I called Ms. Dori’s office as soon as I was back in Blue Water. Cassie still had a landline clinging onto her kitchen wall, and I paced the parameters established by its curling white cable, twisting it in and out of my fingers.
I wished she was with me.
I wished it so desperately that my chest ached. The phone rang and rang, but it was only background noise for the thought of her in her yellow dress under that tree, her hair long and dark, smiling. Usually, her smile was different in pictures than it was in real life – more disciplined, careful, strategically protective of her crooked row of bottom teeth. Something had struck me about that photo, and I didn’t realize it until the receptionist picked up the phone: she was genuinely smiling.
“Is Dr. Rand in?” I asked the receptionist, interrupting whatever she’d been saying. She asked for my name and date of birth in a patient voice, despite me having ignored her the first time. “Elizabeth Schreiber. May 5th, 1990.”
“Hang on just one second.”
I did. I stood picking at my fingernails until my cuticles bloomed red, listening to the jazz they pumped through the phone. I’d never liked my name. Like Rod’s, it was a family heirloom passed down a handful of generations, one that would die out with the two of us. Our dad was the only person who didn’t call me by my middle name.
“Ivy?” Ms. Dori had a soft voice – raspy with years of smoking cigarettes, but warm and kind. Comforting. Being my godmother, she’d cut me a generous discount for our sessions together, waving a manicured hand and saying that I was family. It was good to hear her talk. “Oh, honey, I was so worried about you when your mother said no one had heard from you after our session. And then, you know, with Violet…” She sucked in a breath through her teeth. “God, am I glad to hear from you.”
“So, I just left?”
“Left what, sweetheart?”
“The session? I just left when we got finished, and everything was normal?”
She paused, and I could hear her frown. “Yes, it was no different from any of our other sessions. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” I said. Then I hung up. She’d have more questions, but I was already full of questions to the point of bursting. I wanted to drink. I wanted to see Daphne. I wanted to take Cassie’s car and drive it straight into a brick wall.
More than anything, I wanted to know that Violet was safe. Since Rod had told me she was missing, I’d felt a frantic feeling deep in my gut, like I’d swallowed something angry, something with claws. Violet was my baby. I’d spent her four years of life entirely devoted to her, buying her clothes and toys and candy, taking her on walks through the park or trips to the petting zoo in West Arnold. Violet loved animals. She’d been entranced since she’d first caught sight of the birds in the hospital windows, tiny eyes fixed unbudgingly on them no matter how many shiny objects Rod and Nickie dangled in front of her face. Their cat, Scout, had been Violet’s constant companion since they’d brought her home, never leaving her side despite the endless fistfuls of fluffy brown fur she pulled off him. Inexplicably, animals tended to like Violet just as much as she liked them.
“Are you alright?” Cassie poked her head around the corner.
How many times could I let Cassie hold me as I cried? I’d already done so countless times in my life, and there seemed to be no foreseeable end to it. She was warm. I liked warm people. She was warm, and soft, and she never called me a worthless alcoholic even if I was one. I sprawled myself out on the floor and had a full blown tantrum, letting her cluck and coo and kiss the top of my head, me crying so hard I was practically screaming.
In high school, our friends had quickly grown tired of my crying. Both to my face and behind my back, they’d called me an attention seeker, a drama queen, a pity whore. Not Cassie. No matter what we said about her, a bad word about me had never passed her lips. On her floor that afternoon, I cried and clung onto her so hard that I left deep, long red marks down her bare forearms, a drop of blood budding from the bottom of one. She barely even glanced down at it, just got me a cup of water and petted my hair as I hyperventilated into it, my breath steaming up the glass.
I wasn’t even finished by the time my mother called Cassie’s cell phone. It began to vibrate from the tile beside us, illuminating “MRS. SCHRIEBER” in big letters. She grabbed it quickly, like she was trying to hide it from me.
“Is my mom calling you?”
It was a stupid question. I took the phone in fear that Cassie would reject the call, fumbling to answer it with quivering fingers.
“Hello?” When I was met with silence, I started: “Mom, I – ”
“Elizabeth Ivy Schreiber,” her voice was deadly, low as thunder. “If you know anything, anything, about what happened to Violet, you’d better tell me right now.”
I didn’t. I didn’t know anything. Though I tried telling her this, it seemed to only upset her further. In the background, I could hear my father’s voice gurgling lowly under my mother’s, telling her to take a breath and calm down – a mantra of his, a well-worn string of words that’d become thoughtless and robotic over the years, repeated too many times to maintain any meaning: “Just breathe and calm down, Monica, she didn’t completely total the car, we can get it fixed.” “Mon, just breathe and calm down, I’m sure the girlfriend is just a phase, she’s just trying to get a rise out of you, same as usual.” “Elizabeth just has a little bit of growing up to do, Monica, it’ll be okay, breathe and calm down, breathe and calm down, breathe and calm down.”
I needed to breathe and calm down myself. However, when I finally managed to chip away a portion of my panic, it was replaced with a heated and abrupt indignance.
“Hold on,” I said. “Why do you think I know something?”
She sucked in a sharp breath, as if attempting to contain something she wanted to say. For a long while, she was silent. I pictured my dad on the edge of the armchair in the living room, leaning forward with his palms on his knees as if about to stand up, listening. Waiting.
Should have just killed him.
“Are you drunk?”
