“Tessa is Missing,” A Short Story
Chris pedaled his bike through the Jersey barriers that stood haphazardly around the Dollar General parking lot like old men waiting outside a soup kitchen. He glanced toward the store, all its plate glass windows shattered, a yellow POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS banner stretched around the entire building. People in yellow hazmat suits clustered near what had been the front doors. He dragged his eyes back to the spinning front tire of his Fatboy bike just in time to dodge a puddle shimmering with motor oil and shards of window glass.
A fast-and-furious Honda Civic supermini, its exhaust bleating, squealed into the parking lot, followed by a police cruiser with its light bar flashing. The car tried to tear around the concrete barriers as if this were an obstacle course, which it was but actually wasn’t, and crashed. A kid jumped out and ran like hell, the two cops in hot pursuit. They caught him easily, ordered him face-down with drawn weapons until a hazmat guy came over and zip-cuffed him, then they left him lay.
Chris watched the scene in abstracted horror at its inevitability, but shook it off and beat it out of there before he became a person of interest. He was thirsty. He pedaled two blocks down Merchant Street to the Cumberland Farms, still open, its shelves of canned foods, paper goods, chips and candy barren, and bought an energy drink. The woman at the counter lifted an eyebrow at him as he counted out coins with his nitrile-gloved fingers. Stepping out quickly to keep guard on his bike, he lifted his mask and slugged down some of the ice-cold drink. It slowed his thoughts. Felt good. He needed to keep cool.
He thought about the kid in the hotrod Civic, hogtied on the asphalt waiting for the police paddy wagon. It could have been him. Could have been Therese, too. Anybody, everybody, was suspected of something these days. If the cops decided you looked funny, like maybe breaking quarantine, they didn’t need any other reason to ship you to the hospital. But they wouldn’t shoot your temperature; no, act up and they’d just as soon shoot you for real. You had to be cool, cool, cool, careful not to rile the cops. Like now. Theresa was missing. He had to find his sister.
Tessa, where are you? he cried with tears and thoughts, sending his mind-messages the way the two of them always had ever since they were babies. Every single message sent and received. Always. He’d been messaging her over and over again, but no replies. Why not now? What had happened? Their connection had gotten broken. She’d disappeared without letting Chris know. Never ever had she done that before, and now he couldn’t find her. Why would she leave like that? Leave me? She’d broken their unspoken promise. Or did she? Was she . . .had she . . .? The thoughts snarled in his mind like jellyfish tentacles, numbing him.
“Are you ready to do the will of Jesus?” said a voice from behind. Chris turned around to see a young man’s face: emaciated, watery blue eyes, a scraggly beard and mustache pressing thin lips tightly together. He wore a moth-eaten hoodie and held a pamphlet which he extended toward Chris. On its cover was a crude drawing of Jesus’s face, a face Chris thought was very similar to the young man’s, but surrounded by hearts and flowers and “Jesus Saves” lettered over and over.
“Are you ready to work with Jesus?” the guy repeated. “Do you want to see the end of the pestilence? Or are you just going to stand by and watch it take away everyone you love? Because you can end it, pilgrim. But only you.” He stabbed a finger toward Chris, who recoiled. “If you don’t do it, then the world will collapse into anarchy and starvation and hate. Make no mistake, it is the devil’s work and he will stop at nothing. The human race will be extinct. But only you can make him stop, pilgrim, by proclaiming your love of Jesus for all the world to—”
Chris stared at the guy. He stopped talking. Chris tipped the drink can up, sucked the last drops from it, overhanded it into the recycling trash can, slipped his N95 mask back in place, threw his leg over his bike and pedaled slowly away. The big tires sang on the pavement, loud and clear. No cars, no other sounds to compete with, he thought: the streets were devoid of traffic, like he was devoid of his beautiful twin sister. Like he and Therese were now devoid of parents, too. Gotta find her. Gotta find her safe.
Panicking, Chris rode on, stroking the pedals harder, up one street and down another, then another, looking for Tessa. He knew her long, thick dishwater-blonde hair, Red Sox baseball cap, baggy patchwork jeans rolled up to her knees, her loopy Raggedy-Ann gait. But there was no one, not a single soul to be seen.
Now desperation welled up, but he kept on until he felt the endorphin rush that was always followed by symbiosis: Chris and Fatboy, man and machine one. He thought it would free him from his worries, which he knew were useless. But just now he wasn’t so sure because they weren’t going away, but instead making him feel like a bomb was about to burst inside his chest, and all that kept it from exploding was exerting his mental will power.
All Chris could do was pedal, stroke, look, and send mind-messages to Tessa over and over again. Pedal, stroke, look. Pedal, stroke, look. Round and round went the pedals, each rotation like a dynamo transmitting their homing signal or whatever it was. Tessa, where are you? If he could get it to lock on, he might actually be able to visualize where Therese was. He remembered the time they’d learned about this, trying to play hide and seek—but couldn’t. That had been so funny. Now, he just smiled grimly to himself.
