by Cate Perry
I go back to the day I last saw Soren Engelsen the way one might revisit her childhood home, twisting the events over and back like a kaleidoscope, to change the picture forever. In our Tacoma cul-de-sac in 1984, there was no barrier between our families—no fence between our houses. We were oblivious, complacent in our belief that we could rely on tomorrow’s promise of life as usual.
My mother and I had been invited to the Engelsens’ July Fourth barbecue. While Soren pitched rocks into the creek that ran past our back yards, I sat crisscross applesauce with his older sister in the shade of their elm. I laid my half-threaded bracelet across my ankles, the alphabet beads spelling R-U-T-H. While Annika braided her clover stems, my clover crown hid in my head’s copper thicket. Annika’s hair would soon flow from underneath her crown like honey poured from a jar.
When the deck radio switched from Prince to Madonna, Mrs. Engelsen changed the station. Annika sighed. Ever since she turned thirteen, her breaths had turned to sighs. “My mom is such a prude.” She waited for me to give a sign of recognition. “Like a virgin?”
I shook my head.
“Never mind.” Annika rolled her eyes and smeared Coppertone over her legs.
I tried to take the sting out of her condescension by stealing glances at her brother, but that held a sting all its own. My fingers found the crystal I’d hidden under my blouse—the one Soren had given to me as a consolation for my not being allowed into his Quartz Crystal Club, on account of my being a girl. Soren swore me to secrecy when he gave me the crystal, a simple kindness that I took as a promise. That night, I had wrapped it a million times in string and hung it around my neck.
“What are you doing?” Annika asked.
Glancing from my reverie, I gave the first excuse that came to mind. “Looking for the ‘i’ bead.”
Annika shrugged. “Leave it the way it is. ‘Ruthie’ is a baby name.”
To Annika, this was a statement of fact, much the same way Soren had restricted me from his club. In only a matter of weeks, I was the same age as Soren, but suddenly the wrong gender. I was the right gender for Annika, but too young. With Annika’s first day of junior high looming, band posters suddenly covered her pink bedroom walls, makeup and perfume took the place of stuffed animals. She’d even starting sneaking to the ravine, where high schoolers partied and fooled around—a place strictly forbidden for a child like me.
I watched as Mr. Engelsen guided Soren’s arm and stopped at the point of release. Soren’s face bunched in concentration as he wound his arm. I rubbed the crystal between my fingers, like a talisman that could send Soren’s rock straight to the target.
Mr. Engelsen threw up his hands when the rock splashed a full foot away. “You waited too long!” He turned his face to the sky, as though asking the heavens why they’d sent him Soren instead of Cy Young.
Mr. Engelsen probably thought his son pulled his cap lower because of the sun, but I knew better. I ran my fingers over my necklace, yearning to console Soren, when suddenly the string was jerked from my neck.
“What’s this?” Annika swung the crystal like a hypnotist’s pocket watch until it caught the sunlight and shone rainbows all around.
I pulled myself onto my knees, reaching and missing, hoping their father’s exasperation was enough to keep Soren focused on pitching and far from the commotion under the elm. Finally, I threw myself back into the grass, and refused to react to Annika’s taunts, until she tossed the necklace into my lap and sat back down.
Hugging her knees, she murmured coyly, “He likes you, too. He told me to get you to meet him in the ravine. But you’re not allowed.” She pulled absently at tufts of grass. “He said he has something for you in his clubhouse.”
“What is it?”
She shrugged and adjusted her clover crown. “A surprise, I guess. He’s going to set up for his club early tomorrow morning. All alone…”
Without turning my head, I glanced over just as Soren threw a fastball that would finally have made his father proud, had he not been too busy flipping burgers to notice.
A thrill surged through me at the anticipation of morning, when I would break my mother’s rules and spend my first time alone with a boy. And Annika would never call me a baby again.
A mile away from our neighborhood, tree roots spread arthritic fingers from the ground, nature’s staircase leading into the dark woods below. I sidestepped crumpled potato chip bags and small square foil packages, open and empty, until the ground grew moist under the forested canopy.
