her ‑ as if on behalf of her own former sell; both patriotic and nostalgic for a lost homeland.

Now she searched the thinning trickle of cars and pedestrians with growing pessimism.

"They're not here," she told Emily on the phone, driving home.

"Where's Ian?" Emily demanded.

"I don't know." Anna had no idea what Ian did with himself; borrowing her sister's car had become a daily necessity.

"We ought to find Ian." He had been helpful on a few occasions. He'd located tolerable community service for Kay-Kay after her possession conviction. He'd stayed up all night talking to the speedy girl when the other adults were utterly worn out. Once, when she'd declared that she would be fine with being a prostitute, he took her to the seedy side of Wichita, to some strip clubs he knew, just to give her a taste.

"You call him," Anna said. "He won't answer me."

Sure enough, Ian took Emily's call. The noise at his end of the line suggested a submarine. "Where are you?" she asked.

"Work," he said flatly. "What do you want?"

"I wonder if you've seen Kay‑Kay. She took Cherry Sue this morning, but they didn't go to school." On his end she could hear a door close, an echoing clatter. Racquetball court, she guessed. He practically lived at the club, hanging out in the seating area of the juice bar, disguising himself as a healthy bodybuilder type when in fact he made most of his income dealing drugs in the parking lot and the men's locker room. His uniform was a warmup suit. A sport bottle full of vodka. Of particular appeal was the fact that he had an excuse to exit his in-laws' house every morning, leaving his killjoy wife and her stuck-up family to themselves.

Or at least that's what Emily thought he thought. She had no idea what really went on in her brother‑in-law's head. He'd been hanging around in her life since he was a bratty neighbor boy ten years her junior. Often, she imagined the two words he'd most like to say to her: Whatever, bitch. Now she couldn't tell if his lack of reaction meant that he was thinking or merely stunned or already concocting a story. His silence was hermetic, and she was tempted to hang up. But Kay‑Kay sometimes confided in Ian ‑ he had the tactical advantage of being the other acknowledged delinquent in the house. Drunk, he could be endearing. The night before, for example, he'd done hilarious imitations of all four principals in "The Wizard of Oz" as if they'd been pulled over for driving under the influence.

Sober, however, he defaulted to paranoia. "I know what you're thinking," he said.

"No, you don't," she assured him.

Ian said, "Let me get back with you," and hung up.

"Get back with me?" Emily said to Anna, who was coming through the mudroom door. "He said he'll get back with me."

"He's an asshole," Anna said for at least the hundredth time. Then she turned her pleading, tear‑streaked face to her big sister. "Where are they?"

Meanwhile, Henry had pulled himself out of bed to perform his ritual: driving around. He had done this whenever Kay‑Kay or any of the pets had disappeared. It never paid off, but it seemed somehow necessary, a biological imperative. He was confirming that the obvious explanation didn't prevail: the lost dog wasn't chasing tail at the park or lying like a rug in the road; the girls weren't parked down at the Dairy Queen or visiting any of Kay‑Kay's known acquaintances.

The last time she'd run away, she'd taken a bus to Burning Man; the time before that, she'd hitchhiked to Ohio. But she'd never before had her own getaway vehicle. It was Henry who had insisted on buying Kay‑Kay a car, even though Emily was opposed.

They'd argued for weeks ‑ the girl had totaled two of the family cars in a single year! ‑ and later Emily had grudgingly acknowledged that he had been right: Kay‑Kay had got a job to pay for gas, had not had one ticket or wreck, and often volunteered for trips to the grocery store or to drop off Cherry Sue.

But now look what had happened. Wait around long enough, Emily thought, and you can win any argument.

Henry slapped at his jacket pocket before he left, to show her that he had remembered his phone.

"Pointless," Emily said, of his errand. "Complete waste of time."

Anna began to cry again. "I'm being punished!" she said to Emily.

"For what?"

"Bellyaching about Cherry Sue! Being pissy about being pregnant!"

"Oh, please, Anna. You're not being punished."

"Why can't I learn to keep my big mouth shut? Just count my fucking blessings?" Anna threw herself into a kitchen chair.

