By Zac Pingle
Chapter One: Before the Summer
Warm winds rolled in from the south just before the summer. In the afternoon dew would still linger on blades of grass, and grasshoppers would sing. Clouds in the west blocked the body of the sun, allowing thin strands of orange sunlight to peek over.
Nicole sat across from me in a diner. I rested my hand on a cup of coffee and steam glided through my fingers. I loved Nicole’s little habits when she sat in restaurants. She fiddled with the paper binding that held her silverware together as she talked, tearing it into strips and re-attaching them into a paper chain. Nicole bit her lip when she was trying to guess which song was playing on the speakers at restaurants.
A woman sat with her son a few booths down. The boy peered over the seat, and the mother poked him in the side. “That’ll be you one day. They’re cute, aren’t they?” said the mother. The boy sat back down on the seat and crumpled his face. “Gross.”
“You’re awfully quiet,” said Nicole.
“I guess so,” I smiled at her. “It’s like when you’re at an art museum.”
“I wouldn’t know,” replied Nicole, “I’ve never been to one.”
“Well, I’ll have to take you then. There’s this moment when you find a painting or a sculpture and forget everything around you and just freeze. And you forget to speak.”
Nicole ran her finger around the lip of her water glass. “The Beatles” she whispered, and I knew that she had figured out what song was playing. Nicole was the only woman I’ve ever asked to dance with. That summer Nicole stole me away for hours to walk under the heavy amber glow of streetlights. Years of being in marching band trained Nicole to always step in unison with me. I asked her to tell me her favorite memories, and she told me she was still making them.
After leaving the diner, Nicole threw me down on the soft grass in a park and laid down beside me. The moon had come up, and the remaining sunlight bounced off the ripples of a nearby pond.
“Tell me a story,” said Nicole.
“Scientists are helpless romantics. Tesla is a good example.”
“You’re such a nerd sometimes.”
“I know.” The air began to cool, and I put my jacket over Nicole. “Tesla was the son of a preacher in Austria. He had grown up with a beautiful woman named Katherine, and Tesla quickly fell in love with her. They would swim in the rivers, and feed the pigeons. When Tesla returned from school, Katherine was the first person he wanted to see.”
Nicole rolled over onto me and laid her head on my chest. “So what happened?”
“Katherine was promised to another man. As the story goes, Tesla was so distraught over Katherine getting married that he moved to America to start his life over again. Soon, Tesla began working for Thomas Edison and invented alternating current. He became rich and famous, but remained alone for the rest of his life.”
“That’s kind of a sad story,” said Nicole.
“Yeah. The good stories always are.”
Chapter Two: A Year Later
The night I found out Nicole had gone missing, it was already a week too late.
“If you stay home from school today, they’ll know it’s about Nicole,” my mother told me. I had not slept, and my clothes were damp in perspiration. Nicole had been living with her friend Tina for three months before she disappeared. Tina called me a week after this happened. “I didn’t know how to tell you, Zac. She just walked out into the night while I was asleep. She just… walked out into the night.”
“Come on, get ready for school,” Mother told me. “You can look for Nicole once you’re home. And try to eat something today.”
The brick corridors of my high school were lined with dented and scuffed vermillion lockers. Teachers herded students into the cramped confines of classrooms like cattle to slaughter. My hands shook during my first class, and my handwriting was nearly illegible.
“Are you alright?” the girl next to me asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, “just too much coffee this morning.”
The lunch room was a roar of teenagers acting out their own hormone-fuelled dramas. I tapped the tips of my fingers on the grey, round table that I sat at, trying to tune out the laughter and screams of the people around me. I wanted Earth to stop turning.
Sage, an acquaintance from middle school, sat across from me. She had also lost a “Nicole” before. Her best friend of the same name had committed suicide the first year I attended school in town. Sage’s rose colored nails pierced the skin of a tangerine, and darted her eyes from the fruit up to me, and then back down again.
“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” said Sage.
I left mother a note at home after school saying that I would not be back until late. It’s a thirteen mile walk to the town Nicole used to live in. When I arrived, the sun hung low to the west and dogs rested in dry weeds. Coffee beans and bread emanated the air as restaurants closed. Children shielded their eyes against the setting sun while they chased each other and tussled on freshly cut grass. “You chase me, then I’ll chase you,” one of the children said to another.
I marched through suburban infrastructure, checking the school grounds, behind alleyways and in abandoned grain mills. An owl resided in the grain mill to the east, spying at me through the cracks of remaining plaster and steel. A church was a block to the west of Nicole’s house. The steeple had a neon red cross fixed at the top that drenched the sidewalk in a red glow as I walked under it.
I called Nicole’s phone number, “I’m sorry, but the number you have dialed is no longer available.”