The trees stood lonely without children to swarm the spaces between, hovering like ancient beasts whispering secrets in the breeze. Unseen birds trilled to one another. Squirrels spiraled up trunks. While the sun warmed the rest of the world, I shivered. The forest had swallowed me whole.
At the bottom, where a tributary of our creek flowed, I came upon a boulder spray-painted with graffiti that at once felt both seedy and safe. Phrases like “Sam was here” made me feel less alone. I perched on it, drew up my knees, and rested my cheek against them. Across the way, Soren’s clubhouse glowed under the streaming sun.
A blackberry bush across the creek began to twitch. My mother’s warnings about the ravine flashed through my mind. Surely Soren would appear any second and disappear into the clubhouse for my surprise.
When the sun finally began to wane and my stomach gurgled for dinner, I realized that there was no club meeting. None of the other boys had shown. Soren probably didn’t have a present for me at all.
Annika had proven me a gullible baby, once again.
Curled up on the couch, I stared numbly at the television until the doorbell rang. Annika stood on the porch in the evening’s warm glow, her legs long and lean in cut-off jeans. The breeze ruffled her peasant blouse and I thought of the blackberries swaying.
“Dad sent me to get Soren,” she mumbled. “It’s time for dinner.”
I stifled a smile. If I was going to get back at Annika, she sure was making it easy. “Why would he be here, Annie?”
She took a step forward and said, “Cut it out, Ruthie.”
I started to think maybe he really did have a club meeting that morning when I realized Annika was fishing to see my reaction to her trick, trying to prove me even more gullible by making me think he hadn’t come home. He was probably setting their dinner table as we spoke.
“After we spent all afternoon necking, I’m not sure where he went. I was…” I searched my mind for the most adult thing I could think of. “…like a virgin, you know?”
Annika rolled her eyes. “I’m so sure. I bet you never even went to the ravine.”
My mother’s Volkswagen Rabbit pulled into the driveway. I cringed to think of Annika relaying my lie to her. I still didn’t know what a virgin was, but I had a feeling that whatever it was would get me grounded for the rest of the summer.
Instead, Annika muttered, “Forget it,” and turned to leave. The way she was sticking to her story, I started to wonder if it wasn’t a story.
“I never saw him,” I said. “He never showed.”
Annika’s eyelids turned to slits. “Yeah, right. Don’t you dare tell your mom about this.”
I stood in the doorway pondering Annika’s parting words. Why would I tell my mother I’d broken the rules?
“Ready or not, here I come!”
I left Annika’s room, stomping down the hallway floor in an effort to mute her mother’s cries from downstairs. Two days had passed and Soren hadn’t returned. While Mrs. Engelsen phoned every number in town, Mr. Engelsen had left to post flyers. It was all I could do to distract Annika with a round of hide-and-seek. I thought she’d chide me for suggesting a baby game, but somehow it provided comfort. Win or lose, someone always turned up in the end.
While my insides roiled over Soren’s disappearance, Annika refused to talk about it. What really threw me was why the police were searching Soren’s friend’s neighborhood when they should have been searching the ravine.
I looked for Annika under the staircase, behind the sofa, in the bathroom. At the kitchen door, I listened to Mrs. Engelsen argue with the police that her son had not run away until she slammed the phone down. She took up a broom and started to sweep angry, violent strokes across the floor. I backed away and up the stairs to a now off-limits room.
I sank my bare feet into the plush, light blue carpet and listened to the rain smacking the window. Soren’s dirty clothes lay wadded around the hamper, where I imagined he’d tried to pitch them from across the room. Little League trophies cluttered his dresser. A bookshelf held the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records, baseball cards, Transformers, and quartz crystal. In his bed, twisted in the sheets as though she could shape-shift into the boy who belonged there, was Annika.
“Annie?” I said meekly from the doorway. “We need to tell your mom. The police are searching the wrong area.”
Annika sprang up, her tangled, unwashed hair turned from honey to molasses. “Get real, Ruthie. They’ll search the whole town.”
