This Is Not a Love Letter
Disney Book Group
Copyright © 2018 Kim PurcellISBN: 978-1-4847-9834-8
All rights reserved.
7:01 AM Saturday, my house
I'll start with first thing this morning.
I wake up to someone banging on my back door. I open my eyes. The pale light of early morning is drifting through my small basement window.
Of course, I think it's you at the door and I got to admit, I'm kind of pissed. I don't know why you'd knock when you have a key, but it can't be anyone else. I tug on my jean shorts and put on a bra under the tangerine T-shirt you bought me to match my hair. I wore it to bed. Yes, I admit it — I was missing you, just a little bit.
More knocking. "For god's sake, I'm coming."
I open my bedroom door, step into the hall, and bump into a stack of magazines, which tips over, blocking the hallway. I climb over them. Seriously, if the big West Coast earthquake ever happens, I'll be buried alive under a pile of US and People magazines.
"Jessie?" My mom is making her way down the stairs in her old pink bathrobe, gripping the railing like her knees hurt. "What's going on?" She sounds groggy. Probably because of the sleeping pills. She looks worse than normal too. Greasy hair. Dark circles under her eyes. Folds of fat hanging from her face.
"It's okay, Mom," I say. "Go back to sleep. I got it."
"Okay," she mumbles, and heads back up the stairs.
I navigate around the piles of laundry and random towers of my mom's stuff, and finally arrive at the back door, which I swing open. Nobody's there.
I stand with the door wide open. Really? Did you really wake me up and leave? I dig out the corners of my eyes for what you call "sleep surprises" and think about how we both get the same sick pleasure from morning crusties. You told me you love the feeling when you dig them out and they scrape against the corner of your eye, and right away, I realized that's what I like too. This break is really stupid. In so many ways, we're perfect for each other.
Anyway, it's a week before graduation and we should be together. I decide to stop being so stubborn and go make up. Give you a big old wet kiss. And forget about needing some "perspective."
I slide into my flip-flops, open the back door, and step out into the backyard. There's a strong pulp-mill smell in the air, a stew of farts, rotten eggs, used athletic socks, and sugar. I stride to the side gate, which I fling open. I expect to see you walking up the incline from the backyard to the front, between my house and the neighbor's wire fence, but nobody's there. I listen for your truck. All I hear are the neighbor's dogs going crazy inside her house. I take off in a half-run and catapult myself around the corner of the house, into the front yard, ready to throw myself at you. Only you're not there.
Instead, I see Josh.
He's pushing his bike past the giant tire in the middle of our lawn. The back of his white T-shirt is soaked with sweat. What is he doing at my house at this time in the morning?
I call out his name. My voice goes up at the end. I'm scared, but I don't know why. I wonder if you were out running with him this morning, if you fell, maybe you're hurt.
He turns. Sweat is dripping down his face. His blue eyes are rimmed with red, like he's been crying. I just stare at him.
He pulls off his helmet. His curly blond hair is so drenched, it falls down like an air mattress without air. He runs a hand through it and swallows. "You hear from Chris yet?"
I say something like why or what.
"He's missing," he says, as if he's reminding me, like that's something I'd forget.
"Missing?" The word missing echoes inside me, reverberates against the internal walls of my body, like an empty chamber. A guy like you doesn't go missing. You're responsible, smart, athletic, sexy, funny, sensitive, kind — you are hundreds of words, but you are not missing.
"Didn't Chris's mom call?" he asks.
I shake my head.
"Oh man, I thought she did," he says. "Chris went for a run last night around nine, and he hasn't come home yet. His mom said she called you."
The phone rang in the middle of the night, vibrated on my nightstand. I was mad about how you acted at the mall, so I grabbed it and mumbled something like, "Chris, I said a week." Then I turned it off.
I slide my phone out of my back pocket. There are two texts from Josh. And a drunken text from Steph about winning some money at poker. No text from you, but there are two calls from your home phone, which is stupid. Why didn't I see that? You never would have called from your home phone at two in the morning.
I listen to the voicemail. It's your mom. "Hi, Jessie. We're trying to locate Chris." Her voice is calm, not angry. "Can you call me?" She pauses, as if she's going to say more, but then simply adds, "Thanks. Bye."
"His mom called," I tell Josh. "I didn't know it was her."
He looks away. He's pissed. And I can't blame him.
I call your number, but it goes straight to voicemail: "Hey. This is Chris. You know what to do." There's a beep.
I can count on one hand the number of times that I've heard that message. And that beep. You always answer. My heart flips around in my chest. My arms buzz. I feel electric, like I'm guarding at the pool, and I'm about to jump in the water for a rescue.
"Hey, Chris, can you call me? I'm worried. Josh is here, and he's worried, too. Please let us know you're okay." I pause. "I miss you." I don't say I love you because Josh is standing right there and I don't know why, it's dumb.
