September 27, 1999
A dozen brittle oak leaves tumbled across the field like a pack of angry goblins, scattering in all directions when they reached my feet. I swung one leg over my red Schwinn cruiser and let it clatter to the ground.
“Isla!” I shouted a third time. Only the howling wind answered back. It whistled past my ears, icy, accusatory. You screwed up, kid, it said.
My sister’s matching blue Schwinn lay in the grass next to mine, the front wheel rotating languidly as if she’d just walked away. I stuck my foot out to stop the motion and glanced over the fence at Janelle’s house in the waning afternoon light. Had Isla gone there? Then I remembered it was Monday and Janelle would be at her dad’s while her mom worked the night shift at the hospital.
Janelle’s wasn’t the only darkened house on the block. The whole neighborhood had transformed into a bleak and blustery ghost town in the few minutes I’d been gone. Beyond the chain-link fence bordering the park, there was none of the usual after-work traffic; no cyclists or gangs of yelling kids. No barking dogs. No mothers calling their children home for dinner. At the park, even the graffitied Green Hut behind the ball diamond gave off a deserted air, having been boarded up for the season a month ago. Long chains holding toddler swings clinked in the wind. The only sign of life when I arrived, in fact, had been the blue Volkswagen Beetle disappearing around the corner at the end of Birch Street, which would later become a pivotal detail of the day. One I should’ve paid more attention to at the time. Instead, I stood, zombielike, next to our bikes, gawking at the empty park, willing Isla to materialize in front of me. When she didn’t, I pined for my mom. Or my dad. Anyone. Someone to rub my shoulder and reassure me that the dread building in my gut was unfounded, silly even. That there was a reasonable explanation for Isla’s absence. My heart told me otherwise.
When my gaze came around to the rickety fence at the back of the park, I shuddered. Behind the fence was the reason Isla and I had come to Pembina Park in the first place: the Maroon Mansion, looming large in a grove of scraggly oak trees like a cloaked stranger whose face you could not see but whose menace hung heavy in the air. A scruffy crow sitting on the fence squawked twice before twirling off into the wind. I cupped one hand around my mouth calling Isla a final time, shocked by the shrill, panicked noise leaving my mouth.
Don’t freak out. You’ve only been gone fifteen minutes.
Or a little longer. Eighteen, tops.
My attention turned to where I’d last seen my sister. Isla would never have abandoned our video camera—or her bike—without good reason. There they were, though, both of them; the camera still attached to the tripod, its lens wedged impossibly in the Schwinn’s rear spokes. Isla’s backpack sat upright and open on the other side of the park near a break in the fence. I imagined her crouching over it in her neon pink hoodie rummaging for notes from class with her long blond ponytail lashing about in the wind. I chuckled despite myself. We may have been identical on the outside, but even in my imagination, Isla was the neurotic one, making sure our video project followed the outline precisely. In my mind’s eye she suddenly turned to me and frowned. Asked me why I’d taken so long at home. I looked down at my twisted, aching, bulging wrist curled into my chest and cursed for the first time in my life.
When I looked up, she was gone.
And in the months and years that followed, I’d never stopped wondering if my decision to leave her that day had been the entire reason she’d disappeared.
Not at all, my family had said.
Perhaps, alleged the newspapers.
Probably, whispered the cruel girls at school.
Definitely, said my heart.