"Stop it, stop it. You're hungry." Emily was already pulling open the cupboard doors. "You need to eat."

That evening, the usual emergency vehicle sirens seemed especially frequent and jarringly loud; the wind blew so hard that it whistled through all the old house's cracks. Tornado season was upon them again; possibly they'd end up in the basement tonight.

Their three cell phones lay on the scarred kitchen table while Emily microwaved leftovers for Henry and Anna. She herself had taken a Valium.

It was Anna who noticed the wall cal­endar. "Today is Friday the thirteenth!" she wailed.

"Kay‑Kay doesn't know that," Emily said. "She loses track of what month it is, let alone the date."

"I probably should have seen my patients today," Henry said reflectively, a napkin tucked like a bib into his collar. "Some of them are surely superstitious." He had stopped at the police station while he was driving around and ascertained that there'd been no accidents involving a gold Celica, no ambulance summons for a teen‑ager and a toddler. His oldest daughter's husband, Buzz, was a cop; he'd promised to keep an eye out. "The desk sergeant asked if I wanted to report a kidnapping," Henry told Emily and Anna. "I mean, really." He rocked his head in disbelief; he'd never grown accustomed to thinking of Kay‑Kay as a criminal, even when she'd been arrested and charged, found guilty and made to pay ‑ this despite the fact that he made his living hearing how people were routinely failed by their loved ones. At the office, he used the when did‑you‑stop‑beating‑your‑wife approach, asking not if but how often his patients fell short. With his daughter, however, he was as blustering and dumbfounded as a sitcom stereotype, a dad handicapped by blind love.

Tonight, Henry kept positing the same fuzzy scenario. "She's doing something for somebody," he said. "Somebody in crisis, who called her on her way to school. And then it was more complicated than she thought ‑ it snowballed."

"If somebody lured Kay‑Kay with a phone call," Emily said, "it wasn't about helping someone."

"But why take Cherry Sue?" Anna asked. "Why run away with a two-year old? I’m always trying to run away from her."

"Kay‑Kay would never let anything happen to Cherry Sue," Henry assured his sister-in-law.

"Not on purpose," Emily amended.

Henry gave his wife the familiar disappointed look. "Please, Em," he said, not wanting to believe her heartless.

"I didn't mean what I said about running away from Cherry Sue," Anna said pleadingly. "She's a lot of work, but she's good company. Much better company than her dad." Nobody disagreed with her.

The house phone rang, and Emily answered, then held it up so that they could all listen to the high‑school‑attendance-office recording letting them know that their "son or daughter missed one or more classes today."

"Oh, fuck you," they chimed in unison while the voice went on in its flat scolding way about what steps should be taken next. They'd heard it many, many times before. Kay‑Kay's trouble, however often it had involved officials ‑ the rule‑makers and the rule‑enforcers ‑ had never been solved by them.

The mudroom door slammed open but yielded only Wesley, the ex. "Find her?" he asked. He wore his dirty garage coveralls with his name on the pocket, long-sleeved because his boss couldn't abide tattoos. "I drove by Nana's, just to see if her car was there, but it wasn't..." Wesley trailed off. "It smells good in here."

Emily offered him food, but he declined, gesturing toward the driveway, where the new girlfriend, Lucy, was smoking a cigarette.

"I’ll stop by the hookah bar," he volunteered. "And maybe Java the Hut. I’ve got my cell."

"Good man," Henry said.

"Thanks, Wes," Emily said, smiling wanly at him. She'd always thought he was too nice for the likes of Kay‑Kay, who, Emily believed, required a little wickedness.

“WHERE R U??" Anna text‑mes­saged Ian at midnight. It embarrassed her not to know where her husband was, not to know for sure that he wasn't somehow involved in the girls' disappearance. Her mother had labeled him a hoodlum years ago; as a teen‑ager, he'd stolen dogs in order to claim the rewards. Anna herself had collected the cash, since she looked more like a savior than Ian. Another time, he'd shown her how easy it was to break into homes, summoning a locksmith and waltzing right into the neighbors' house. Ian had handed down to Kay‑Kay his black shirt with a neon‑yellow "SECURITY" emblazoned on the back. In it, you could go anywhere, do anything.