Chapter Three: Two-Dimensional Horses
I was in the process of reading Nicole’s diary. Not a breach of privacy that I would normally condone, though as Tina and I had agreed upon, the right to privacy is not valid in cases of a missing person.
“I don’t know what you’re expecting to find,” said Tina when she gave me the diary after months of pleading. “Maybe you shouldn’t read it.”
I already knew that Nicole had sex with another man while she was with me, I just didn’t want to believe it. A man, Richard, is written about in great detail in the fourteen pages that Nicole had filled out.
April 14, 2013, “Richard… he’s my 22 year old manager who constantly hits on me.”
I close the diary. The couch that I lay on has become morphed to my outline because I can no longer sleep in my bedroom. Not since I found one of Nicole’s hairs under my pillow. I get up from the couch and stride to the cabinet above the oven where the whiskey is stored. The first splash of liquor goes down easily, as does the next when I sit down to examine the cover of the diary. Two-dimensional horses are painted in iridescence on the hard bindings. I continue to read.
May 18, 2013, “Me and Zac are in a bit of a rough patch… Richard left a few weeks ago, back to Phoenix.”
A white moth landed on the coffee table. I turn over my glass and trap the flapping insect under it. Thin yellow drops of whiskey slide down the walls of the glass. The glass taps as the moth rams into its sides and breathes in alcohol. I know that mother is awake. I can smell her cannabis rising through the vents in the floor.
“I told Zac about when mom caught me and Richard in the driveway after work… I told him that we were just talking.”
I close the diary. I throw it across the room. I drink as much whiskey from the bottle that I can manage. I storm through the livingroom and kitchen. I can’t stand still. A knocking comes from the door, and for a moment I believe it’s Nicole.
I rushed to the door with bottle in hand. Sage was standing on the concrete step with her younger sister.
“I’ve come to the rescue,” said Sage.
My grip on the bottle loosens, and I let out a breath of air.
“Sage, I’m not really in the mood–”
“To bad,” Sage said with a smile. “Come on, let’s go. It’ll be fun.”
“I’m really not a ‘fun’ kind of person.”
Sage tugs at my arm, and I nearly drop the whiskey which I forgot I was holding.
“Stop brooding. It’s bad for your skin, you know.”
“Fine,” I say, and turn back up to the stairs.
I entered the living room, put down the bottle, and released the moth.
Chapter Four: Vandalism
Blue and green squares of carpet in the laser arcade were interrupted by soda stains and crushed popcorn. The man at the counter locked his gaze on Sage, perhaps because sixteen-year-olds don’t normally play laser tag. Perhaps he just wanted to watch Sage sway to him and ask for tickets.
“This is juvenile,” I tell Sage.
She whipped around, holding three red tickets. “When was the last time you acted like a kid? Never, I bet.”
“When was the last time you acted like an adult?” I asked.
“You’re right. I should have let you drown in that bottle, but watching you be uncomfortable in an arcade would make me happy.” Sage stuck her tongue out at me.
Sage’s younger sister, Nelly, stepped closer to me and smiled. “Don’t test her. She’ll tackle you to the ground if she has to.”
Nelly, Sage and I towered above the line of boys and girls to the “Laser War Room.” The boy in front of Sage reached a height just below her breasts. He craned his neck back gawked at her.
A worker addressed the line of laser soldiers, “Okay, here are the ground rules: if you get shot, you must return to your base to recharge, shooting targets will give power-ups, no physical contact. Have fun!”
Sage pulled a hair tie from her pocket and gathered her white hair into a ponytail. Her blouse hung over the vest at the shoulders. Kids scurried into a laughing massacre at the sound of an alarm. Nelly dodged and rolled from cover to cover. Sage held down a small pack of fifth graders with suppressing fire. I was quickly flanked and subdued by a boy with a pizza sauce-glazed chin.
Another siren sounded in the room, and the lights changed to neon red. My mind forgot that I was fighting in a laser war, and I was raptured back to Nicole’s house. I was looking down the street. My silhouette on the sidewalk was casted by red neon from the church. It was the night I found Nicole’s house abandoned. I thought that perhaps Nicole was hiding out in the yard, or maybe just wanted to see someone she knew again.
I felt a hand clasp onto my collar and push me against the wall. Sage’s crimson nails blended into the background of the room.
“Die!” shouted Sage. Her laser blaster is pushed into my gut.
“Okay, okay. I’m dead,” I said.
“Dead people don’t say their dead. They go like this–” Sage put her hand to her forehead and feigned a glorious death only seen in World War II movies.
“No physical contact!” a voice shouted from near the door, “You two. Out.”
Nelly and Sage insisted that they rest and recuperate at my apartment after the war. I crept through the dark hallway in the apartment. Mother left note on her door, “I’m going for a drive. Be back later.” Sage and Nelly were sitting on the living room couch when I returned. Sage plucked strings on my acoustic guitar and stared at me while trying to strum a chord.
