by Melissa Ragsly
My sister Lilith was said to have screamed my name into the phone and the word grew a body. Her co-workers told me later that she didn’t seem like herself after the call, that she let the receiver fall to the industrial carpet. They had assumed something dreadful must have happened to me for Lilith to say my name like that. They described her face like paper, crumpled white and blank. It was a jarring vacancy--Lilith was always someone with her story printed on her face.
I asked them for as many details as they could recall, but I didn’t want to push. I wanted them to remember the truth, to not feel obligated to give me a story to satisfy me. Waiting for them to spill recollections, my underarms moistened like how they would when the baby wouldn’t latch.
They told me after the call, Lilith got up and left. The next morning, she shot off an email to her boss. She wrote that there had been a death. She would need some time. Her co-workers told me they’d gone home that night, scanning their closets for something simple and black to wear to my funeral. The guy at the desk next to Lilith’s plucked her slate gray cardigan from where she left it billowing off the back of her chair. He thought Lilith might need it at the church because those places were always drafty. He handed it to me folded. The silver hockey stick pin I gave her for her birthday affixed on top like a bow on a present.
The day she sent the email about a death that hadn’t happened was the day my sister disappeared. I’ve been looking for her ever since.
There were no words from Lilith. No call or email to us. No voicemail to her boyfriend stationed in California where it was too hot for Lilith to jog. She preferred running against the wind slap of the Charles River. We don’t know who called her or if anyone was even on the other end of the line. The phone records showed no call made or received at that time. It was as if she pantomimed the call as an excuse to walk out without question.
For the past four months I have replayed the story in my mind and on paper. I need to draw her disappearance into words. List it. Hang it on the wall of my childhood bedroom. This is where I keep everything I’ve gathered about Lilith’s last day. These charts are what I know for sure. We can only ever start with the truth.
● February 7: Lilith drives to the Lakeland Town Center parking lot early afternoon, about 20 miles north of her home in Boston. Weather is cold and sunny (33 degrees).
● An image of her face (timestamp: 12:41pm), black and white and pixelated from an ATM camera. Her hair pulled back into a ponytail, her jacket unzipped over a dark colored V-neck (Blue? Purple?).
● She withdraws $280 and leaves a balance of $3.51.
● She buys a box of zinfandel at the liquor store in the same shopping center. A transaction of $14.28 (cash).
The last time I communicated with her was two days before her disappearance. It was after a Bruins game, and Lilith and I were listening to my father brood over their loss in our group text. How do you tend a goal when you’re spineless? Thomas is lucky he got out of Michigan or he’d be working on the line like every other hump. Lilith sent back hehe and angry face emojis. The Bruins were having a winning season; they made it to the playoffs. It was obvious they were playing well, and yet we felt obligated to agree with Dad. They were losers. They were gutless. The cult of my father: tearing someone down will only make them grow taller.
When he settled down about his team, he texted: Can you believe it? I’m gonna be a grandpa. Lilith: You’re already a grandpa. Dad: But not to a grandson. I texted him back that I was sure my daughter would be happy to know this information.
I texted Lilith separately asking if she thought Dad didn’t consider himself a father since he never had a son.
I wonder if I didn’t ask the right questions, if there’s a connection between the things I didn’t say and her screaming my name.
Lilith’s last words were in the email to her boss: There has been a death. I need some time.
I went into labor a week later while filling out paperwork at the police station. They gave me an escort. My son was born a month early. When I asked the doctor if he thought the stress of Lilith’s disappearance was the cause he shrugged, saying people are always mistaking correlation with causation. Sometimes we can’t find the reason for the way things happen.
I knew things about my sister. Loving someone doesn’t mean you’re blind to their true nature. We went to the same college for one year. I was a Junior, Lilith a Freshman. After we smoked a nub of weed from a pink lady apple in my dorm room she revealed to me that she’d stolen it from her roommate. You have to steal things from people to see what kind of person they are. To see how far you can go with them. To see how much they can take.