"Looking for girls," he texted back. Anna knew that this was true ‑ but which girls?

She glanced up to find her big sister glaring at her, giving her an order. "You should sleep." Pregnancy was insistent that way. This new baby, no bigger than a plum, was overruling her ability to stay alert on behalf of her other baby. She left her phone with Emily, knowing that its ring might not rouse her.

Emily sent Henry to bed, too. He kissed her cheek, leaving her on the couch, where, every hour, she dialed Kay‑Kay's number.

At four‑thirty, her daughter finally responded. A couple of lines of text appeared: "We r fine Dont worry! Luv u."

The message proved that Kay‑Kay was in possession of her phone, her wits, and her cousin. Nevertheless, Emily began to cry, and, of course, this was when Ian arrived home, sneaking in like a thief.

"What?" he said, alarmed.

"She called," Emily said. "They're fine, she says."

He smelled of a bar. She wanted to kill him ‑ for being who he was and not someone else, for catching her in tears. He had never liked her, not even when he was a child. Always he'd preferred Anna; always he'd chosen Anna over Emily. Now he was beholden to Emily, her unhappy house guest. He blinked his heavy-lidded eyes. "A couple of people have seen her today," he said, dropping into the easy chair.

Really?

"They think so. Cherry Sue is hard to miss, specially with that cast on her arm. They had breakfast at the I‑Hop by Nanas, then around noon they were out husking with a guitar in Old Town."

"Where have you been?"

"Everywhere."

"Buzz knows to look for her."

"Buzz?"

"Henry's son-in-law, the cop."

Ian scowled now, Emily thought she could read his mind: What good was a cop to them? Hadn't Ian himself supplied the most useful information yet?

"I talked to her earlier," he said, rising.

"What?"

"She said that we really upset her last night. She's feeling disappointed in all of us, you and me and Anna and Henry, all of us. She said she‑"

"She called you?"

His mouth snapped shut, and Emily knew that he wouldn't open it again. Whatever, bitch. Fuming, she listened as he made his way up the stairs and down the hall to the room that he and Anna shared.

On Saturday, the sky was murky, churning with a wind that seemed to want to tear the roof from the house. Henry called Buzz to confirm that nothing bad had happened overnight on the police radio band. Emily made herself turn Kay‑Kay's room upside down, page through her journal, sniff at her jewelry box, open her closet and drawers and CD cases. But Emily knew that if Kay‑Kay wanted to hide something these days it would be in her car, in the trunk she could lock.

"What else did she say to Ian?" Emily finally asked Anna. Pride had prevented her from asking him. Pride, and the fear that he would tell her that it was none of her fucking business. Like a teenager, he had the capacity to shame you ‑ even when you knew he was in the wrong.

"She said that we were terrible role models." Anna was making bread, keeping busy. She leaked a tear or two into the dough, continuing to knead.

"Terrible role models?" Emily and Henry said together. Henry was making a "Missing" poster, with photographs Cherry Sue in nothing but a diaper, Kay-Kay still sporting braces. He'd had to find a photo where her hair was its natural color, not the coal‑black she'd dyed it until last Christmas.

“That's what Ian said she said." Anna wasn't sure that she believed her husband. It would be just like him to try to take advantage of the situation to punish his wife and her family.

"I was telling stories about my patients," Henry said, chastened. "About the stalker, and a few of my chem‑deps.”

"You never said any names," Anna assured him. "You're always really careful to protect privacy."

"Still, I shouldn't have been talking about them."

“I’m sure that wasn't it."

Emily sat across from Henry at the table, staring into her coffee as she tried to reconstruct the evening; she was prepared to take responsibility. But for what, exactly? For having been too drunk to remember, she supposed. She could recall Ian making them all laugh: the cop puffing over the drunks on the Yellow Brick Road, the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, even that wacky dwarf, representative of the Lollipop Guild. And round‑heeled, blasted Judy Garland, in her earnest full-throated way, inviting the officer for a romp in the poppy field. It had seemed like a good evening, Kay-Kay joining them for dinner, sticking around as the hour grew late, rocking Cherry Sue on her hip, helping Anna fix snacks, changing the CD when Ian complained about Henry's music. Emily had the impression that they had been trying to please the teenager, all four of the adults staging an impromptu production called "Life Is Worth Living," right here at this very table.

