The following is an excerpt from Rachel Harrison’s novel The Return, available now.
It was around then that it really started to eat at me, in a way I could no longer control. What if something had gone wrong? An unsettling amount of time had passed. What if she was chained up in some cult leader’s basement, carving notches into the wall to mark the passing days, subsisting on pastelike oatmeal and brownish water and the occasional kindness from Mr. Discount Koresh, who was crazy but conflicted?
Children are taken from sidewalks. Plucked from bus stops by strangers in old, unassuming station wagons. You read stories. Ones that turn your eyes into magnets. It’s almost like it’s against your will, or that’s what you want to believe. You don’t want to admit that you’re interested. That you want to know about the duct tape or the DNA evidence found in the trunk of the car when it turns up months later, even though the kid never does.
Women are kidnapped in parking garages, at Laundromats, from their beds, while out for their morning runs. It happens all the time. Taken by men who feel a sense of entitlement, a right to female bodies. Men who were dropped on their heads as babies or raised by mommie dearest.
Julie wouldn’t have gone quietly. Julie would have screamed, thrashed around, bitten, scratched, gouged. Julie would have made things bloody. She wouldn’t have vanished without a trace.
But she had. They never found anything. Not a scrap of clothing. Not a scent. Not a single witness.
Had she been abducted by aliens? Would I turn into one of those conspiracy theorists who put newspapers over the windows and hissed at the mailman?
Would I take the case into my own hands? Buy a corkboard and a bunch of red yarn from a craft store, stand in line at checkout among the disgruntled parents helping with science projects or costumes for the school play? Would I print out a map of Acadia State Park at a FedEx Office? Pay the extra few bucks for color? Tack it to my wall and stare at it, waiting for clarity?
My friends thought I was in denial. They discussed it together and confronted me separately.
“I don’t know if you’re dealing with it well or not dealing with it at all,” Mae said.
“You have to accept the reality of the situation.” Molly said.
“I hear you,” I said, an acknowledgment to get them off my back. I lied and told them I would look into therapy.
I didn’t need therapy. I explored it on my own, this idea of denial. It didn’t feel like denial. It felt like I knew the truth and everyone around me was a skeptic. I wasn’t bothered by it at first because the truth was enough, but it wasn’t anymore. It was isolating.
It would have been easier to trade my truth for the ordinary Kübler-Ross, weekly sessions on a somewhat comfortable couch with a box of cheap sandpapery tissues. But I couldn’t. I clung to it.
Two years to the day she went missing, Tristan found her sitting on the porch swing. She was wearing the same clothes she’d had on when she disappeared. She did not seem confused or disoriented, but she had no memory of where she’d been for the past twenty-four months.
Her return was national news.
She was taken to the hospital. The doctors invaded her with needles and cotton swabs, attached her to sinister-looking machines that made unpleasant sounds. She was analyzed by psychologists and questioned by police.
Aside from the gap in her memory, she seemed to be perfectly stable.
“She’s doing great,” Tristan said. “She’s been very calm.”
Calm? Julie? I’d never known Julie to be calm. She had caught the flu sophomore year, and I’d had no choice but to carry her to the school nurse for Tamiflu. She had cried like I was taking her to the gallows. She hate, hate, hated doctors. All doctors. She refused to get a physical. She had a severe phobia of needles. She was panic-stricken whenever there was a blood drive nearby. Seeing the Band-Aid on someone else’s arm was enough to make her shriek. I didn’t buy that she was “calm” about being confined to a hospital, at the mercy of doctors.
“Are you sure it’s her?” I asked. A joke, kind of.
“That’s not funny,” he said. But then he added, “It’s her.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Who decides that?”
“The doctors. Not me.”
I expected more relief. Relief that she was back safe. Relief that I wasn’t crazy. That, actually, I was very intuitive and should maybe consider an alternate career as an oracle. I thought relief would fill the vacancy of anticipation. The wonderings and what-ifs that had occupied my mind for so long.
But there was no relief, not really. Only more questions.
Her return disturbed my rituals. It created new ones. After work, I would run five miles, take a hot shower, a cold shower, drink an indeterminate amount of whiskey, put myself to bed and wait for sleep. When it eluded me, I would check the news to make sure I hadn’t dreamed up her return. I would reread the articles about her coming back.
Sometime after I stopped reading but before morning, I would notice a numbness in my fingers and toes. It spread slowly, and I would lie there helpless as I lost parts of myself to it, until I became completely paralyzed.
I couldn’t move my head to see, but I felt like there was something there, at the foot of my bed, or maybe standing beside it. I imagined its breath, hot and rancid. And when I was so sure of its presence I thought I might scream, I would fall asleep.
I would wake up in the morning to a new truth. Dread.