Thursday, July 21, 2016

Chapter Two

Dad and I spend most of the drive home grumbling at the radio for playing more commercials than songs. There’s a grocery store advertising “Fresh Fish Friday” and an automotive repair chain with an absurdly catchy jingle.

Dad grimaces. “Do these people know what they’re doing to me? I’m going to spend my next shift humming ‘tune it up up up today’ at every druggie we book.”

“You’re going to need mental health leave from work. You should definitely sue them.” I say encouragingly.

“Dear jingle writers,” Dad says. “I have seen men bleed to death in the streets, but thanks to you, I am no longer in possession of my own mind.”

We laugh easily, everything way more natural than the so-called “bonding” we did at Fisherman’s Wharf. We’ve made fun of radio commercials my whole life. Our words feel rehearsed, not that it’s a bad thing. Lately I’ve found myself wishing that life ran on an actual script; that it didn’t require so much improv. Maybe then I wouldn’t spend so much time wondering what we’re supposed to do without Mom.

Speaking of improv, when we arrive home, Peter is standing in front of the garage, very much in the way. Dad doesn’t even bother taking the keys from the ignition. Instead, he chuckles under his breath. “Well, what’s Petey dreamed up this time?”

Technically we both lied to Dad about having a meeting, but until now, I hadn’t given what that meant a lot of thought. Not so with Peter. My little brother waits for us with a tremendous scowl on his face and a backpack the size of France. I got more than my fair share of Dad’s “sporty” genes, but Peter practically went out of his way to avoid them. He’s short and soft bodied, his hands tuned better to the rhythms of paint brushes and video game controllers than a softball. The backpack looks ready to eat him alive.

“Are we going on a Film Club camping trip?” I climb out of the car, almost expecting to see a collection of his little Film Club friends carrying sleeping bags, but he can’t have organized that, can he? Or is this one of those doubt-not-the-force-of-the-Peter moments? What my little brother lacks in athleticism he eclipses with sheer tenacity.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Peter straightens his neck in an attempt to come eye-to-eye with me. He’s milking this act for all he’s worth, the little stinker. “We’re decorating the parade float, remember?”


Dad laughs at my feeble attempt to hide my disappointment. Really, it’s my own fault. I asked for Peter’s help and my options are to either look like a rotten liar or go along with whatever scheme he’s dreamed up this time.

“The keys are in the car. Where are you headed?” Dad asks.

“The Yoshidas,” says Peter, lugging his bag into the backseat. “I think they’re gonna feed us dinner.”

“Sounds great. Keep your cell phones on, okay kids?”

“Yup,” I say, not bothering to resist. The Yoshidas. Plural. Of course.

It’s not a long drive, but even I don’t want to carry Peter’s trail pack the kilometer or so it takes to get to the Yoshida household. Both our families live in the same non-descript suburban neighborhood near Belmont High, all modest, single family homes that haven’t been updated since the Eighties. I turn the radio off, my fingers tapping against the steering wheel to the rhythm of music that’s no longer playing.  

Peter tilts his seat back and stares at the car’s felted interior, hands laced together over his tummy. “So,” he says.

“So.” I feel my lip curl in a smile.

“Can you park somewhere? Just for a few minutes?” he asks.

“Oh, are we not going to the Yoshida’s after all?” I keep my tone teasing, because it really will hurt Peter if he picks up on how much that would please me.

“No, you’re not getting out of our meeting.” He smirks. “I just wanted to ask… what made you leave? Did Dad say something or…?”

I pull into a stranger’s driveway. If someone asks what we’re doing here, I’ll tell them I stopped to admire the rose bushes. I don’t respond quickly. Of all people, Peter is the one I’m most determined to be strong for. Dad’s about as emotionally available as a blender these days and Casey’s worse. The reason I’m getting through this at all is because Peter needs me.

“No,” I say finally. “It just got to be too much.”

“It’s Fish n’ Chips, Wren,” says Peter, picking up the empty cardboard container left over from my fries.

“Yeah? Then why didn’t you want to come, too? Hmm? No one has that much homework in ninth grade.” I put the car back into gear. I’m ready for this discussion to be over, enough so that the Yoshidas are sounding like good company.

“I dunno, I thought…” Peter tugs absentmindedly on his seatbelt. “Maybe he’d say something to you? Something he wouldn’t say to me.”

“He hasn’t.”

“But you’d tell me? If he ever…?”

