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Providence, Page 2

Caroline Kepnes


  They can’t find Jon. When he wasn’t here, they called his mom and she said he wasn’t home sick. She came to school, his dad too, and the whole school started to buzz. In that sick way, like when Kitty Miller got leukemia. People get excited about horrible things happening when they’re not happening to them. I’m no better, I remember staring at Kitty, wondering what it was like to be her, as if she was a painting and you were allowed to gawk at it.

  Kitty was loved, people made cards for her. With this situation, people are acting like it’s news, like it’s exciting, that Jon kid might be missing. The day is halfway over and he’s not at school. He’s not at home. He’s not at the movies and he’s not at the mall, but did they look in all the right places? Most kids who run away would go to a packie and rip off beers, get messed up and then go to Rolling Jack’s and try out new hockey sticks. But Jon would never do that.

  I told them to start in the woods, I told them how he takes a weird way to school. I didn’t mention why. It’s a hard thing, wanting to find him but also not wanting to look at a cop and be like, Jon had to take the long way through the woods because he was getting picked on at the bus stop. I think the cops get it anyway though. They’re searching, but they still haven’t found him. I wish the school day would end because when it does I’m going to the shed.

  I don’t like the way everyone assumes the news is gonna be bad, they act like he’s already dead. Like if he’s not at the movies and he’s not at the mall and he’s not in the woods, then where could he be? You can feel what it would be like if someone else disappeared. Someone like me or Carrig. Someone people love. Jon Bronson was not loved when he was here and so he’s not loved when he is gone. It’s nobody’s fault. It just is.

  At free period, Noelle and Marlene and I meet up at our round table in the library. It feels wrong, acting like Jon isn’t missing. He says things to me, things that don’t count when they come from your mom, your dad. He thinks I’m special. I sent him a filtered picture of the floats in New York last week and he was so impressed. I laughed it off. It’s not me, it’s the filter. He was so serious. No, it is you. You used the right filter, framed them just right. Jon is my champion. That person who sees more than what’s there. I sent the same picture to Marlene and Noelle and they just sent back heart emojis. And you need that too, people who don’t put you on a pedestal. Everything between Jon and me is a secret. He wouldn’t leave without telling me.

  When I say this, Marlene and Noelle look at their phones.

  “He’s fine,” Noelle says. “You need to chill.”

  Marlene says it’s weird he didn’t text me. “Is he mad at you about that thing with the frog picture?”

  Noelle snaps at her. “Leave it alone.”

  The frog picture. The thing I’ve tried so hard not to think about all day. A few days before the Thanksgiving break, Jon brought this old stuffed animal to the shed, this frog, this soft green thing he loved as a baby. There was something painfully vulnerable about the whole moment.

  “There,” he said. “Shed sweet shed.”

  The frog was up there like taxidermy, as if this was a home, Jon’s way of pushing us together. My heart was pounding. He was reading this book about Marshmallow Fluff and talking about the history of fluff, the machines, the secrecy surrounding the recipe. I couldn’t process his words. I couldn’t take my eyes off that frog. Is this what I want? We’ve never hooked up. Not even a kiss. Jon was reading a passage from his fluff book out loud and I was taking pictures of that frog. I put one up online. I knew what I was doing. It was a dog whistle to Carrig.

  Within a few minutes Carrig was at the shed, pounding on the door. Chloe, lose that faggot and come hang with us.

  Carrig was with Penguin, saying terrible things about Jon. And then Carrig’s BB gun went off. A single pop. No one was hurt. Nothing was hit. It didn’t matter though.

  “You gotta go,” Jon said. “Don’t worry about me, they just want you.”

  Now he’s missing and this is the world without him.

  Noelle shakes her head. “And what were you supposed to do?” she says. “Sit there with him until Carrig tore the walls down? Chloe, that whole thing has nothing to do with this.”

  I nod. Noelle is naturally authoritative. She says things and you believe them even if you don’t. “I know,” I say. “I just hope Jon didn’t run away.”