It’s not even stealing if you do it right in front of them. She explained that if you just took something, people would usually let you have it. An iris from a lobby bouquet. A bowling ball from the alley by the train station. She’d pluck something right off your desk, say a tangerine saved for your lunch, and she’d pay you back with a smile, a dirty joke, a call to adventure. Lilith took but she gave and gave back.
We took the same gen ed philosophy class that year, the only time we’d ever be in class together. We’d sit in the back at her insistence, so we could whisper about planning a ski trip at one of those lodges where the instructors never cut their hair. We’d imagine being in the hot tub with a sandy blonde and an oaky brunette while our professor paced in his navy oxford loafers and said things like transcendental nihilism like it was no big deal.
Once she left class to go to the bathroom kissing my cheek as she tiptoed out. I waited for her return, listening to the class debating reality to pass the time. Apparently you couldn’t trust an object you saw was really there. Maybe seeing a pencil on your desk was the only thing that made the pencil real.
The second hand on the wall clock kept ticking forward and I would breathe every time it hit a number divisible by five. The class ended and she still had not returned. Where did she go? She left nothing behind but an unfinished can of ginger ale. I lifted it to my ear and heard the weakening bubble fizz. She was real, out there somewhere even if I couldn’t see her.
She stole Jonathan Girard from me once.
I’d hung ripped out pictures of him from the Herald. They were mine, my fingerprints smearing the ink. He was Canadian, spoke French and was a defender. He skated through the opponents and protected his team. His number, 46, was even and mathematical in all the ways I liked to think about numbers; two sequential even digits. They added up to 10 which could then be broken down into 1 + 0 = 1. I’ve always loved numbers. Numbers have their own relationships you can spy on and try to understand.
During the offseason, Jonathan Girard was in a car accident. After surgeries to repair his broken pelvis, he hoped to come back to play for the Bruins. I’d kept up with his recovery through the paper and our father. The Bruins practiced in Wilmington, a short train ride from our town. One Friday Lilith convinced me to play hooky, to hang out by the door of the rink and see if anyone would let us in. They did.
We watched Girard skate up and down the length of the rink. His yellow uniform was a tent to accommodate all the precautionary equipment strapped to his body as it healed. I looked for messages in the slashes his blades made on the surface of the ice. People thought we were someone’s daughters, harmless little eyes that would mutely sit and wait.
When I came back from a bathroom run, Lilith had moved down to the front row, near the entrance to the ice. She spoke to Girard. As she did, she pointed on her body to where he had broken his bones. Her hips tick-tocked and slid beneath her skin.
Before I could float down and join them, I heard my father behind me, his voice amplified from the top of the stairs. Jesus fucking Christ I spend half a day driving up the god-damned Mass coast to play hide and seek with you girls. I’d told kids at school about our plan to see Girard skate, and somebody had ratted us out. Lilith took all the blame, that she’d made me come and that she knew it was wrong. I only went along with it, but that made Dad even madder at me. I was a sucker. We were both punished, but as the older sister, I should have known better.
We didn’t speak to each other for most of the car ride, my forehead kept cool by the window glass. Once we got off at our exit, Lilith said my name and I turned to her as if nothing was wrong. Lilith and I spent the last few minutes of the ride home warming each other’s hands with our breath. We took turns pretending to be the bears stitched on to Girard’s jersey. We growled in each other’s ear, mimicking his French accent.
I had to share my favorite player with Lilith, but in return, she gave me a day I’d never forget. She even stole a puck for me. I kept it under my pillow—something to wish upon—hoping that Girard would make it back on the team. But the NHL went on strike for the entire next season. His chance to play vanished.
Timeline on the night of her disappearance. All times PM:
● 5:45: Lilith’s car exits highway (footage shows her maroon sedan, MA license plates, the dent on the rear driver’s side door from previous incident). No driver image due to camera angle.
● 7:14: Marigold Potter heard a crash and looked out her window and saw Lilith’s car in a snowbank on the opposite side of the street.
● 7:21: Marigold Potter called the police. She noted seeing a red dot near the car (a cigarette? cell phone?).