“Know how to play?” I asked.
“Nope.” Sage nudged her sister’s arm with her elbow.
“I have to go freshen my makeup,” said Nelly, who then strode into the dark hallway.
I took the bottle of whiskey back to the kitchen, and Sage handed me the guitar.
“How long were you and Nicole together?”
“Almost two years.”
Sage removed her hair tie and placed it back into her pocket. “My boyfriend and I have been together for almost that long. How long have you been single?”
I pluck a few guitar strings, and realize how out of tune the instrument is.
“Hmm. Nicole went missing about six months back, and we split up three months before then so… nine months.”
The living room felt larger after Sage kidnapped me. Crows cawed from a power line outside, and nudge each other over on the wire. A dog is barking and whining in contest, but the birds do not budge.
“That’s long enough to have a baby!” says Sage. “Have you at least tried to date anybody?”
“The thought hasn’t crossed my mind to be honest.”
Sage moved in closer. Her lips parted, her blue eyes darted to the hallway then to my own. “I think Nelly has a crush on you.”
“I think thirteen is a little young for me. Where is she by the way?”
Sage’s eyebrows rose. She stood from the couch and the muscles of her mouth constricted to hide a smile. “I’m sure she’s still fixing her makeup. You know how girls are.”
I started for the hallway. The lights of my room were on. “I think I should check on her.”
Sage tackled me to the ground and put her full weight on my ribcage to keep me pinned. Platinum hair draped my face, and she laughed in my ear.
“The mission’s been compromised!” Sage called to Nelly.
The two girls dashed for the door and made a beeline for the car. Toilet paper lined each crevice and ledge in my bedroom. Strands hung from the ceiling, and covered my bed entirely. Just as I walked through the doorway, my phone goes off.
A text message from Sage reads, “You should check your car.”
On the street corner I find my car has suffered the same fate as my bedroom. The upholstery was completely covered in toilet paper. A large heart is drawn on the driver’s side window with lipstick. The crows screech and mock from the power lines. I cannot will myself to not laugh.
Another text comes from Sage, “See? Wasn’t that fun?”
I had forgotten to look for Nicole that night.
Chapter Five: The Flower
Search dogs will go into a psychosis if they never find what they’re looking for. Roads do not cease when looking for a missing person. Instead they stretch and loop. Like a hedge maze from hell. My searches began after dark, when Nicole was most likely to be mobile. I know that I won’t find her. It’s been almost a year and a half since her disappearance. Richard was in Phoenix when Nicole went missing, the county sheriff’s department has posted a notice online, but the posters had been taken down from light posts.
This night in particular is when Tina joined me in the search. A private investigator had come to her house the week before. He told Tina that authorities had found Nicole’s dead body. This type of lie is a common tactic. Investigators and search dogs will go to extremes for a lead. After hours of sobbing the investigator told Tina that it was a lie. “I’m sorry,” he told her, “I’m just trying to find Nicole.”
“Do you think we’ll ever see Nicole again?” Tina asked me.
“I don’t know.”
A woman walked down the street. Same height as Nicole, and same hair color. Part of search dog psychosis is that you start seeing what you’re looking for when it’s not there. Tina stops, for she too suffers from the disorder.
“She doesn’t have Nicole’s ears,” I say.
Tina nods and we continue walking.
“I read Nicole’s diary. I need to ask you something.”
Tina looked to the south. She produced a cigarette from her jacket. The orange glow overpowered the amber streetlights. “Why do you torture yourself?”
“Humor me,” I say. “Why did Nicole cheat on me with Richard?”
“It was complicated.”
“No shit. A twenty two-year-old meth addict sweeping a sixteen-year-old girl off her feet is inherently not simple.”
The wind picked up. Leaves scratched on pavement, and rain clouds began to invade the sky.
“Richard was like an exotic flower to Nicole,” said Tina. “He just had a personality that you were missing. She wanted him because he was a meth addict, and because he was complicated. There was a list of personality traits that Nicole loved about you, but Richard filled the other part of the list that you didn’t.”
I remained silent. The air I breathed turned white. Dust-sized flakes of snow began to fall.
“After you left, all she had was an exotic flower.”
Chapter Six: The Art of Car Maintenance
A faded outline of Sage’s lipstick heart remained on the window of my car. It was a 1963 Ford Fairlane 500. The underside was consumed in rust, and much of the engine’s components needed to be replaced in order to run smoothly. During the summer, my head would often be between pavement and the oil pan as I toiled on repairs. I had started boxing at this point. Often I would show to school with black eyes and a split lip. Boxing and car repair was the only way that I could go without thinking about Nicole anymore. At the rate I was going with restoration, the car would be finished when I retired.