The question came as a surprise, though the sharp annunciation of it gave me the impression that she’d been burning to say it. I released an outraged huff that probably didn’t make me sound less drunk and fumbled with my response, saying no while trying to simultaneously say that I’d been sober for over a year, as she damn well knew, and that I couldn’t believe she’d even ask me that. Once I’d more or less choked this out, I managed to say “everyone needs to stop calling me”, though I’d been the one to call Dr. Rand.
“Okay, honey,” said my mother. She only called me by pet names like ‘honey’ when she was too disgusted to say my name. “I talked to your brother, and your father, and we all agree that it’s best if you stay away for a while.” A pause. “You’ve hurt every one of us.” A longer pause. I could hear her breathing, the shaking of her lungs like dead leaves in her ribcage. I pictured her coughing out flurries of decaying brown vegetation onto the living room carpet. “Especially Violet.”
I don’t know which of us hung up first. I stood with Cassie’s phone in my hand for a while, frozen, picture-still like Rod had been at his dining room table until Cassie came and sat me down. She’d been eavesdropping. My mother’s voice had been loud enough to carry through the receiver, so she’d probably gotten the full conversation.
“I know you’d never hurt her,” she said.
“I want to.”
Cassie gasped, her eyes wide, and reached for my hand. “Violet, Ivy. I’m talking about Violet.”
“Oh.” I nodded. “Yeah. I’d never hurt her.”
I told myself that Cassie didn’t look unconvinced. We sat on the tile floor among the crumbs and drifts of dog hair, my head on her shoulder, our legs outstretched flat in front of us. Mine went out nearly a foot longer than Cassie’s. Suddenly, she seemed terribly small and vulnerable, like I should’ve been the one protecting her. The world was full of danger for kind, small people like Cassie. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and squeezed.
“I love you,” I said.
She sighed. She wasn’t going to say it back, I’d known that already, but something in the silence still made me want to scream. Cassie didn’t love me. She had, once, very much, and I’d destroyed it. To say she loved me then would be to lie, and Cassandra Pritchard almost never lied. In school, this trait had earned her the reputation of a stuck-up, judgmental prude who thought she was too good for the rest of us. Only, she wasn’t stuck-up or judgmental. She was just good.
“My God, your toe,” she said instead. “I’m so sorry. I forgot all about that. Doesn’t it hurt?”
The toe in question had swelled significantly since the previous night, and didn’t look any less lopsided. It did hurt, but the pain had been pushed so far into the back of my mind by the events of the day that I’d nearly forgotten about it. I tapped my big toes into each other, watching it flop alongside my foot, wincing.
“We should go to the hospital,” said Cassie.
“Not for a toe – they’re just gonna charge us a thousand bucks to wrap it,” I heard echoes of my father creep into my tone. “You got any medical tape?” Rod and I had broken enough fingers and toes for me to know how to handle one. Cassie jumped to her feet like I’d requested something terrifically urgent and practically ran toward the bathroom, probably to get away from the words that’d passed my lips moments prior. It’d been selfish of me to say that to her, even more selfish to half-expect her to say it back. Sympathy and love weren’t the same thing. How many times had Ms. Dori told me that? Still, no matter how often I’d told her that I understood this, I still couldn’t ease the panging in my chest, couldn’t quite wrap my head around the concept. I wasn’t like Cassie; I lied all the time.
Under my instruction, Cassie wrapped my purple toe to the one next to it with excruciating carefulness, like she might poke a hole straight through my skin if she applied too much pressure. Having used the last of the tape, she said she’d been planning to go grocery shopping anyway and would pick some up on her way out. She was gone in five minutes flat.
“I love you,” I said again after she shut the front door, somehow still unnerved by the silence that followed.
Cassie’s laptop password was the same as it’d been in high school. “Snowball895” – Snowball being her long deceased terrier and 895 being my locker number freshman year. I got it on the first try. What I hadn’t been anticipating was her background photo.
It was much more recent than the photograph hanging above her stairs. Daphne’s hair was cut cleanly above her shoulders, and her nose sparkled with a stud that I hadn’t even known she’d gotten. Still, her face was the same. Her smile, once more large and unashamed, fully displaying the gap between her front teeth that she’d once told me she wanted dental surgery to fix, despite my insistence that it was pretty. It was. In this photo, she was leaning her head against Cassie’s, Cassie smiling with her eyes closed and her nose scrunched in the start of a laugh. Cassie had a deep, uncontrollable laugh, one that started in the bridge of her nose and shook her entire body. I hadn’t seen it in a long time.
Though it took me a moment to remember the task at hand, I eventually made my way to the internet and switched to a private browser. When simply “Violet Schreiber” yielded no results, I tried “Missing four year old Nicholson West Virginia”, and was met with a long list of results, the first of which featured a large, pixelated photo of Violet’s face that looked like it’d been cropped from a much larger image. She appeared to be on the cusp of a tantrum, her eyes slanted meanly and her face going red, her dark hair poking in wild directions around her. It was a strange picture to use on a missing person’s flier, though I doubted Rod and Nickie would have had the presence of mind to find something more suitable. Besides, I figured absently, such a photo suited Violet. Maybe it would make her more recognizable to a stranger.
Beneath the photo and two rows of her physical description was a finely-printed blurb in bold, dark lettering: “Last seen Monday, July 1st, at her family home in Nicholson, WV, wearing checkered shorts and a purple t-shirt.”
I scrolled through a few more photos of Violet, of police tape in front of Rod’s house, of Rod and Nickie looking disheveled in a screenshot from a news broadcast. I’d never seen Nickie look anything other than peppy before, but in this photo she looked half-dead. Even her hair, which was usually bouncy and brassy, hung limply over her shoulders like it was half-dead, too.
I shut the laptop.
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