“Peter, you know I would.” I give him the fiercest big sister look I can; the kind that’s meant to inspire confidence when his dreams are filled with nightmares about Mom. “You’re my partner in this, one hundred percent. I’m sure Dad knows that. It’s probably why he hasn’t told me anything.”

Peter nods, still not meeting my gaze.  We drive the rest of the way in silence, because we don’t need to speak in order to know we’re mulling over the same things. I wish I could be that child Dad wanted to confide in, but since I’ve got ulterior motives, it’s probably no surprise I’m not.

Both Peter and I agree Dad doesn’t tell us everything about the investigation. He’s a police officer, so he must hear chatter from the guys working on Mom’s missing person’s case. He’s not supposed to, but you can’t convince me it doesn’t happen. And even if he weren’t a cop, the police must be asking him tougher questions than the rest of us. In a disappearance like Mom’s, the husband is always the prime suspect.

The last time I saw Mom it was Wednesday night, April 23rd. You can’t forget the details once you’ve had to restate them to the police a hundred times. By the time my alarm woke me up at 7:30 am, April 24th, she was gone. Weirdly enough, I left for school more worried about Dad than her. What if something happened on his beat and he was in a hospital somewhere, Mom gripping his hand at his bedside? I was being stupid for worrying, but your mind can play games with you when your parents don’t turn up where they should be.

Then I got a text from him at lunch hour. “Where’s your mother?” Where indeed.

Disappearances are the worst way to lose someone. The tragedy hits you nice and slow. You can feel yourself swallowing it, like a dry pill. I spent the first day in denial. She wasn’t picking up her phone, but maybe it was for a fun reason. Maybe we were on a new reality TV show and our reactions were being filmed right now. We’d win a million dollars if I didn’t panic. I only fell asleep that night because I talked myself into believing things were okay. She’d show up tomorrow, with some crazy story and her excuses would be so funny, none of us would be mad she vanished.

But you can't hold on to dumb fantasies like that forever. Soon we were filing a missing person’s report and her picture was on CHEK news, asking people to phone in if they sighted her. I dragged my mattress into Peter’s room and held his hand at night, because I couldn’t stand the sound of him crying through the wall.

I only cried once. The first time the police interviewed me, I held it together right until they said, “thank you, sweetie. You’ve been so helpful.” And it was such a lie, I couldn’t take it. I sobbed for an hour. My face looked like a fried tomato, but I couldn’t stop. I hadn’t helped anyone. I couldn’t help anyone. What can you do when your mother slips away without a trace? They tore our house apart looking for evidence, but there was no sign of foul play. No sign of anything other than an empty family.

I’ve got one lead – one hunch I can’t let go of, that maybe can help my mom. But it’s something I can’t tell the police. They’ll take it the wrong way. But I know my father’s hiding something. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so resigned to what happened. He actually uses a different word than the rest of us when he talks about Mom. She didn’t disappear, she left. Left. You have no idea how much that word riles me up.

I turn into the Yoshidas’ driveway, still morose, and not paying enough attention to my dippy younger brother. Against my wishes, Peter leans across my lap and honks the horn, a fresh grin on his face as I shove him away. I swear, if slamming the horn every time we come to the Yoshidas’ didn’t make him absurdly happy, I would have so many words for him. At our overblown entrance, the front door opens and Tori Yoshida bounds out, dark black hair tumbling like an ocean wave behind her.

“Petey Petey Petey!” she shouts, greeting him halfway to the car. “Best idea! I’ve got, like, ten pounds of glitter glue we can use. Ten pounds of glitter!”

“That definitely won’t be enough,” says Peter.

“I called Johnathan and Kimmy. They’re gonna come over in an hour. David has a track meet, so he’s out, but he was super bummed. I promised we’d make him an awesome costume. I was so scared we weren’t gonna do this! I mean, you know, because of stuff.” Tori looks at us meaningfully, which could be a really uncomfortable moment if she stopped talking for longer than five seconds. The reason we’re so late finishing the float is because Mom wanted to help us. Peter insisted she’d come back on time.

“But here we are!” Tori throws her arms wide. “Floating! Floating to the staaaaaars!” She spins in a circle laughing and Peter immediately copies her. I don’t know how middle school didn’t manage to beat the enthusiasm out of her, but she is the most adorable, hyper-active fourteen-year-old I’ve ever known. You can’t help liking Tori, even if her attack-hugs get annoying on occasion. If she were the only Yoshida, this would be a great place.

But the ongoing commotion draws out Yoshida #2. Hosei frowns at our whirling younger siblings, looking about a thousand times too serious for the “I Want To Believe” X Files shirt he’s wearing. The May weather has prompted him to don a pair of too-short shorts, which you can tell he hasn’t replaced since last summer. Hosei grew about a foot this year and he still looks incredibly uncomfortable in his brand new stork legs.