  Marlene shakes her head. “He didn’t,” she says. “I mean, that kid would never leave you, right?”

  On we go, a dark version of a normal day. Noelle digs up terrible facts, the odds of Jon being dead. She chews on her Dartmouth pen. Everything, everyone, reminds me of Jon. I look at Noelle, I remember telling Jon she hates The Middle. He said a sense of humor is like a sense of smell. Some people don’t have one. See, that’s why I miss him, why he’s the best. He’s funny. He gets it. What other kid, what other boy, would like The Middle? He says it’s great because all the Hecks are smart and stupid at the same time. He says most other shows make you be one or the other.

  “Shit,” Marlene says. Her laces are tangled. That’s Marlene in a nutshell. She cares about what’s happening in front of her face, the laces on her shoes, the tennis balls on the court. It would be insane of me to expect her to be the kind of friend who cries with you. And the same is true of Noelle, Noelle and her Dartmouth pen and her class rank. They’re both very intense. Jon is more like me, his heart spreads out in the stupidest ways. He cares about things easily, things that don’t matter to anyone else, the history of the Marshmallow Fluff in his sandwiches, the class hamster.

  “Listen to what Penguin just put on Snapchat,” Noelle says.

  Ugh. Penguin. Again I’m thinking of that night, the green frog beating in my mind like a slimy heart, the white and black of Penguin’s trademark Bruins jersey, Carrig’s scent, gunpowder, sweat.

  Noelle drones on and what if Jon is here, in the library, crouched in the stacks and listening? What if he can see this, us being normal? Talking about Penguin, who is just a loser, he’d never move to New York like Jon and I will. Jon.

  I remember in fifth grade, I told him how Noelle said I was pretty but not slutty pretty and he said I’m pretty pretty. But then he never said it again. And that’s when things felt settled or something, like we were just friends. And I was young, I was fine with it. Noelle and Marlene and I were all young for our age, hunched over our bagged lunches, no idea how to talk to boys, and here we are years later, still no idea, the way Noelle gushes about Penguin. I squeeze my milk carton. I miss Jon. And he is missing. Is this real? Noelle winks at me calm down and Marlene pushes my milk carton with her ruler. They’re not bad people, they just don’t get it.

  “Sorry,” I say, shaky. “I’m just in shock.”

  Noelle sighs. “You can’t act like this is your thing, C. You guys are buddies but you scribble Chloe Birkus all over your diary and I know you hang with those guys at Forty Steps.”

  My cheeks turn red. It’s true. I hate that it’s true. I hate that she can be mean and cold and right all at once. “Anyway,” I say. “What did Penguin say?”

  “Well,” she says, all gossipy. “Penguin’s dad’s a cop and he told Penguin’s mom that Jon’s parents told the cops that Jon was sleeping in bed with the hamster.” Marlene shakes her head. “I’m gonna pee.”

  When she’s gone, it’s just me and Noelle, like it was when we were little, before Marlene moved here and made us into three best friends instead of two. Noelle clicks her pen. “Chloe,” she says. “Does Jon really sleep with the hamster?”

  It’s not a fair question. Jon loves Pedro. Carrig’s family has a golden retriever. Nobody makes fun of him. You can love a dog, you can’t love a hamster. I shrug. “No idea,” I say. “Why?”

  All day I am more aware of how close Jon and I are. He has nobody but me. Nobody knows him like I do and there’s this pressure
building every hour that he doesn’t show up. The bell rings. Noelle pops her pen. “Hey,” she says. “You know I’m only giving you a hard time because I know everything is gonna be okay. For the most part, everything is always okay. Your little friend is probably at Tenley’s having a frappe.”

  I think of the red and white stripes on the Tenley’s straws, the awnings. Jon likes it there. A lot of kids think it’s for babies and old ladies. Every time you go, you hear “You Got It All” by The Jets at least twice. My mom always looks around. Didn’t they just play this? Jon loves that song, the video too, it’s all frappes and puffy clouds, sweet things, Jon things. When Marlene comes rushing back to grab her books, late, same as always, when we’re walking down the hall, talking about nothing, it feels like Noelle is right, like everything will be okay.