Then I send you a text: Call me!! XOXO Josh is looking at his phone, like he just got a text.
"Who is it?" I ask.
"Tim and them. They're out looking too."
I wonder who "them" is. "Didn't you have a big meet in Seattle this weekend?"
"Yeah." He shakes his head like it doesn't matter. "I ran the two hundred yesterday. I came home in the middle of the night, soon as I heard. I've been riding the trails looking for him since I got back."
I cannot believe I've been sleeping this whole miserable night. "You check Matheson?" I'm thinking maybe you're at our spot, maybe you fell asleep there.
"Yeah, we go there all the time."
"How about the Pitt?" The Pitt is where those guys from the Heights beat you up.
"I looked everywhere, Jessie. Been riding down every friggin trail, calling his name." He bends over, wipes his sweaty face on the bottom of his T-shirt, and stands back up. "There's nothing. No sign of him anywhere."
I have more questions, but I don't know how much Josh knows. Did he search the ground? Was there blood? Did he look for broken branches? Would you give up your nonviolent principles and fight if someone was going to throw you in the river by the rapids? I don't mean to judge, but Pendling is like any other small town. Sometimes you have to fight.
"That route is only twelve miles," I say. "He should have been home in just over an hour."
Josh frowns. "I headed out when it was dark, but the light on my bike's not great, maybe I missed something."
Down the street, a truck roars. We spin around to look. We're both hoping it's you, but it's not.CHAPTER 2
7:25 AM Saturday, the gang
Tim's red truck is speeding toward us. It's a raging beast of a vehicle, a grizzly bear bellowing through the quiet of the morning.
Tamara and Becky are sitting in the front. No idea where the rest of the guys are. The truck lurches to a stop and Tim jumps out, and Tamara and Becky follow him. Josh pushes his bike down the driveway toward them.
"What's up?" Tim says to Josh, then lifts his chin at me. "Hey, Jessie." He's real serious, for once, instead of goofing around, speaking a mile a minute. His dark eyes hold mine.
"She hasn't heard anything," Josh says.
"I just found out," I explain.
"I've been calling everyone, waking them up. No one's seen him yet," Tim says, "but they're going to help."
I feel a tiny swell of relief. People listen to Tim. Maybe it's something he learned from watching his grandpa, who was the chief of the local Lummi Nation tribe. But it's no coincidence that Tim's the captain of the basketball team and the valedictorian. I always wonder how he does it all.
Tamara and Becky walk up slowly behind him. They're staring at my old house with its peeling paint, the big tire in the front yard, the long patchy grass we never mow. The curtain stirs. Mom is there, watching. Tamara glances at Becky and smirks, which makes me feel like crap, even though I know it shouldn't. Who gives a rat's ass what Tamara thinks, right?
At least she isn't wearing her little workout shorts, wiggling her butt in everyone's faces like normal. Today she has this huge black hoodie on; the sleeves are so long, the fabric curls around her hands. Her hair is pulled into a messy ponytail, and she's not wearing makeup. Looks pretty harsh. Just saying. Becky took the time to put on her makeup, though, and her ash blond hair is brushed. They stop next to Tim. Becky slouches over Tamara, like a willow tree giving her shade.
"I told you this is a waste of time." Tamara jams out her hip. "They're broken up."
"No, we're not," I retort. "We're on a break, for a week. We just needed some —" Perspective. Yes, I was going to say that word again. You laughed when I said it to you.
She cuts me off, "Whatever. Did he come by your house in the middle of the night or not?"
Like I'm your booty call. "No," I say. "Not that it's any of your business."
Tamara glares at me and I glare right back. She turns away first, and I mentally lick my finger and tally one up for me. Not that it matters. I mean, that's stupid, right? Especially at this point.
Josh speaks up. "Chris stopped by Tim's house last night."
I look at Tim. "Yeah?"
"He stopped by around nine thirty. I was having a barbecue." He lifts his Seahawks cap and pulls it back down over his straight black hair, the brim curled up tight like a small n. "It was almost dark. We should have made him stay."
"We tried, remember?" Tamara wraps her arms around herself, tucks her fingers under her armpits. "He looked over your fence at me and said he'd see me later."
It bugs me how she takes possession of you with those words, like you were coming back for her. Did you really say that?
"He even gave me his hoodie," she says. "He asked me to hold it for him."
What the hell? That's your hoodie?
Breathe. I got to pretend it doesn't bug me.
Tim shakes his head. "I don't know where he could have gone."
"Chris likes to go for long walks in the middle of the night." I hold up my knowledge of you like a trophy. "Sometimes he can't sleep. Maybe he went somewhere in town, like the doughnut shop or something."
"We just checked there," Becky says. "They didn't see him."
"We looked everywhere," Tamara adds. "He's not in town."
"Maybe he went for a drive, like to Seattle or Portland."
"He left his truck and his wallet," Josh reminds me.