What they had learned about Kay-Kay, during the past few years, was that she truly could not see the point, that she did not care whether she lived or died. And, if she did not care, what was to stop her from following whatever impulse seized her? Sleep with a stranger? Why not? Inject an unknown drug? O.K. Hitchhike, wander the streets, invite outlaws into her life and hallucinations into her head ‑ all of it without regard for what her family kept calling "the consequences," a future with her in it. They all agreed that it was Cherry Sue who'd saved her, Cherry Sue who'd been able to light what otherwise seemed a dark void ‑ by loving Kay‑Kay as passionately as she did, by assigning Kay‑Kay special status as queen of her heart. Her name had been the second one Cherry Sue said, right after Mama; when she finally learned to walk, it was Kay‑Kay's arms she aimed for and fell into.

"What do you think?" Henry asked now, holding up his poster. He put himself into motion without waiting for an answer. He would photocopy it, and then drive around posting it: in Old Town, on Douglas, by East and
the other high schools, at Wal‑Marts and gas stations and bars and grocery stores and truck stops and at both of the big malls.  "I'll have my cell," he assured Emily, patting his pocket.

"Absolutely futile," Emily told Anna when he was gone.

They watched through the window as branches flailed in the wind above the trampoline, Ian's sole contribution to the household. He had brought it home the same way he did all his dubious belongings, with the implicit instruction that no one ask questions.

The trampoline vibrated, like a living thing. When it was first set up, Cherry Sue and Kay‑Kay had climbed tight on and begun to bounce together, holding hands. They danced on it to Kay‑Kay's boom‑box music; they loped around its rubber surface singing about the Muffin Man; they lay upon it in the dark, after it had absorbed the sun all day, watching as the stars popped on.

Emily hadn't wanted to accept the trampoline, not because it came from Ian but because she had foreseen the broken limb or crushed skull. Somebody would be made to pay, she knew. Some bone would have to be offered up. In the end, the sacrifice was Cherry Sue's, her little left wrist. Off to the E.R. they'd raced, the two‑year‑old sobbing into Kay‑Kay's neck while Emily weaved through traffic, Anna riding shotgun, crying uselessly. Emily had met her daughter's eyes in the rearview mirror, a complicit glance between them, the levelheaded ones. Emily had liked that moment.

Now, with her sister flour‑dusted and sad before her, Emily recalled another piece of Thursday evening's conversation. This had concerned their childhood. When they were young, and shared a bedroom, it had been Emily's habit to lie on the bunk above Anna and cross-examine her about her imaginary friend. Every night, the same conversation:

"Tell me what she looks like," Emily would insist.

"No."

"What's she doing right now?"

"I’m not telling."

Night after night Emily wheedled, by turns threatening and pleading. She was a bully and she had to win. Finally, she'd pledged, "If you tell me her name, I'll name my first child after her." This promise she'd made at age nine. Down below, a long silence came from her four-year old sister.

And then Anna had said, "Her name is Kay‑Kay."

"That's why you named me Kay-Kay?" Kay‑Kay had asked, Thursday night.

"You knew that already," Emily said, tilting her empty wineglass once more into her mouth, not wanting to open a third bottle.

"I did not."

"I didn't, either," Anna claimed.

"I've told you both, a thousand times." The thing about being Anna's sister was that, by the time Emily made good on her end of the deal, Anna had forgotten it was owed ‑ was totally nonplussed over the telephone when Emily called blissfully from the delivery room. But Anna had been a scornful teen‑ager herself then, repulsed by her sister's marriage to a man practically their father's age.

That had been a long time ago. Now Anna knew all about the tender sentiment attached to babies and their names. When she was pregnant herself, she'd agreed to the name that Ian chose; at that point, she had wanted him to stick around. "Cherry Sue," he'd declared. "Just like my first Z car, may she R.I.P."