  After school I take the bus and get off at the stop closest to Mrs. Curry’s. I sneak through the woods and I run. I want him to be in the shed, he has to be in the shed.

  I knock on the door. “Jon?”

  He doesn’t answer, but then he knows I never knock. I remember this morning, the policeman asking me who else he could talk to about Jon, other kids.

  “No one,” I said. “Just me.”

  I open the door, but Jon’s not there.


  For weeks I harassed my mother about these bright white boots I found online. Jon knew about them. I showed him a picture.

  And what will happen after you get these magic boots?

  I’ll wear them and I’ll be happy.

  And then what?

  We were on the floor of the shed. It was a few days before Thanksgiving break. We were watching The Middle and talking about nothing. The question haunted me. And then what? I didn’t have an answer then. I don’t have an answer now.

  The day before he disappeared, he sent me an article from the Telegraph, a meteorologist predicting less snow this winter. Show your mom and she’ll get you the boots, he said. My mom broke down last night when she overheard me crying. So now the boots have arrived.

  “This is a mistake,” she says. “These boots will help for a minute and then they will only hurt you. They’ll only remind you of this mess.”

  “You think he’s gone, don’t you?”

  She doesn’t answer me. We’re both picturing the same thing, Jon dead.

  She breaks the silence. “You better hurry.”

  We’re going on a search party. It’s Day Five and Jon is out there, who knows where. I feel the reflexive spike of adrenaline as I tear into the brown box, the scent of new shoes, the pleasing pink tissue paper, the shiny sticker, how easily it gives. The boots are as pictured, impractical, but I wanted them, and when your best friend disappears, you get what you want in other ways, lesser ways.

  * * *


  We haven’t even started walking yet and I’m pretty sure I have a blister. The police are here, some people from town I don’t know, some kids. The Girl Scouts made little sustenance brown bags, cookies and nuts and bottles of water so small you can down them in one gulp. Rolling Jack’s donated hand warmers. I heard a kid from my algebra class say he only came for the free stuff. But people often say things like that to deal with their own fear. At least, I hope that’s true.

  Noelle glares at the boots as soon as she sees me. “Jesus,” she says. “Are those the ones you showed me online?”

  I wish I hadn’t shown them to her. I wish the cop who heard her say that knew that I showed them to her before Jon disappeared. “Yes,” I say. “Is Marlene here yet?”

  Noelle rubs her hands together. “No,” she says. “But there’s a van from Channel 5.”

  The cop is young and he touches his holster a lot. His cheeks are red from the cold, from being young. “You’re the friend, right?”

  Noelle locks her arm through mine, proving that she wants in on the drama, any drama, all drama. “We’re the friends, Officer. I’m her best friend and Jon was like…well, we’re the best friends.”

  He nods. “Are you expecting more people?” he asks.

  And then they both look at me, Noelle and the cop. And other people too, Jon’s parents, his crying, chain-smoking mom, his sad, drinking dad, the lonely girl from my gym class, the foster kid who shows up at school before the doors open, a couple other parents—they must know Jon’s parents. It’s a horrifyingly small group and I look down at my white boots.

  My mother steps forward, I forgot she was here. “Officer,” she says. “I can hold down the fort and follow with all the latecomers.”

  * * *


  In the movies, when you see people searching for the missing kid, there’s a wall of people. Their voices overlap and you get this sense that even if it’s not today, someday they will find the kid. We are the opposite of that. We’re a thin crowd, uneven. Jon’s mom is crying and she fights with the cops a lot. I swore there was something up that tree, the birch tree back there. You didn’t see the guy in that house? The split-level? The peeling paint? You don’t think he was a weirdo? Who sees this happening and closes their blinds? Can’t you send someone over to talk to him? There are so few of us that you can’t have a private conversation. There’s no din where it’s okay for me and Noelle to talk about random things. But we’re just big enough and spread out to the point where we can’t have one conversation as a group.