Pedal, stroke, look, pedal.
Ahead, he turned onto another barren street. He imagined that just around the next corner he would see his sister. She’d be walking toward him, would raise her hand to wave and run across the lawns to him. Yes! There was his sister! His entire being rejoiced to feel their connection, the intimate knowledge that they were in that safe place where they were one, just like it had been when they were inside their mommy.
She would laugh and throw her arms around his neck. Laugh and laugh. Tessa had the best laugh of anyone he’d ever known. It just flowed up and out her, sometimes when something was funny, but often just because of her natural joy of living. She would start laughing and in a moment everyone around her was joining in. He couldn’t laugh like his sister, no way, no how. Tears blurred his vision and with them his mental focus came loose, thrown under the bus of the fact that Tessa was missing.
Chris wiped the tears away—pedallookstroke—recalling how all this happened. It was fuzzy, out of focus, but he was pretty sure it had only been a few days ago. No, it was longer because of his mom and dad, but he didn’t keep up with the news. But two days ago, he thought, they started quarantining. Sure, that had been kind of scary but fun, too, like when their BF Toby started running around yelling, “There’s a fungus among us!” Toby, always a nutcase. He was the one who started singing “Hey nineteen,” the Dan song, to them on their birthday. Now “hey nineteen” meant something quite different.
They all thought it would be like getting a vacation from life and work and all the bullshit. Because that’s mostly was what life was, endless back-to-back bullshit, like pedaling a stationary bike: you didn’t go anywhere. Sure, you could try to make your life-stuff count, create some kind of sense or meaning for yourself, maybe a few others close to you, but you knew it wouldn’t last. It never did. Like holding sand in your fist. It felt warm and nice for a few seconds, then it just started oozing out between your fingers until it was all gone except for a little grit stuck to your palm. That’s what life felt like. Both he and Therese felt exactly the same about life. How could they not? The only difference was that she could laugh about it.
Pedal, pedal. Wait. He’d been staring over his front tire, seeing but not seeing, his entire being focused on his search. He looked up to find he was back in front of his parents’ house. The house with no parents. The house with no children. No one home, maybe now not ever. That stupid saying: you can’t go home again. He stopped in the middle of the street. If I go off searching for Tessa like that again, I’ll probably go in another random circle and end up right back here again. That would be stupid and pointless. It was not the way to find her. Foot on a pedal, he arced his bike into the driveway, pedaled across the lawn and pulled a front wheel lift up the three steps onto the porch deck. Might as well take a break and fill my water bottle. Think this through.
Chris stepped inside. The house was so still: only his footsteps and the hum of the refrigerator compressor. He headed for the bathroom, took a leak, splashed water in his face, scooped handfuls into his mouth. He reached for the towel but stopped. He turned both faucets on again and washed his hands over and over with soap and water. The refrigerator clunked ice cubes and gurgled fresh water into his bike bottle. Chris grabbed a second bottle from the cabinet and filled it, too. He found a few forgotten protein bars in a drawer.
As he went out the front door he thought how his parents, so sick, had been taken from the house without any compassion. Rage boiled up in him, but he immediately suppressed it: he had a living sister who needed him. Chris sat down on the porch steps. He took his head in his hands. He’d never felt so lonely, ever, in all his life. He thought he heard Tessa laugh and leapt to his feet, tore open the screen door, ran to the stairs crying out her name, jumped up the steps three at a time to her room. The room that had been theirs for so many growing-up years until mom decided Tessa needed her own and moved him across the hall. She had painted Tessa’s pink, his blue.
The room was empty, of course. He could still hear her laughter, but he knew it was coming from inside of him, nowhere else. Her laugh, it’s her touchpoint, he thought, but nevertheless it filled him with hope. I couldn’t hear it if she . . . wasn’t still alive. Could I?
Tessa’s bed was a pile of rumpled sheets, pillows, the quilt their grandma had made especially for her. It was as if she’d just gotten out of bed and wandered downstairs for breakfast, even though it was now past lunchtime. Chris slowed his gaze; he saw a pile of yesterday’s clothes beside her bed. An open copy of Jane Eyre lay on her chair. Her un-favorite photo, tall smokestacks belching pollution in the skies above Gary, Indiana, moved about on her computer screen. Her backpack was absent from the hook on the back of her door.
His gaze returned to her desk where her pink iPod rested beside her keyboard, its white earbuds still plugged in. He picked up a bud and stuck it in his ear and pressed play:
“Goodbye yellow brick road . . .”
Chris knew Elton John’s song by heart. So did his sister. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was her favorite album and this was her favorite song from it. Elton sang in his plaintive voice about the dogs of society, how he would leave the penthouse life and return to the farm, that his future did not lie on the yellow brick road.
Chris played the song again from the beginning, lip-syncing with it, and as he did so he mind-melded with his sister—at least thought he was doing so—because he began to understand why she had left. Tessa didn’t just disappear. She had left her iPod and this song for him to find. She couldn’t desert her own brother. But with this message she’d left him a gift: choice. Now that he understood, he could make up his own mind what to do.