My toes gripped the shag carpet as I tried to understand where I’d gone wrong. “But you were the one who—”
“Are you saying this is my fault?”
I shrank under the increasing volume of Annika’s voice and the quickening swishes of Mrs. Engelsen’s broom as she worked her way up the stairs. She’d been clear Soren’s room was to remain untouched.
Annika unwound herself from the sheets and started toward me. “It’s your fault Soren was in the ravine, you little slut, so you tell her.”
I turned and ran smack into Mrs. Engelsen.
She leaned against the doorframe, gripping her broom. Her hair hung limp and lifeless. Her bloodshot gaze fixed on me like a haunting, monotone hum. “You kept this from us? From the police?”
Dazed, I stood there wondering why Annika would accuse me of a plan she’d hatched in the first place, but at least the truth was out. Now they could find Soren.
“The ravine?” Mrs. Engelsen’s voice was sharp now, her red-rimmed eyes glowing dark.
I looked away until Mrs. Engelsen took up her broom and rushed at me, shrieking.
Police searched the ravine, but the record rainfall had sent torrents down the crevice, flushing out any possible traces. It seemed even Soren’s bicycle had been swept away.
Annika became as much a ghost to me as her brother, not simply because I’d been banned from their house, but because her parents kept her locked inside to ensure they didn’t lose both children. Gradually, they turned their old Victorian into a fortress, starting with a wrought iron fence. A Rottweiler. Home alarm system. Sometimes I wondered, if anyone did break in, how would the Engelsens get out?
Worse, when Soren came home, how would he get in?
As police unraveled the KEEP OUT tape, authorities throughout the county warned parents to watch their kids and not to let them near the ravine. Low on cash, my mother had little she could do to keep me safe. During her work hours, I became a shut-in, watching television while clipping news articles about what they now called an “abduction” case.
I scoured the news for other kidnappings and clues. My cheeks burned when articles mentioned he’d gone there to meet a friend. They never used my name, but word had gotten around that it was at my invitation Soren had been lured to the woods. When I crossed paths with classmates in department stores or the park, whispers floated of my part in his disappearance. I took every word as truth. Each snub became a penance.
On the first day of sixth grade, I arrived at the bus stop early, hoping to catch Annika before she boarded hers for Tacoma Junior High. We hadn’t spoken for over a month. As I waited for the bus to huff around the corner, I peered at the Engelsen house for some sign of life. The shades were all drawn.
Then I glimpsed a movement up the street. She was dressed in Mr. Engelsen’s old army jacket — the same one Soren had worn when he played G.I. Joe. Her hair hung in straggles over her shoulders and she held up her thumb for a ride. Mother had warned me about hitchhiking, told me about the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy. Annika didn’t need news stories to know the risk she was taking. The empty bedroom across the hall from hers set more than enough of an example.
I waved and held up my hands to ask, “Why?”
Thumb still in the air, Annika put her other hand to her mouth and raised her index finger to keep me quiet — her silent accomplice, once again.
At school, I’d expected to find a desk left empty for Soren. Part of me had expected to find him sitting there, giving fives to his friends, sneaking secret smiles at me.
The teacher towered over us in a tweed blazer. As he pointed to the list of class rules, he seemed to pick up on our shell-shocked silence. He leaned against his desk and asked how it felt without Soren there. A couple students started to cry. Others stole glances at me, daring me to speak. I didn’t.
While my classmates’ shunning couldn’t come close to whatever nightmare Soren was living, in my own small way, I too felt isolated, trapped, helpless. I built a connection to Soren through routine. Meditating, I willed Soren alive by conjuring images where he’d gotten lost or had run away. In the evening, I cleansed my crystal in the creek and slept with it under my pillow, lit candles and wished on stars, prayed. I knew if I neglected so much as one ritual, Soren was as good as dead.
One night, I aimed a flashlight out my bedroom window and into Annika’s, clicking it on and off like a strobe. No response. She probably wasn’t even there. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Engelsen had been so absorbed in finding their son, it didn’t take much for their daughter to sneak out.