"I don't even remember having an imaginary friend," Anna said to Emily now, as if she, too, had been trying to reconstruct Thursday night. "Maybe I already knew that the imaginary ones worked out better than the real ones?"

Ian entered the kitchen. "You got a problem with reality?" he said to Anna.

On the table, one of the cells rang with Kay‑Kay's awful tone. It was Anna's, a text message: "How much Ch Sue weigh?"

"'Why is she asking me this?" Anna cried.

"What the fuck?" Ian said.

Emily took only a moment to process the request. "She's giving her Tylenol," she deduced. "She wants to get the right dose."

"I don't know how much Cherry Sue weighs!" Anna burst into tears.

Ian said, "What could it be, like forty?" He was making fists, flexing his elbows as if hefting barbells.

"Twenty‑five," Emily instructed. She remembered from the E.R., when the bone had been set. "Let me text her back"

"Thanp" was Kay‑Kay's reply.

Saturday night was a repeat of Friday night, with the actors now sick of their roles, stuck in the production.  Ian had not come home, and Anna's new baby was urging her to bed. Henry had developed the dark circles beneath his eyes that indicated that a migraine was coming, and Emily was furious at the helpless way he looked out from their depths. "A hundred posters," he'd said, accounting for his exhaustion. There was a fleet of pill bottles on his night table, the place where his age was most evident. "Go to bed," she snapped. "I’ll stay here with the phones."

At 2 AM, Wesley called. There was wind and static on his end. He was outside a party from which he had been banished, but he thought that Kay‑Kay might be there. "Lucy needs to chill,” he explained, so he was going to drive her home, but he gave Emily the address.

It took Emily two seconds to decide to call Ian instead of waking either of the others; as usual, he took the call, albeit unhappily. "Yeah?" he said. He, too, was standing outside a party. He smelled of bonfire when he picked Emily up ten minutes later.

"This is a weird address," he noted. "You sure she'd be here?"

"No," Emily said. The address, it turned out, was a house in a new subdivision, not yet finished, with a baby‑blue Porta‑Potty tilting in the front yard, stakes and PVC pipes strewn about, the only lights coming from within the giant structure itself.

To Ian's credit, he performed beautifully as party crasher. He nodded as they entered the massive front door, murmuring a few "How's it going"s as they pushed through the crowded rooms, Emily following in his wake. The place was cavernous, echoing, warmed by body heat, smelling of sawdust. Men with stringed instruments played folk music in a corner. The people milling around, holding plastic cups and cigarettes, were older than Kay‑Kay by a decade or more. Many wore cowboy hats; a yard‑long sheet cake rested on a set of sawhorses.

Ian said, "This isn't a party, it’s a hoedown."

“I’m looking for Kay‑Kay," Emily said hopefully to the man tapping the keg in the kitchen.

"Hey, yeah," he said. Where is that chica?" Everyone recognized the name and nodded, smiling fondly, but no one had seen her. Ian accepted a plastic cup of beer, then grimaced as he drank

"I was picturing teenagers," Emily confided to him. Some bit of Kansas miscreance, a meth lab maybe.

"You were picturing a big‑ass opium den of iniquity," Ian scoffed. "I guess I was, too."

Emily canvassed the first floor, just to make sure, and then headed upstairs, carefully, since there was not yet a rail. Here were the future bedrooms, five of them, each white, and blank, vacant bathrooms, the smell of new carpet still in rolls. Out the windows, other hulking houses, dark like quiet ships. Was it just fatigue that made everything seem strange to her? she wondered. She dialed Wesley. "Where did you think she might be, exactly?"

"I couldn't get to the upstairs."

"I’m there. It’s totally empty."

"Huh. Hang on, Emily." Wesley was talking to somebody on his end. "I'm at St. Francis," he said apologetically. "Lucy may have O.D.'d."

"May have?"