● 7:33: James Peter Sallinger, passing the scene, pulled over and asked Lilith if he could be of assistance. She told him she had already called for help and thanked him (she made no calls from her cell phone after the time of the crash).
● 7:39: Marcy Cheiselwise passed by the scene and reports a police car parked behind Lilith’s car (she sees no officer though, no Lilith).
● 7:55: When Police say they arrive on the official report. There is no one in or around Lilith’s car. No evidence of where “driver” is.
I vacillate: she wants to be found, she doesn’t want to be found. I flip a coin and my odds are split. She left $3.51 sitting in her account.
The months Lilith has been gone have coincided with my maternity leave. I’ve been here at my parents’ house, the one they say they will never leave no matter how empty the nest gets. I’m with my new son, but summer semester will begin soon and I’m expected to return to prepare for the next academic year. The faculty has not been happy with the way the temp has arranged the course schedule. They tell me I’m the only one that can make all the classes fit together to satisfy everyone..
My husband and daughter expect me back home all the time, not just on the weekends. I know this has been impossible for you. But Lilith is gone. And now, for us, you’re gone, he told me. I love them, but I can’t go back just yet. They can handle my absence. It’s good for people to suffer a little bit. It makes them grow taller.
Dad’s watching a playoff game, silent, so I can hear Andy Brickley wonder when the team’s going to get their skating game going. The Bruins have a fat goose egg unprepared to crack. I walk around the house. I’m gathering change, enough to make $3.51. I fill my pockets in my pants, in my cardigan. Dad’s paralyzed on his easy-chair and I hesitate to ask him to move so I can scour under the cushion. I’m leaning over him and he looks up. What? And I can’t ask him to move, I just look at him and I tell him I’m sorry and he looks at me like there is nothing to be sorry about. But it’s so quiet in the house now. Everyone’s stopped talking. I listen to the tapping of the sticks and shaving of the ice.
There’s the Prudential Center ashtray near the kitchen phone (still with a cord) now used for coins. I sweep the bottom of the junk drawer. I look in pockets in the hall closet, old coats no one even wears anymore. I find what looks like a nickel but it has the Queen of England on one side and a proud beaver on the other with CANADA in all caps cast under the dam it had built. I take it. I look in the basement next to the washing machine, where we always leave a few coins as tribute to the old Maytag. I remember my daughter’s piggy bank in the guest room. She left it here from the weekends when she stays with me and looks at my lists and boards pasted with all the pictures and words about her Aunt Lilith. The red lines that connect a name with a map. Notes from police. Tips from the internet.
I’m loaded down with change and I hear Mom call my name. I freeze. My body won’t move, but my head buzzes. Another woman’s voice letting my name out of the trap of her mouth and into the world.
Lilith yelled out my name on that day she left her office, just like she had done many times before as we played and as our bones stretched and our hair grew. But I had always been there to hear it. I’d used too much of her conditioner. I tried to correct her homework. She’d tripped on the cold wet towel I left between our beds. She called out my name as a rally: Come fight me. Come hug me. Come help me. But I had been there to accept her call to action. It nagged at me: why did Lilith scream my name? Why not Dad’s? Why not her boyfriend? I was chosen for some reason. Did she want me to find her or was it a warning to me: Stay away. Let me go. If I couldn’t get the answer to that question, how would I get any others?
I’d made fun of her name once when she was turning twelve and her hips were widening, taking up more space than mine were. I told her she was living up to her witch name and that she’d soon be off stealing babies in the night. It was cruel, and I wasn’t used to being so. Her changing scared me. She was overtaking me as she would keep doing. She screamed my name then. Running at me she pushed me up against the wall where my lists now hung. She screamed so hard our mother ran into the room out of breath to tear Lilith off of me. She was crying, inconsolable, saying she’d change her name. She didn’t want to be a Lilith.
My mom yells my name again, and when the air in my lungs thaws enough I answer weakly. She wants me to know she’s running to the store. She’ll only be gone a little while.