I turned off my flashlight and pressed my forehead against the cool glass, watched my breath make clouds on its surface, then turned my attention to the stars. There was one in particular that gleamed just north of the Engelsens’ house. On my knees, I begged it to bring him home, bring him home, bring him home.
That spring, Soren’s baseball team won the league by five games. I sat on the second bleacher keeping track, gripping my crystal charm until my palms showed grooves. The team would have ranked higher had Soren been there to pitch.
The following year, adults around us began to deem Soren-related fundraisers and dedications first morbid, then moot. It took me months to convince our science teacher to have our class plant a sapling for Soren. The newspaper took a picture and published a small article in the back community pages. I stood behind the baby tree, the outline of my training bra showing through a white T-shirt. The sapling was no higher than a weed at my shin.
Soren missed getting his junior high school locker. His missing person posters showed updated sketches of what he might have looked like at age thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. While his eyes remained brown and his hair short and dark, his round face became squared off by cheek and jawbones. I traced them with my fingertip, imagining his smooth, just-shaven chin and the lingering scent of aftershave. My chest thudded the familiar, heavy ache.
Between softball games, homework, orthodontist appointments, work shifts, I nurtured Soren’s sapling until, by the time we entered high school, it reached my shoulder. I continued flashing my flashlight at Annika’s bedroom window, to no avail. I ventured into the ravine when my mother was at work, looking for both clues and crystals, only ever finding the latter. I scattered them along the trail like breadcrumbs and, once home, reached my hand through the Engelsens’ iron fence and dropped them in a pile under the elm.
Four yearbook pictures were taken without Soren. He missed his first high school dance. He would have gotten his first job at Jimmy’s Diner. He would have lettered in baseball.
He would have asked me to the homecoming dance.
I would have said, “Yes.”
One afternoon of my sophomore year, I came home from softball practice, jogged upstairs, and threw myself down on my bed. Lying on my stomach, I kicked off my shoes and pulled the rubber band from my ponytail—still wet from my locker room shower—and worked my fingers through the tangles. Since my mother was still at work, I had the house to myself. I picked up the prom edition of Seventeen magazine from the nightstand and rolled onto my stomach to flip through it.
Something smacked my bedroom window.
I ducked my head into the pillow. My heart thumped against the mattress and thoughts spun like a roulette wheel.
Another crack against the window.
I took up my pillow as a shield, rolled onto the floor, crawled across the room, and put just enough of my face to the glass so that one eye could peer into the dusk.
Framed in her bedroom window, I could just make out Annika’s makeup-spackled eyes. The glass rattled as I pushed the window open, careful to stay low. Sure enough, an object flew through and clattered across the floor. I did an army crawl along the cool hardwood, clamped it in my hand, and reached beside my desk for a large pad of paper and a marker. I didn’t have to look at the object to know it was a crystal I’d left under the elm.
I scrawled a message across the paper and crouched low as I lifted it to the open window. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
“Stand up so I can see you!” Annika shouted. Her voice sounded lower than I remembered it, and gravelly.
I wrote another message. “IS THIS A TRICK?”
“They’re having a memorial service for Soren!”
I got up on my knees, the way I had years prior as I wished on that useless star. My lungs squeezed shut. The Engelsens had given up. I was the only one left who still believed.
“Mom and Dad want closure,” Annika continued. “They say it’ll be good for us. It’s this Saturday. I want you there.”
My breath caught. The last time we spoke, she’d accused me of luring Soren to his abduction—in her mind, his death. Did she want to make her accusation public?
“Am I allowed at your house again?”
The roll of her eyes was at once familiar. “Come with your mom. They won’t want to cause a scene.” Annika punctuated her statement by closing her window and pulling the shades.
I remained at my window for some time, my elbows on the wooden sill. For the first time since Soren had gone missing, Annika was mine again.
Taking my seat in the back row of lawn chairs, I decided Mother Nature knew exactly what she was doing. Why rain when the person being mourned wasn’t dead? The sun was her way of telling the congregation, “Lighten up!” Robins and sparrows darting from branch to branch trilled, “Stop wasting time! He’s out there to be found!”