Chris flew down the stairs and out the door to his bike. He stuffed her iPod into his backpack with the energy bars and water and took off. Now he knew exactly where he was going. And his way was not on the yellow brick road. It went down along the river to the beach. It wasn’t far; they used to walk here to meet up with the other neighborhood kids all the time. As he neared, he saw another police tape: the beach had been declared off-limits. Good thing this isn’t where I’d expected to find her.
Chris rode on, mindlessly, on autopilot. He didn’t need to pay attention to where he was riding. He knew where to find Tessa, but it would take him a while to get there. He wondered how she got there herself. He hadn’t looked in the garage, but didn’t think she’d ride her clunker of a bike that only had one working gear. No, it was his sister’s style to walk, to walk down the yellow-brick streets.
The miles went by quickly and soon he was at the massive wooden gates of the state park and another yellow tape. Chris got off his bike and took a good long look around. The wind, like the sunshine, was light in the trees. No birds sang. No sign of life, either animal or human. He lifted his Fatboy above his head, dropped it over the gate and followed it himself. He took another look around, trying to spot surveillance cameras. Seeing none, he remounted and rode on into the park.
It was a big park with a sinuous yellow brick road that waddled through the heavy forestation to infinity. Hiking trails ran every which way around a rugged, two thousand-foot high mountain. They had been here many times, always taking the trails that ran through the woods. Tessa called them squirrel superhighways. He checked into his mind-meld connection with his sister, found her path and rode it down. No walkers, no other cyclists, no rangers to tell him what to do or not to do. Just a dirt trail. The dirt trail that led to Tessa. Nothing could be clearer.
Ho soon reached the fork where he left the hiking trail to take a much narrower path and began the climb toward the top of the mountain. The path got steeper and rockier. Chris hadn’t biked all the way up before and figured he’d get to a place where he would have to dismount and either walk his bike the rest of the way or leave it behind. Either way, he knew she was up there at the summit, waiting for him.
After he’d dropped his Fatboy, it was still a trek to the top. Off to the east stood a gray concrete building. The rangers had staked a wooden sign outside it: DANGER. What danger Chris could only guess. Maybe it was like the 31 flavors ice cream: pick your favorite danger.
Tessa was lying outside, catching some rays, her back against the side of the World War II bunker, her baseball cap pulled down low over her eyes against the sun. She didn’t seem to hear him; perhaps she was asleep. He scuffed his sneakers in the gravel a few times and she sat up.
“‘Bout time you got here,” she said, looking up at him. “Have trouble figuring it out?”
“Yeah, well, no, not really,” he said, opening his backpack and handing her the iPod. “Just kinda spaced out by . . . it . . . at first.”
“Get that,” she said as she got to her feet. Chris stepped closer, to take her in his arms for a comforting hug, but she pulled back. “No. Not now. Not yet. I want to take our temperatures a few times. Maybe tomorrow, the day after.” She rasped a little dry cough into her fist.
“Then what?” said Chris.
“While we wait, we talk about our options. Except I’m pretty sure what I think our, um, you know, final option is.”
“Therese. Tessa. You know I’m already in that thought with you.”
She nodded. Let’s go inside. It’s getting too hot out here.”
The bunker was cool. Light came from the doorway and two rectangular openings, likely where cannon had once been emplaced, facing the sea far below and a mile or so distant. The floor was littered with rocks, trash, burned firewood. He saw an open steel hatch door. She said, “Yeah, slept down there last night. Creepy. Not sure if it would have been creepier sleeping up here, though.” A little laugh, familiar but throaty, scratchy.
They sat across from one another, lotus style. Chris pulled his backpack off. “Are you hungry?” he asked, handing her an energy bar.
Tessa seemed to pout as she said, “Um, yeah, kinda.” She began nibbling at it, like a mouse. She took his second bottle of water.
He said, “I know why you came here, but what I want to know is why you didn’t tell me. Why we didn’t come together. It’s just us now, Tessa. Why—”
“No reason you don’t already know,” she said. Before he could speak she continued, “I came here because I love it up here. The house—our house—is the not-to-be place. So this is the place to be. Right here. Right now. There is no other why.”
“Tessa,” he said, but she silenced him with her thoughts. He was silent while she ate and drank, letting his understanding of her seep into his consciousness. Tessa had always been this way. As much as they were alike, even before they were born, her way and his way in the world had often diverged. He never thought of her way as wrong or his way as right. Tessa and him, they and their ways were like DNA strands weaving around and around, just living and growing separately and together, yet always accepting, never doubting.
“So what happens next? Or is there no next?” he said.
“Not that I can see. Maybe for some people. But I don’t see one for . . . for us.”
Chris thought some more, then opened an energy bar and took a bite. Chewed. “No more yellow brick road.”
“Nope,” said Tessa.