Sage slid into me when I made a sharp right turn, as the car did not have safety belts.
“I may need you to sign a waiver if you keep getting rides with me, Sage,” I said.
We pull into the parking lot of a swimming pool and I inspect the carburetor. The engine was shaking, the pistons were all firing. I feared a bearing was jarred in the rear axle. Something you can’t fix on the side of the road.
“I still love your car,” Sage said.
“Gives you something to do.” said Sage. “Gives you something to fix.”
Sage and I pass the fence to the pool. Sage wore an American flag bikini. The sun refracted off her skin, and her freckles scrunched together when she smiled. Her body looked spirit-like after she emerged from the water.
“Does your boyfriend know that you’re here?” I asked.
“Of course he does.” Sage spread a towel down and laid on the grass. “He trusts me, you know.”
“I believe you,” I say.
Sage rolled onto her side. Her hands reach over and grasp my cheeks. She looks over the bruises I have from boxing. “You’re just a mess aren’t you?” Her right hand trails down my neck and caresses a scar on my chest with her finger.
“Tell me a story,” she said.
Chapter Seven: Headlights
Rain fell heavily as I walked in the downtown streets of Denver. Water rushed down through the gutters, carrying paper cups and cigarette butts as it funneled into a storm drain.I had stopped looking for Nicole in Mead and Longmont. I had covered so much ground that I needed to branch out my search to sites that were hours away by car.
Maybe I would find Nicole on Federal Avenue. Last week I had been here. A pile of clothes burned on a sidewalk during that visit, and pedestrians passed by without panic or apparent concern. There’s a hotel on Federal called “The Lucky U.” Women hung over the railings to observe clumps of clientele without names. Perhaps Nicole had found her way here.
A man leaned against the hood of his car as I zigzagged through the open corridors. His stare followed me as I zigzagged through the open corridors of “The Lucky U.” A stare so wide and penetrating that I thought at first that his eyelids had been cut off, leaving him with a perpetual penetrating stare.
A half naked woman called down to me, “I got what you’re looking for. Come on back… I got what you need.”
My phone rings, and Tina is on the other line. “How far have things gotten with Sage?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Things haven’t gone anywhere. Neither of us want to make the first move.”
Before this night I had imagined finding Nicole in a diner off of a highway. I imagined that I would find her sitting at a counter with a coffee in her hand on a star-filled evening. Something that Norman Rockwell would paint. I would ask her why she left. I’d tell her that she didn’t have to keep hiding if she didn’t want to.
Nicole wasn’t at “The Lucky U.”
I walked back to Federal. A woman was curled over on the sidewalk of an overpass with her face in her hands. A man was standing over her with his hand balled into a fist.
“Stop!” I yell to him.
The man puts his hand in his pocket, and I see something silver peek out from the pocket’s corner. “Not your business,” the man says.
The woman removes her hands, and I see that it is worn and rough like carpet. It’s not Nicole. I still hadn’t found her. Tears are streaming from the blue eyes of the woman. Cars are passing by, and their headlights gloss over us as though they too had heard the man. None of the cars stopped. I wanted to step in front of the cars, wave them down and do anything to make one stop help this woman. The cars continued to pass, and I stood under the glow of headlights.
I didn’t want to find Nicole after that night, but I never stopped looking.
Chapter Eight: I Need My Pain
I stood on the balcony of my new apartment. Cars were parked like pill boxes in the lot below. Fat drops of rain collected into small pools on the blacktop. Sage stood next to me. She had put on ruby lipstick, and a black dress.
In the room adjacent to the balcony, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was playing. In the movie, the Enterprise is taken over by a man who claims he’ll escort the crew to God. The man has one power which he uses to convince the crew. He can take away people’s pain.
Sage reached to my head and ran her hand through my hair.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“Don’t ask me that.” Sage takes away her hand and moves in closer. “Can’t we just be happy right now? Why must you always brood?”
I listen to the tv in the other room. I hear Dr. McCoy’s voice, “Jim, try to be open about this.”
“I don’t want my pain taken away,” Kirk retorts. “I need it. I need my pain.”
Sage leans over the railing. An owl is roosting on the tree, its large eye glare at me. I grab Sage’s hips and pull her back onto the center of the deck. Sage places her right hand on my shoulder, and her head on the other.
“See?” she says, “Isn’t this nice?”
I stopped wanting to be happy, or to make everything okay again. I pushed Sage away. I told her to go home. I ask her to leave because I’m not a broken thing she can fix. Because it’s better to be in pain. Because I can’t become anyone’s exotic flower.
About the Author:
Zac Pingle was born in Florida, and grew up in several places across the United States. From a young age, Zac developed a taste for writing, reading under trees and getting into trouble. Currently, Zac resides in Oregon as a college student where he aspires to become an English professor.