  Officer Young Gun leads the way with his flashlight and his megaphone. Jon’s dad is full-on drunk and he sings. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America. The more we walk, the more he drinks, the less sense it makes, the more it feels like this is a dead end.

  At some point I don’t fight the tears. Noelle squeezes my arm. “It’s okay, birdie,” she says. She hasn’t called me that since we were little kids, and it isn’t okay and I’m not birdie and I’m crying because we can’t find Jon, because my ankles are bleeding, because the blood is going to soak through the white leather, because the brain is a horrible thing, how much it can hold. My mother was right. The boots were a mistake.

  When we get back to the shed, my mom is sitting there with her Kindle. She shoves it into her bag and fixes her hair like a married woman who was caught making out with the real estate agent.

  “No one else showed up,” she says. “Did you have any luck?”

  The news team is still there. Only one van stayed. My mom says they want to talk to me, and they have a camera with a bright light. The guy has the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen, whiter than my boots. He asks me about our search and I open my mouth to answer but he winces. Can you step three feet to the right? We need to fake a crowd. It’s just better that way.

  * * *


  At home I bury my boots in the back of my closet near my old dance recital costumes. I soak my feet in the bathtub and think about all those stupid things I said to the TV man. They asked me to talk to Jon in case he can hear me and I looked into the camera and smiled.

  “Jon,” I said. “One thing you don’t have to worry about is the Telegraph. I’m saving them all for you, even the circulars and the coupons. And of course I have the comics.”

  I smiled. As if I was so afraid for people to know how sad I am. As if crying is something I can only do here, in the bathtub over my poor bloody ankles. When I get out and go back to my room, I can tell my mother was there. There’s a brand-new box of Band-Aids on my bed. She’s folded over the sheets like she did when I was little.

  There are no more tears left in me right now, and I pick up my phone but I don’t have many pictures of Jon. He hated having his picture taken.


  I sneak down the hall to my mother’s office and steal one of her yellow legal pads. Back in my room, I lock my door. I hide under the covers with a flashlight. I try to draw his face. To re-create it right here, to make it as close to the real t
hing as possible, the same size, a head only slightly bigger than my own. I can see him in my mind, the feeling in his eyes. But I can’t make it, I’m not good enough with a pencil, a pen. My bloody ankles don’t hold a candle to this frustration, the boiling rage inside of me when I review my pathetic scratches on the tear-soaked yellow paper. My drawings don’t match the inside of my mind, my heart.

  The next day there’s a brand-new callus on my finger. I stroke it with my thumb. It’s soothing and I want it to deepen. I don’t get out of bed to get ready for school. I pick up the legal pad and start drawing again.


  I get up extra early every morning to draw Jon’s initials on my neck or my collarbone or my wrist and then I go outside, I pick up the Telegraph and pull it out of the plastic sleeve and smooth it out before I add it to the stack in my room. My parents don’t like any of it, the papers, the fake tattoo. I wish I could get a real one. I want a permanent mark on my body. I hate the way people are already forgetting that he was here.

  I want people to know that I miss him, that I love him, that it’s wrong to carry on. They didn’t shed a tear for Jon—shed—and every day I try to make them all squirm. I chopped my hair into jagged, uneven strips. I stopped shaving my legs, my armpits. I wear chunky black eyeliner and these stiff, bell-bottom fireproof jeans. The day those jeans arrived, my mom pulled at her hair. None of this will bring him back.

  I hate when people say that. Obviously I know this won’t bring him back. I realize that cutting my hair won’t alter the course of the universe. But I do these things because if and when he does come back, he’s going to see how much I miss him. It’s all proof. He will gasp, Chloe, is that you? I want to look like a different person because I am a different person. And when we hug, I’ll be that person that feels like home again, that person I was with him, that person I can’t seem to be without him. I bought the fluff book. I can’t get into it, it’s not the same without his take on it, all fired up.