*Throwback to the beginning of a story I wrote in 2016.
The late afternoon was cool and wet, and red and brown leaves sprinkled the pavement of the quiet street lined with blue and white cookie-cutter homes. Kendra made this walk every day after school. She didn’t participate in after-school activities. She didn’t drive. She refused to share a school bus with all the poor excuses for human-beings that were her classmates (mates being a very loose term). She clicked through irrelevant social media stories, the perfect reminder that she didn’t belong, as she padded down the sidewalk.
Sure, she seemed to be like every angsty, hormonal teenager in high school who had few ambitions and fewer hobbies, but she knew why she was like this. Just like she knew that, after five years of counselling, nothing would change.
People mostly left her alone. They knew she was weird, and they didn’t have the time of day to make anything of it. For that, she was thankful. Being a loner was fine, so long as people left her to it.
Today, though, was different. She had been paired up with Jessica Newman on a biology project, and Jessica Newman was a participant in all thing’s ‘school’. So, on this particular day, Kendra stayed at school late with Jessica to work on her project. She didn’t like walking home this late, but staring at her phone kept her calm.
“Jesus, Cali, she’s not home yet. Can you check the school grounds? Please? C’mon man. Just drive back. No, she’s not answering her phone.” A pause. “I don’t know—seriously? Okay, okay. Thanks man, I appreciate it. Let me know.” Jason Mathers stood on the lawn in front of his parent’s house, pacing nervously and staring at his phone. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”
Jason Mathers wasn’t exactly someone Kendra talked to, but they were distantly aware of each other’s existence. She wasn’t the type to talk to anyone, especially someone of his personality persuasion, but she could sense at least enough of a problem to feel compelled to speak. “Something—wrong?” She asked as she passed.
“It’s none of your business,” he snapped, his face going red.
“Cool, you’re definitely right. Seems like you’re making it the whole neighbourhood’s business, though.” She looked around pointedly, but the streets were quiet. Everyone was inside their homes eating dinner, she presumed.
“Everything is great,” he said, stony. He looked back and his phone and made to be busy.
“Bye,” Kendra said in annoyance, continuing down the sidewalk. She was just about past his house when he called back.
“My—sister’s missing. My little sister.”
She turned slowly to look back at him. “Jen’s missing?”
“Uh, yeah,” he looked confused that she knew his sister’s name. She was good with names. “Sorry,” he said, the word bitter in his mouth. “She asked to walk home with her friends, and I said it was fine, ‘cause I was hanging out with the guys at Cali’s house, but now it’s been hours and she’s still not home. She won’t answer her phone, either.”
“Where are your parents?”
“In Mexico for a couple weeks.” He looked around, seemingly lost.
“Have you called any of her friends? Or her friend’s parents?”
“I don’t have any of their numbers.”
“Do you know where they live?”
He shook his head. Kendra walked back to where he stood and crossed her arms. “You shouldn’t be letting little girls walk home. Don’t you know what happens to little girls who walk home alone?” She felt her anger flash. “Don’t you know what kind of people are out there?”
“She wasn’t alone. She was with friends.”
“Who are also little kids.” She said firmly, and then felt guilty at the look of worry on his face. “Look,” she sighed, “are there places they especially like to go?”
“They go to the Beanie Café sometimes. Or the park by the lake.”
“Well, why not try there first? And leave a note for her here. I’m sure her phone is dead and she’s off having fun with her friends.”
“Why wouldn’t she call me with her friend’s phone then?”
“Because,” Kendra rolled her eyes. “She’s a—what—thirteen-year-old girl? She’s not thinking about that kind of stuff.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“Better start walking, then.” She turned to leave hesitantly, worry in her gut.
“Wait,” Jason said. “Would you come with me?”
“I don’t want to be caught up in my own head. And you seem to know a lot about how girls think.”
She smiled slightly at that. “Well, I do happen to be one, you know.”
“Right,” he said awkwardly. “Wait here a second. I’ll leave a note.” She hadn’t even agreed to it, but she waited all the same. He ran inside, and she checked her phone. It was already almost seven, but her parents were always out on Thursday’s until nine or ten.
He sprang out of the door again, backpack-free. “Okay,” he said, a little breathless, “let’s go.”
They checked the café and found no sign of giggling teenage girls. It was awkward walking next to a near stranger. Kendra wasn’t the talking type to begin with, and neither, it seemed, was Jason. At least, not while he was worrying about his sister. “So…what do you want to do after high school?” He asked as they tramped through to the park.
“Really?” She asked sardonically. Usually she got that question from her relatives and elderly church people. He gave her a look, and she said, “alright, alright. I don’t really know. I thought maybe I would go to a university and take chemistry.”
“Huh,” was all he said.
“What about you?” she asked, only because it was customary.
“I’m going to the University of Toronto for Electrical Engineering.”
That made her raise her eyebrows. “Wow—I mean,” she realized she sounded a bit rude, “that’s impressive. You’ve got it figured out already.”
“Yeah,” he gave her a sidelong smile. “Pretty weird, I know.”
They searched the park for ten minutes, but it was obvious that Jen and her friends weren’t there. The panic was evident on Jason’s face. “I have to call the cops,” he said, pulling out his phone.
She grabbed his arm before he could dial. “Do your parents have a landline?” He nodded. “Try that, first. See if she made it back.”
She watched him dial, apprehension building. She heard a voice on the other line. Hello?
“Jen? Where the hell were you? Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
Kendra sighed in relief and left them to it. She hiked up her backpack and caught his eye to show him she was leaving.
“Hang on,” he was saying, “let me call you back. Wait!”
“What did you mean before? That thing you said about little girls walking home alone?”
She hesitated, looking at him closely. “I just meant it’s not always safe.”
“That’s not what you meant.” He looked pained, and a familiar feeling of guilt washed over her. “Grade eight?” he asked. She saw the pity in his eyes. That pity was familiar to her.
She nodded, clearing her throat. She wasn’t the type to cry, but she was sure words would fail her.
“I remember you were gone for a while, but I never knew.”
“No one did,” she managed to say, and cleared her throat again. “No one except my family. Besides, I’m fine. I’m alive, aren’t I?”
“It’s not really the same.”
“It’s none of your business.” She was starting to get angry again.
“I know it’s not,” he shook his head, thinking. “Can I at least walk you home? Make sure you get there safely?”
Kendra could feel her throat burning with the tears she held back. She simply nodded, feeling grateful but also ashamed.
“I can’t imagine,” he told her as they walked.
“No,” she said. “You definitely can’t.”
He glanced at her, but said nothing, and they continued down the sidewalk in silence. When they reached her driveway, he gave an awkward wave and said, “thanks, for, uh—helping me out with my sister.”
“Sure thing,” Kendra said, keeping her eyes down and nudging a rogue dandelion with her toe. “Tell her to be safer next time.”
“Well, okay, bye.” He waited another few seconds, as if considering saying more, then shook his head and walked away, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
The porchlight to her house flicked on as she climbed the steps and unlocked the door, stepping inside and bolting it behind.