"She turned blue. Now she looks better ‑ her mom says she's hypoglycemic, so sometimes that happens ‑ but we're already here ..." he trailed off, sighing. Once again at the hospital: he'd performed a similar duty on Kay‑Kay's behalf, not that long ago. ("If one is good," Kay‑Kay had explained, "why wouldn't two be better?") “I’m sorry," Wesley said. "I thought Kay‑Kay might have been staying at that place. She knows some of the guys working on it. I gotta go, Emily. We’re up."

"Good luck, Wes," she said.

Emily went back downstairs to find Ian accepting a second beer from the man in the kitchen. "Coors?" he asked Emily. "Cake?"

"No, thanks. I was hoping somebody had seen my daughter."

"They're not here," Ian said, downing his beer in one wincing swallow.

"Thanks for coming!" a few people called as they exited.

In the car, Ian snorted. "Yee‑haw." Then he grabbed his thrumming phone. "I'll drop you off," he said, studying its screen.

Anna, in her dream that night, birthed an apple. A green apple. The same green as Cherry Sue's cast. In her last dream, she'd had a small black monkey, his chattering mouth full of teeth, his hair greasy. In another, she'd produced kittens, a litter of three, and one had died, just quit breathing right before her eyes. She wondered sometimes what her brother‑in-law, the professional interpreter of dreams, would say about hers, what he would know about her if he heard what went on in her sleeping head.

Tonight the tornado warning siren swooped into Anna's dream but didn't wake her, it was Emily who pulled her to her feet and led her down into the basement, where the three of them leaned against each other on the moldering couch, waiting for the all clear.

Sarah, Henry's oldest daughter and Buzz's wife, arrived Sunday morning with the sun. Heavy, stoic Sarah with the hairdo, holding a hot casserole be­fore her. Besides the oven mitts, she was dressed for church. Her greeting was a list of ingredients: egg, sausage, hash browns, cheese. "And cream‑of‑mushroom soup," she finished. Sarah always wore a sorrowful expression in her father's house, as if she saw all of its inhabitants headed in that handbasket toward Hell. At first, Emily had reciprocated, pitying Sarah back.  Later, when Kay-Kay had gone wild, she simply refused to make eye contact.

The sky was blue, the air still. Emily began thanking her stepdaughter perfunctorily. At this, Sarah gazed demurely out the kitchen window, saddened but not surprised at what had befallen this group of savages. Then her brow furrowed. Out there on the trampoline slept the two missing girls, plus someone else. You could see the blond heads tipped together, little Cherry Sue's neon‑green cast on top of the tarpaulin covering them. "Thank you, Jesus," Sarah murmured, pointing. "There they are," she said.

“Ian said you were upset by us Thursday night."

"Why did he say that?"

Emily glared at her brother‑in‑law, who glared back. Whatever, bitch. "You weren't?"

"I may have been." Kay‑Kay shrugged. She had the air of someone to whom blame could not be attached, nor shame or repentance, either. "It's temporary," she'd said of the rainbow tattoo on her shoulder, before Emily could ask. Cherry Sue had a matching one on her thigh.

Ian said, "I thought you were on the run from the Man."

Kay‑Kay scoffed. "That's you, not me. Why weren't you all worried about poor Nana?"

The third person sleeping on the trampoline had been Anna and Emily’s mother, also missing these past two days. She, and her little dirty‑white dog, unmissed by her children. This was unforgivable, according to Kay‑Kay, though she was clearly also bemused.

"I thought you'd been carjacked," Henry confessed, wiping his eyes. "I thought you'd picked up hitchhikers and got stolen, a good deed gone bad." He kept laying his hand on Kay‑Kay's shoulder, as if never to let her leave home again. Kay‑Kay studied the "Missing" poster. "I’ll have to go take those down," he said.

Kay‑Kay nodded. "I'll help."

Why weren't they angrier? Emily wondered. Why had the girls' return inspired so little in her and Anna and Henry and Ian besides relief? What was wrong with them that this was their reaction - this sense of gratitude, as if Kay-Kay had performed a rescue rather than the reverse? Cherry Sue nuzzled at Anna's neck, absolutely fine, a faint sunburn on the bridge of her nose and her cheeks as if from healthy recreation.

"You never once dialed Nana's cell," Kay‑Kay said. “We checked."

