The first time Stace ran away, she was thirteen. I walked in on her when she was packing a bag. Folded clothes were on the bed beside her and I laughed at her for the organization. I told her people usually don’t neatly fold clothes and pack their hairbrush and deodorant. There’s more urgency to the whole endeavor, that’s why you call it ‘running’ away. She stared at me for a moment. Stace was taller than me by then and quieter too. A determination came from her that surprised me, though I thought then that it was her slight awe of me. I was fifteen and so world-wise. I didn’t know what to think when she lifted the bag and let everything she had folded so neatly fall out. I had to fight the urge to apologize and tell her to take whatever she needed. Even though I didn’t think she would really go, it upset me to see the empty bag. There was a vulnerability to it that made it hard to stay in the room. For a few minutes we stood staring at each other. The balance had shifted, but I didn’t understand her mockery then and she may not have either. It’s possible she wanted me to take her seriously. She might have made herself defenseless because she thought that was exactly what I wanted. She was the younger sister doing what she was told, yet there was defiance to her stance that made me doubt it. I shrugged and said something like, ‘you don’t have to listen to me’, or ‘you should do whatever you like’.
She was not in her bed the next morning. She’d taken the bag with some food, I suppose, and water, because nothing else was missing from her room. I don’t know why she ran away. I recall no fights between my parents and her, which didn’t mean much because my mother showed dissatisfaction through weeks of drawn-out uncomfortable silences and that drove Stace mad, so maybe it was to escape this, or our father might have been going through one of his drinking phases. I don’t remember but I remember their frantic reporting of her missing, the hours in the car looking, and the walks along the beach calling her name. I remember I was furious with her, for going through with it and not bringing any extra clothes and for being braver than I was. I remember my mother stayed by the phone in the hall. For hours or days she didn’t move and my parent’s friends Mira and Ennis were there. Mira brought my mother tea and wandered from one window to the next as if she might spot my sister running across the garden, as if my sister had not moved beyond the yard at all, though I would have been out with the men, in my father’s car, unable to bear the house and the still dread on my mother’s face. So I wouldn’t have seen Mira wander. I must have found her in a different room each time I came home. Eventually my sister was found huddled on the beach, or picked up at the bus station; I’m not sure, though I know Ennis found her.
I don’t think I hugged her. I don’t think anyone said anything at all. We were all in the hall, which was narrow and led to the kitchen in back, and it was dark, I remember the door opening to her face lit by the outside light and her hair hanging down in wet strands. I remember the silence when she came in and she kept walking up the stairs. Ennis followed her inside. There were murmurs of questions and thanks, the slamming bathroom door. The question why? The notion shared that she needed no reason, Stace was Stace, and I thought of the bag and the neatly folded clothes and I thought that the only reason was to show me, her older sister. I’d dared her and she’d accepted the challenge and maybe I thought her slightly crazy and maybe she frightened me a little for her lack of feeling for others.
I know there were times I hated my sister for what she did to us. I hated that I felt invisible. She ran away and then I was no longer present. I wandered around the rooms of our house like a ghost. I hated that whenever she was found or whenever she came back she did so quietly, like a prisoner entering a prison, a look of wretchedness on her face, an inability to meet our gaze, and always terribly hungry. I remember her standing at the counter scoffing sliced bread, taking no time to put anything between or on the slices. I could have called her an animal. I could have said that she was killing us with her disappearances, that each one erased us a little more. I could have asked her why she had to do it, but I was afraid that I might say something to set her off. No matter how angry I was, I never wanted her to leave. The mornings I saw Stace was gone, I would close her bedroom door and walk down the stairs and sit at the table for breakfast and my mother would look at my face and leave the room. Her tread up the stairs was always slow. I’d hear her open Stace’s door and then time would be sucked out of our house, the clock ticked and the sun moved across the sky but we were stuck in a bubble of waiting and not knowing. I would go to school to escape it. My parents would have to phone the principal. There was shame and helplessness. There were fights too, after a while, when we’d stopped looking for her, because we understood she’d come back when she was ready. No, that’s not true; we didn’t understand. We understood nothing of it, though I thought that our not looking was us being hopeful and positive. I thought we were saying she’s coming back but maybe we weren’t, maybe it was my parents giving up. My mother was not beyond blaming Stace for our father’s affair.
“He needed to find relief somewhere,” she said and the perverseness of that comment was not lost on us. Stace threw the plate she was drying at our mother. I remember the crash and my mother rushing towards Stace and pulling her hair. It was dark, a winter evening. I recall the blackness of the kitchen window bearing down on us. I imagined the emptiness of the square garden beyond it and the green after this and I would have loved to have had the courage to run out there. I didn’t stop my mother from going for Stace. Her rages never lasted long, one pull of Stace’s long fair hair and she would have been done. “It’s your fault,” she would have screamed.