People gathered at various corners of the yard. My mother stood at the far end, staring tiredly into the ripples of the creek. Soren’s grandparents and cousins circled under the elm, answering questions from a local reporter. The national news had lost interest in Soren years before.
I would have one more article to clip from the newspaper in the morning focusing on the Engelsens’ closure and Soren’s too-short life. I felt like an atheist at Easter mass, my insides screaming a boiling kettle-type, non-stop shriek. This ceremony had nothing to do with closure and everything to do with giving up.
I felt for my crystal, my own crucifix to fit my own dogma. I believe in Soren Engelsen, that he lived, that he lives, that he will live long into old age, so long as we continue the search to find him. Amen.
Finally, Mr. Engelsen stepped through his back door and onto the lawn. The past four years aged him by thirty—his brown hair now gray, his skin creased and drawn as worn leather. When he scanned the guests, I saw his jaws clench the same way they did after Soren pitched any given rock that last Fourth of July, although his eyes were changed. Where they squinted in search of fault that summer day, now they seemed to look to something in the far distance that only he could see. How many times had he looked out his own bedroom window making deals with God, Mother Mary, Jesus, Allah, even the devil himself, that if they’d just give him a do-over, he’d embrace his son, encourage him, guide him through life?
As Mr. Engelsen took his seat, his wife emerged from the house, followed by Annika. About every other step, one of Mrs. Engelsen’s high heels sank into the soft soil beneath the lawn, causing her to stumble. Annika looked so frail, even her eyes shone pale as crusted snow. Her jaw was set like her father’s as she shuffled to the front row. For someone who wanted me there, she had little interest in finding me in the crowd.
As the minister began talking about the mysteries of God’s will, I lost his voice under the gurgling creek—shallower than it was that Fourth of July—passing over the same stones Soren had thrown into its rocky bed.
Mrs. Engelsen rose and took uneven steps to the podium to give her eulogy. She kept her sunglasses on as she recited memories about the kind of boy Soren had been—sweet, funny, full of energy. She lifted a kerchief to her nose. “I blamed so many people over the years.”
My throat instantly closed, ears buzzed, muscles tensed.
“I blamed Soren’s friends, neighbors, the police, even God. I blamed my husband for choosing to live in this house, this town. But I never should have let my little boy out of the house that day…” The word trailed into a wail.
Mr. Engelsen joined his wife. “That’s enough,” he directed, put his arm around her, and guided her back to their seats.
Annika quietly rose and took the stage. She hadn’t said she’d be speaking. I felt for my necklace.
“Soren wasn’t the little angel everyone saw on their milk cartons,” Annika said. “He copied me and got way more toys. He snuck into my room and stripped my Barbie dolls.”
The congregation chuckled nervously while Annika’s parents exchanged looks.
“All Soren ever talked about was baseball, his best friend, and his stupid rock collection.”
Ever in control, Mr. Engelsen strode back to the podium and took Annika by the arm. “This is Soren’s day.”
Annika pushed him away and stood gaping. “Soren’s day? What day hasn’t been Soren’s day?”
If my crystal hadn’t been worn down from years of rubbing, it would certainly have cut into my hand the way I clenched it. The crowd murmured and eyes met to question whether to stay or to leave. Which was in worse taste: walking out in the middle of a memorial service or watching it fall apart?
“Could you at least tone it down?” he asked. Her eyes locked on mine. We both knew she wouldn’t.
“So one day,” she continued, “I decided if he wanted to be with his rocks so much, I’d help him out. Soren’s club had planned to meet at his friend’s house, but I told him Stuart had called and changed plans to meet in the ravine. I thought it would be funny. Maybe then he’d leave me alone.”
I gasped. Annika hadn’t told Soren he was going to meet me in the ravine. He had no idea I’d been waiting for him. I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to hear that she had used the ravine to get rid of us both.
Annika studied her hands. Then she looked directly at me.