"What about his phone?" I say, thinking how maybe it's in your room and that's why it's going to voicemail.
"It's not at his house."
"That's weird," I say. It can't be dead. You're so good about charging your phone. You even plug in my phone so you can reach me. It drives me crazy, if I'm telling the truth.
"He didn't go home to shower or anything," Josh says.
"He would've showered," I say.
Tim nods. "Even when we go for burgers after a ball game, he always has to stop by home to change first."
"Has his mom called the cops?"
Josh heaves out a frustrated sigh. "Nope, she thinks he went somewhere for the night."
"Where the hell's he going to go with no truck and no money?" "Exactly."
That's just like your mom to act like everything's okay when it's not. "Something could have happened," I say.
"Like what?" Tim asks.
Then, I just say it. "Maybe he got jumped."
"Who would jump him?" Becky says with a little laugh.
"He's a huge black guy," Tamara adds, rolling her eyes like, hello, don't I know everyone's afraid of guys like you? I want to punch her.
"There are plenty of people who would jump him." The words whistle out of me. Before I can say more, Josh opens his eyes a little, warning me, and I stop talking. I didn't know he knew. I don't get why it had to be a big secret. If you told your friends not to get revenge, they would have listened.
"Like who?" Tamara says.
I kick at some grass sprouting out of a crack in the driveway. "I don't know. Some drunk assholes."
They're quiet for a moment.
"Nobody's going to do anything to him." Tim pauses, looks worried. "If they did, they're going to regret it." He pulls his keys out of his pocket and they jangle in his hand, a strangely happy sound, considering what he's just said. Even though Tim's normally a pretty easy-going guy, if he says someone's going to regret it, you don't want to be that someone.
"Why do you have a tire on your lawn?" Tamara says.
Everyone looks at it now, like it matters. That tire's been there forever. Dad changed it off his rig when I was little and I liked it so much, I begged him to leave it. We had so much fun on this tire, me and Steph. She'd come over, we'd climb on it and dance around, play queen of the tire, and then, when I got older, I'd take a blanket and read here in the streetlight, my butt in the hole, breathing in the night air, just to escape my hoarder house for a while.
How do you tell people that there's a good reason you look like white trash? I just shrug and look toward Steph's house across the street. "It's been there forever."
Tim looks down the street. "We should check out the bus station and Amtrak. Just in case."
"Good idea," Josh says.
"A bunch more people are out looking," Tim says. "We'll find him."
Josh presses one finger to the edge of his eye. "Yeah we will."
"It's going to be okay, Joshy." Tamara gives him a hug. The hoodie's sleeve falls down. She's got a splotch of blue on her forearm, which seems strange. Never pegged her as the type to help with painting her house. Man, I really want that hoodie.
"Text us if you hear anything," Tim says.
Then they all climb in the truck and it roars down the street. Josh and I gaze down the street after them.
He sighs. "I'm going to keep riding the trails."
I follow him down the driveway. "Do you think he ran into those guys from the Heights again?"
"They were from the Heights?"
"You didn't know?"
"He didn't tell me who."
He swallows. Never seen him look so worried before. That's what freaks me out more than anything. If you were just taking off like last time, you would've told him.
He jams on his helmet. "I'll let you know if I see anything." Then he rides off down the road before I think of asking him if he wants me to come.
He's already searched for hours, and now he's going back out — it's pretty amazing to have a friend like that. I can see you guys living next door to each other when you're eighty. Isn't that funny? The two of you on your separate porches in your rocking chairs. You wouldn't need to sit beside each other. You barely talk anyway. (I just heard you answering me in my brain. "Of course we'd sit next to each other." Okay. Whatever.)
At this point, I'm not sure what to do. I'm thinking this would be a good joke. Maybe you're trying to show me how bummed I'll be if you're gone. (I am! Come back! I'm bummed, seriously bummed!)
For a full minute, I stare down the empty street, toward the river, thinking you're going to show up, as if the powerful force of my mind could make it happen. I wait for you to run toward me, that dimple of yours diving into your cheek, your smile so wide it's like you've opened the cloudy Northwest sky and let the sun come in. You'll say you were joking and you'll pick me up and swing me around. Then, your soft lips will rest on mine, and we'll sway back and forth, and you'll dip me back, like in some old movie. I wait, hoping, but you don't come running down the street, and it's not a joke.
I have to tell your mom what I know. As much as I don't like cops, this might be the one time we need them.CHAPTER 3
7:40 AM Saturday, your house
I'm breathing hard after two blocks. Should have grabbed my bike. I suck at running. It's the boobs, I swear. I know you're a boob guy, but most of the time, they're a damn hassle.
For the last block, I slow down to a trot. Tell myself not to panic. Maybe you're home. This is not the kind of day bad things happen.
There's not a cloud in the sky. It's the most beautiful day we've had in weeks. The guy on FM 101 is probably calling it a Blue Blazer.