"I wasn't thinking of her," Emily admitted. "You O.K., Mom?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" Nana sat at the table with her dog in her lap, no worse for wear, unkempt in her usual way. She had enjoyed her trip with the girls. Medicine Lodge, a hundred miles southwest, was her home town. She hadn't visited there in she didn't know how long. “We stood in the back yard of the old farmhouse."

"That's right, Nana. For our picture."

"That fellow with the cart full of cans took it for us."

"You gave him a dollar."

"And then Nipper ran off after a rabbit."

“That's right."

Nana looked relieved, as always, to have her memory confirmed. She wore her standard floral muumuu; her hair hardly existed anymore, a few white tufts. Her fingers twitched in her pet's fur, which was filled with twigs and burrs and mulberry fluff. She had not panicked when picked up by her granddaughter on Friday morning; for all she knew, it was a plan they'd made. "They've always had the best pie at the Toot Sweet," she recalled. "And we slept in a motel." Moe‑tel.

"I sleep with Kay‑Kay," Cherry Sue said, smiling slyly.

"You drove to Medicine Lodge and checked into a motel?" Ian asked skeptically.

"Nana wanted to visit the old homestead," Kay‑Kay said. "It's pretty out there. Some places, you can't even get phone reception."

Sarah had served everyone a glass of milk, though only Cherry Sue ever drank the stuff. As soon as she'd seen the girls and their grandmother, Sarah had phoned Buzz to say that she would be missing church today. Called to a higher need, she'd tucked a dish towel into her waistband and begun spooning out her eggy casserole while the family sat obediently. The blandness of the offering went with the blandness of the adventure being described. From the old woman and the baby they learned that there'd been burgers along with the pie, Tylenol for teething, television, some jumping on the beds, games of go fish, a walk around Nana's old land and ruined house, the three of them holding hands, moving slowly, trailed by Nana's little dog, trotting along leashless.

Emily listened, marveling, exhausted: the most dramatic things, it seemed, had been happening here at home, in their heads. They had woken this morning from an experience that was precisely like a nightmare ‑ Technicolor catastrophes, figments of imagination, suspicion, now totally erased in the light of an ordinary day. There hadn't even been storms in Medicine Lodge, the bad weather passing just north of there. “We should call Wesley," she noted absently. He'd no doubt had a bad dream or two himself.

"I texted him," Kay‑Kay said. "He's still at St. Francis with the freak."

"Nipper's a bad dog," Cherry Sue reported, pulling out her pacifier. "You are a bad dog,” she sang at the animal.

"Nipper tends to run away," Nana said, plucking at his nasty fur. "Just to scare us silly. Oh, we called and called, till we were blue in the face." But then she wasn't certain and turned uneasily to Kay‑Kay.

"Hours, Nana," Kay‑Kay assured her. Both Emily and Anna waited for the girl to make a meaningful ironic comment, to let them know that she, too, had run away for the thrill of scaring some people silly, of taking their concern out for one last whirl. But Kay‑Kay went back to forking up the sausage‑and‑egg casserole, drinking milk. Apparently, she'd forsaken her decade‑long vegetarianism. On the back of the hand holding the fork was a seven‑leafed marijuana plant she'd carved into it in ninth grade, a faint, fading white. She'd removed the metal stud from her tongue and the ring from her lip, so silverware went in and out without clinking. If she wasn't careful, Emily and Anna thought at the same time, she would run to fat, like Henry's other daughters.

She hadn't gone anywhere alarming. She hadn't done anything dangerous. Could they be disappointed?

"Oh, hey, check out the picture," Kay‑Kay said, wiping her mouth and flipping open her phone. She found the image.

Around the table went the cell phone, everyone squinting at the mini‑picture of Nana, Kay‑Kay, Cherry Sue, and Nipper. They stood beside a broken storm‑cellar door, above them the bleached Kansas sky. Three big grins, and Nipper with his nose in the air, preparing to run. "I'm gonna get a print made for you, Nana," Kay‑Kay told her grandmother. She took back her phone and gazed into its tiny depths. "In black-and‑white, don't you think? Wouldn't that be best?"

END