“Are we gonna work on this thing, or what?” he asks, fists stuffed inside his pockets.

“Hosei’s excited too!” says Tori, completely sincere, and for all I know, she’s right. I have literally never seen her brother look anything besides perturbed, but he must have a larger emotional range underneath the scowling.

“Hi, Hosei. What are you planning on putting on the float?” I ask, but I only get a nod back. Friendship attempt number five thousand sixty-seven… rejected. He shuffles inside the house, leaving the door ajar so that we know to follow him in. Behind me, Peter and Tori hoist the hiking pack from the backseat, already making plans for the junk inside.

When Tori and Peter decided to start the Belmont High School Film Club, they needed backing from two upperclassmen in order to get approval. And the one thing Hosei and I have in common is that we’re both suckers for our younger siblings. He shows up for every club function, but he isn’t what you would describe as engaged. He puts on his headphones through most of our post-movie discussions and fell asleep during Jurassic Park last month, which, frankly, felt a bit personal since it was my turn to pick the movie.

He probably wouldn’t annoy me so much if I didn’t feel like it was my job to include him. I can sometimes convince my friends to attend our meetings, if we happen to watch a movie they’re interested in, but Hosei never brings anyone. Truthfully, he hasn’t got anyone to bring. He’s a total loner at school and I know some of the guys tease him. I make my friends lay off him, but… well, it’s not hard to guess why it happens. He’s a weirdo. Last year in Planning 10 we had to present a project on what careers interested us and he legitimately got up there and said he wanted to track Big Foot one day. Everyone but me laughed. I’ve seen his bedroom.

What I’m saying is he doesn’t have options, so you would think he would like me. You would think.

Inside, he’s got a stack of books on the paranormal opened on the coffee table. They’ve got titles that belong on romance novels like A Dance For The Devil And You and Messages From Beyond The Beyond. I’d tell him to get a hobby, but clearly, that’s where the problem started.

Mr. Yoshida doesn’t appear to be home, but he’s got a touch of his son’s obsessive nature. He’s an avid birder and his house is covered with photos he’s taken at parks around the city. Between the picture frames, I think the walls are beige, but who can be sure? During one Film Club meeting, he cornered me and went into lengthy detail about each one.

To your left, you can see the yellow crested nightwarbler and above the mantle are a pair of blue feathered tit tweeters.

So fine, I made those up.

But he’s a nice man and likes to order us pizza, so I shouldn’t complain about being here. Most of the prints in isolation are quite beautiful. My favorite is a large crane he photographed on a trip home to Japan. You’d almost think the photo was an ink drawing, the lines are so stark, but above the crane’s eye is a blood red mark. She hangs in the bathroom across from the toilet because, as Mr. Yoshida says, “isn’t that where we all like to stop and have a think?”

Tori pushes aside the living room furniture, spilling Hosei’s ghost books and unseating a letter opener shaped like a duck. “Hosei! Get the tarp out of the garage.”

“Did Dad say we could use it?” he asks, but heads for the door.

“You think he wants glitter glue on the rug?” Tori fires back.

“Shouldn’t we be doing this outside?” I ask.

“Can’t. Rain in the forecast.” Peter rubs his hands together, breathing deeply. “Okay… so guys, this has to be good.”

I bite my lip. “Peter…”

“Amazing, even! I’ve got a whole plan.” He slaps his hand on top of the hiking pack. Tori responds to this like she’s taking orders from a general and starts unloading rolls of construction paper and coat hangers from inside. “We’re going to make it look like Hollywood stars. The Walk of Fame. And then all of us are going to dress up like Golden Era icons.”

“It sounds amazing, Pete, but we should be realistic,” I say. “The parade is on Monday.”

“Nope. No way. We’re going to prove to them we can do this.”

“Prove it to who?” Hosei asks, arriving back with a tarp rolled under his arm.

Peter flushes self-consciously, and I almost want to kick Hosei for embarrassing my little brother, but Tori saves face for everyone. She throws all four limbs into the air and crows. “To the world!”

Ladies and Gents, welcome to Film Club.
Clearly, a lot is on the line when it comes to decorating this float. But how does it turn out for everyone? Do things go...
a) Better than hoped, but they are cruelly interrupted by a mysterious, massive power outage.
b) Worse than feared, but they are mercifully interrupted by a strange, frantic call from Wren's Dad.

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