“It was supposed to be funny,” Annika continued. “A joke, you know? We’d laugh about it someday.” Annika’s raspy voice broke. “How was I supposed to know he wouldn’t come back?”
Every eyelid in the yard blinked tears, nostrils sniffled, a box of tissues travelled around like a collection plate.
“It’s my fault we lost Soren,” Annika said. “God knows what he went through.” Then, she bolted out the open iron gate. Mrs. Engelsen tried to follow, but her heels staked her to the ground. I watched as Mr. Engelsen sat in his chair, arms folded, shoulders shaking. In all the years I’d known him, I’d never seen him cry.
I jumped from my seat and raced past Annika’s mother, telling her I’d find her daughter.
It was the least I could do.
Up the street, left at the stop sign, I kept my distance as Annika stumbled along, wiping a sleeve across her eyes. She never looked back, although I had a feeling this was what she’d meant about needing me there.
When we reached the ravine, Annika picked up her pace. She zigged and zagged, as though she could lose me just by weaving through the trees. The sun shone through empty patches in the branches, spotlighting the crystals I’d placed along the path.
Twigs snapped beneath us, the thump, thump of our feet echoing through the woods as we leapt over fallen branches, splashed through puddles, ran past trees, ferns, the spray-painted boulder, the dilapidated clubhouse, the tributary at the bottom, and up the other side when Annika tripped on a root and fell face-first into the blackberry vines.
A slow wail began deep from her core, then rose into the sky. Leaves rustled with birds taking flight. I knelt beside her and saw her head, an arm, an ankle, all wrapped in vines. Blood ran in the same zig-zags Annika had been weaving moments before. My pulse beat in my ears.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying my best to soothe her as I gently unwrapped a vine from her ankle. Annika’s tears flowed silently now, mixing with the blood running down one temple into her hair. “It’s okay,” I breathed, desperate to have us both believe it. Her eyes followed my necklace, dangling above her.
“He really did like you,” she breathed. “It wasn’t a trick. I wanted you to be his first kiss.”
Annika wept as I unwound a vine from her arm. While her parents cried at the memorial’s aftermath, realizing they’d lost both children to different extents, Annika grieved the loss of the boy she knew as her brother. Soren’s old friends and club members mourned their playmate. But all this time I’d been struggling to bring back something Soren and I had never had a chance to begin.
When Annika’s eyebrows drew together in worry, I shook off my thoughts and continued working out the thorns. “I just want you back.”
But then, a twinkling in the thicket, clear as crystal, reflected the sun. Thorns scratched my hand as I moved some vines aside. It was plastic, attached to a metal bar, which ran down to a rusty chain, pedals, cheap rubber wheels, worn down and torn. This time, the wail came from me.
“What is it?” Annika turned to look.
I shook my head. How could I tell her what I saw? How could I not?
Light streaming through the canopy reflected off the plastic. All the time I’d insisted Soren was alive came to nothing as I studied the bicycle’s decay. There it was—visible, tangible, real. Whether it had been there all along or the kidnapper had hidden it here long after, I knew that Soren was gone for good.
I sat in silence, wondering how I would keep it together as Annika fell apart. Yet, when I looked down on her, I saw an expression I hadn’t seen on her face since childhood. The bike wasn’t an omen to her at all. It was a sign.
She sat up, crisscross applesauce before me. I knelt closer to her and closed my eyes. I saw Soren in his orange Little League uniform, pitching rocks into the creek. I took the pendant from my neck and watched him wind up, find his target, and just before he released, I took Annika’s hand and placed the crystal in her palm, so that we could all let go together.
Cate Perry has a B.A. in English Literature and a Masters in Education. She has taught English for over twenty years and work as a developmental editor for Andrea Hurst and Associates. She is an alumna of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and has worked as an agent liaison for the Chuckanut Writers Conference. She was published in Bernie Siegel’s The Book of Miracles and she was a top ten finalist for the 2015 Ink & Insights Writing Contest and a Judge’s Favorite in the 2018 Ink & Insights Writing Contest.