I go upstairs, sit on my old bed, count out the change until I get to three-hundred and fifty-one cents. I toss the coins into the air. Most land on the bed, some roll off and under the bureau where our sweet pink-ribboned-rose tank tops once bloomed over open drawers. Some hit the wooden nightstand separating our beds. Some rain down on me, hitting my back, my temples, flattening my unwashed hair. Some hit the old pictures of Girard still scotch taped to the walls. My Bruin. Lilith’s Bruin.
Heads, she’s lost, tails she never wants to be found. Each tossed coin I find, I tally the results. They keep evening each other out, and there are still a few that are missing.
Theories keep mutating; you settle on one and another variation grows pustules all over its skin. It gets bigger and bloats until what grows off the body becomes larger than its host. How can there be two sides to something when things keep growing all over it, changing its shape, making it bigger, cumbersome? My sister is no longer a body. She’s the shape of a body that used to be there. She’s bigger than her body. She becomes all the space she doesn’t take up. Lilith is my whole world.
Whenever I see anything missing, even the simplest notion of something not being where it was before, I see Lilith. Driving to the store last weekend when I was back with my daughter, I looked in the rearview. She smiled at me, a space missing where she shed her first baby tooth. That was my sister. When the parking lot was full save for one spot, I pulled in and solved her disappearance. When the boxes lining the cereal aisle weren’t perfectly flush to the edge of the shelf, I made it so and Lilith was home. It gave me hope to solve these little mysteries as if then, the biggest one could be conquered.
● Approximately 93 minutes from time of exiting highway to time of crash.
● Distance between exit and crash site: 3 miles.
● Time it should take to drive 3 miles: 4 minutes.
● There is a discrepancy of 89 minutes.
The time discrepancy theories I unearthed on message boards that focus on missing women start simply and ramp up to conspiracy level craziness. People who didn't know Lilith think they know what happened to her. She was hungry. She picked up a guy in a bar. She met someone who would hide her in his trunk and smuggle her to Canada. She met some guy she wanted to fuck. There was a tandem driver and it was all planned. Her boyfriend made his way across the country to kill her.
We searched everywhere. Dogs couldn’t track her scent in the woods. No one in town remembers seeing her. Her cards and phone were not used after the police were called. We know less about Lilith now than we ever did.
8 + 9 = 17
1 + 7 = 8
8 = infinity.
I’m in my old twin bed in the drafty house, my son tucked up near me. We lie beneath the eyes of Girard, stick in hand, defending. I open the cover of my college Philosophy textbook, the one from the class Lilith and I took together. I unearthed my copy from my parents’ attic. Lilith’s copy was one of the books found in her abandoned car, a clue for me. I look for words to read my son to sleep with, words that might lead me closer to her. Tonight I turn to page 89, a blank page, a clean break before the Metaphysics section begins with its image of a light-emitting head.
I put my mouth next to my son’s ear, whispering to him my ending for Lilith. I tell him about the blue and red lights of a patrol unit circling the effortless darkness, reflecting off the snow and somehow making the light all around Lilith lavender. I say Lilith is walking a bit down the road, away from the police’s approach, away from the houses that were witness to her. She sees a path into the woods and takes it. She walks and walks, meddling with the solid white, making valleys with her boots, giving the fresh snow a place to fill. It covers her tracks for her. My fingers plod down the page making small shadows that disappear as soon as I move them further down the white.
Lilith keeps walking through the mountains, up the spine that holds New Hampshire and Maine together, stealing whatever she can eat from houses with no cars in the driveway. I tell him Lilith walks all the way to Canada, her pockets stuffed full of other people’s things. She has $280. She could make a new life on less.
Published August 5th, 2018
Melissa Ragsly's work has appeared or forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017, Iowa Review, Epiphany, Green Mountains Review, Hobart and others. She is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and a Program Coordinator at the Authors Guild and lives in a river town in the Hudson Valley. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.
Erik Madigan Heck is an American fashion photographer. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, TIME magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, New York Magazine and W Magazine, among others. He describes himself as a “painter who uses photography.” He is the founder of Nomenus Quarterly. “Erik Madigan Heck: Old Future” is on view at Christophe Guye Galerie in Zurich through September 22, 2018.