Stace would not have made a sound. She would not have yelped or shouted or fought. She would have been a rag doll in my mother’s hands and the mockery would be impossible to overlook. You can’t hurt me, she was telling my mother.
At least I thought that then, back when I wished it was me yanking my sister’s hair. But now at twenty-three, I am not sure what her silence meant. She stayed in my apartment recently; my sister finally out of home for good, and there were endless nights when she puttered around the rooms. When she first arrived and I first heard her wandering I imagined she would soon grow tired of the small space and open the door and keep walking just as she did as a kid. I honestly didn’t know what I would have done if she had. Would I have tried to stop her? At first, I probably wouldn’t have. I believed she was trying to disrupt my life again. She was trying to make me invisible and I had been against her presence in my apartment.
Plus she was a near-stranger to me. If I knew my sister it was only in segments. As a child at home, she’d been quiet. She might have been louder in her best friend Evelyn’s house where she spent the majority of her time. Evelyn lived in the house next door. Her father taught acting and he appeared in various plays that my parents would go to and discuss afterwards, and I managed to avoid. Her mother was an artist, who flitted in and out of our house and never seemed able to sit still. She wore long flowing garments and had short hair and a small elfin body. Our houses were 11 miles from Dublin, 1 mile from the sea, red-bricked semi-detached houses with four bedrooms and three bathrooms.
The first time we found Stace’s room empty, I went with my mother to Evelyn’s. The frantic phone calls had not started yet. We weren’t worried, at least I wasn’t. I thought Stace was trying to show me her courage and I wanted to be there when she came to Evelyn’s door. I wanted to roll my eyes behind my mother’s back and mock her attempt. I think my mother was too angry to phone next door like we did when we wanted Stace home for dinner. Although it’s possible my mother started to dial the number and realized the strangeness, phoning at 7am, like it was any other day. She probably decided it would look better, more caring, if she made the effort to go in person. She worried what the neighbors thought.
Evelyn answered the door in her school uniform, her dark hair brushed back and she stared us down.
“She’s not here,” she said finally. Did my mother ask first? It’s possible she didn’t have to, though I believe the way Evelyn looked at us she wouldn’t have made it easy for us. She would have waited until my mother folded her arms in defiance and asked to see Stace.
“I don’t know where she is,” Evelyn said and I was thrown by the chill in her voice and her lack of surprise.
“What did she say to you?” my mother asked.
Evelyn shook her head, though I was sure it was taking all her effort not to answer that question. I was sure Stace had told her something. My mother stopped the door from closing with her hand. Her jaw was tight and the rage was coming off her like steam, though Evelyn at age 13 didn’t seem fazed. “Let me talk to Aine,” my mother said and without giving Evelyn time to answer, my mother shouted for Aine, who arrived in her nightgown, seconds after Evelyn had backed away from the door and walked the narrow hall to the kitchen. The hall was identical to ours except for the paintings on the wall and their stairs were on the left of the front door, ours on the right. I was aware that my mother didn’t step inside the house that we’d run in and out of for years. She stood outside the door and Aine was just as puzzled as I was. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. The sight of my mother raging at her door would have been confusing especially so early in the morning and I felt the start of my own disappearance at that doorway, watching the two women, while they took in each other.
“Would you like to come in?” Aine said, but not in her usual light tone. She’d pulled the nightgown around herself and crossed her arms.
“Is Stace here?” my mother asked.
Aine’s puzzlement turned harsher. She shook her head, not saying no, but her lips had parted. She had to have realized that my mother had asked Evelyn the exact same question and my mother hadn’t believed her and had grown irate and called for Aine.
“Why would she be here?” Aine said. Her tone was soft, but she’d chosen the words well and I felt my mother deflate beside me. Aine was not going to call Evelyn back and question her and she was not going to walk up the stairs to Evelyn’s room and search under the bed or in wardrobes.
“She’s not at home,” my mother said and I got a hint of how Stace’s disappearances would erode her. The force was gone. Aine said she was sorry. She said Stace could have gone for an early walk and she’d be back soon. Noises came from the kitchen. Evelyn slamming doors, getting her breakfast, and I had an urge to run by Aine and into her house, to crash around all their rooms screaming for Stace because I was sure with Aine’s lack of fear that she was there. “Let me know when she comes back,” Aine said.
When my mother didn’t move, Aine promised to get in touch if she saw her. The door closed and we stood there for a while. My mother was shaken, while I was confused because I had no idea what blame looked like then.
L. M. Brown has a master’s in creative writing from Emerson College. She is the author of the YA novel Debris. Her short story collection Treading The Uneven Road is forthcoming with Fomite Press. Her stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines such as Eclectica, Litro, Fiction Southeast, Every Day Fiction, and more.”The Question Why” is taken from her novel in progress titled Our Wandering.