The Midwest |

The Return

by Kate Folk

edited by Lisa Locascio

When Ray took me it was summer. Corn nearing harvest, soybeans stitched into a rippling green quilt. Now I stand shivering at the living room window.

Through the iron grillwork I see brown fields, frosted grass, weeks of snowfall melted to slush and frozen over and snowed up again. My parents must assume that I am dead.

At breakfast, Ray squints at me over our plates of eggs and kale and says, “You want to go home?”

I want to ask, why today? But I’m afraid he’ll change his mind, so I just say yes.

Ray drives me in his red pickup. We stop at the end of my parents’ long driveway. He doesn’t try to hug me. He stares down at the second button of his flannel.

“Take it easy, Ray,” I say. It’s the first time in months I’ve called him Ray instead of Dad. He nods, still staring at the button. The moment I shut the door he peels out, tires spitting gravel. I ring the doorbell, wait and ring again.

All the fat has been ironed from my mom’s face, lending her features a sharp, birdlike quality. She pulls me into the house and skims her hands over my body like she’s checking for ticks. She runs her hands through my dyed hair, lifts it and lets it fall around my shoulders.

“My baby!” she says. “My precious baby girl!”

My dad stumbles downstairs in boxers and a threadbare undershirt. He pauses on the second step, blinking hard.

Like a time traveler or someone who’s just woken from a coma, the first thing I say is, “What’s today’s date?”

“December 20th,” my dad says.

“I didn’t miss Christmas,” I say.

I meant to sound cheerful, but the effect is grotesque. My mom wails and kneads my back, digging in with her nails like she wants to save chunks of me for later.

“Easy, Janet,” my dad says. “Not too rough.”

My dad’s an accountant, but he watches a lot of Law and Order. He says my body is a crime scene, laden with clues. We go straight to the hospital, where I’m swabbed and prodded, my abdomen palpated, my blood drawn. Chubby nurse practitioners hug me and praise my courage between questions about my sexual history. I can tell they don’t believe it me when I say Ray didn’t rape me.

When I talked to him at the Gloria Dei potluck last May, Ray told me I reminded him of his daughter, Julia. Five years ago, Julia had swallowed every pill in the medicine cabinet, slit her wrists, and bled out in the bathtub while Ray was at work. They speculated that she’d been abused by Ray, but that’s not true. I know, because for the last four months I’ve picked up where Julia left off. I’ve worn her clothes, listened to her depressing music, and imposed a stark center part onto my new garnet hair. I’ve studied her diaries as though they were religious texts, memorizing passages to recite for Ray at dinner.

From the hospital, my parents shuttle me downtown, to police headquarters. I’m led to a cinderblock room, where a pair of detectives takes turns asking me questions. I stress that Ray treated me well.

“He’s a very sick person,” one of the detectives says.

“Aren’t we all?” I say, feeling very goth. Julia would be proud.

When I get home I shower in the master bathroom, sampling my mom’s expensive bath products. Rosemary mint shampoo, shea butter body wash, a pumice stone like a tiny asteroid. I towel myself off in front of the mirror and turn to inspect my body’s facets. I step on the scale and am pleased to find I’ve lost ten pounds, hunks of flesh melted away by months of protein smoothies and kale salad. One of Ray’s theories was that Julia suffered from a vitamin deficiency that compounded her depression. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake with me.

I cross the hall to my stale bedroom. I sit at my desk and look out the window at the Steiner house, where I went the night Ray kidnapped me, seeking comfort in the bland optimism of my old friend Abby Steiner because Will Gibbons hadn’t called like he said he would. As I trudged through the prairie grass between our houses I imagined pits opening beneath me, sucking me into a clammy nonexistence. On my way back, Ray intercepted me under the skirts of an old oak my dad feared had gone wormy, tackled me to the ground. I was blindfolded, my wrists tied behind my back. I screamed but the houses are widely spaced and it was hot. Everyone had their windows closed, central air thrumming.

My mom comes in and sits on the bed. “Oh, did you hear?” she says. “The Steiners moved.”

The lights are on in Abby’s old room. A ladder stands in the center, the ceiling fan slowly spinning, helping paint dry. My mom explains that my disappearance confirmed the Steiners’ fears about rural life. Within a month, they fled back to the Chicago suburbs.

“They couldn’t hack it,” my mom says. Her voice is oddly proud, as if the kidnapping of teenage daughters is a rite of passage accepted by tough country people. She pulls a Kleenex from the pocket of her cardigan and dabs the fissured skin around her eyes. The lamp throws its bloodless light under her chin, and my mom looks almost elderly, as if my four months at Ray’s house equaled many years here.

My dad brings home Chinese takeout. He makes us hold hands and pray before eating, a new and awkward ritual. Steam rises from Styrofoam clamshells. Gleaming chunks of chicken with peanuts, a tangle of lo mein, dumplings curled in a silver tray like bald newborn rabbits. Also a stack of Kraft singles and a jar of maraschino cherries, my favorite foods circa fourth grade.

After the prayer, we fall into an awkward silence. I feel guilty to be here, like I’m a dinner guest they’ve invited out of obligation.

“We had a goose coming around in the fall,” my dad finally says.

“A Canada goose,” my mom adds.

“Mean as all hell. Separated from its flock. It stood in front of the door so we couldn’t come in that way, or it would rear up and flap at us.”

“So what did you do?” I say.

“It moved on to the Conklins’ house,” my dad says.

“They called Animal Control,” my mom says.

“But they didn’t kill it,” my dad adds quickly. “They said they wouldn’t.”

My parents had clearly assigned the goose a morbid significance. It seems vulgar to ask what they’d thought it meant—that I was dead, the goose my reincarnation?

Grease clots at the back of my throat. I say I’m full and try to take my plate to the sink, but my mom grabs my wrists and lowers my plate to the table’s spiraled grain.

“Let me do that, honey,” she says.

I wander into the study and sign onto AOL. I have over three hundred new emails, from Will and my cousin Stephanie, from old soccer teammates and relatives on the East Coast who haven’t seen me in years. They missed me; they continued to pray for my safety. In November, the messages had slowed to a trickle.

Will is online. The sight of his screen name—NOFX1212—used to flood my stomach with a hot, pleasurable anxiety. Now, I feel nothing.

A chat box pops up.

“Who is this?” Will writes.

“Hey,” I write. “I’m back.”

Will doesn’t believe it’s me. He quizzes me on the dull trivia of our shared history. What were we drinking the night we made a vaporizer out of a light bulb in Amy Johnson’s basement? (Grand Marnier, the only alcohol Amy’s parents wouldn’t miss.) What movie were we supposed to watch the night I disappeared? (The Godfather, which Will was shocked that I’d never seen, though he’d watched it for the first time himself just six months earlier.)

“I’m coming over,” Will writes.

“You can’t,” I write. “Don’t.

A vehicle purrs in the driveway. I lift the blind a few inches to see a white KCRP News van. A suited reporter spills out, trailed by two paunchy cameramen. I crawl over the carpet and listen to my mom greet the reporter with weary familiarity, like he’s a lonely neighbor who often stops by to complain.

“Is it true?” the reporter says. “She’s home, safe and sound?”

“She’s not here right now, Larry. But yes, she’s okay.”

“You have my card,” he says. “Ask your daughter to call me.” I’m pleased to hear a note of desperation at the edges of his honeyed voice.

Ray kept me tied up the first three days, while I was still strong. He made a chalky protein smoothie and set it on the bedside table with a long straw. When I had to use the bathroom, he helped me up, loosened my bindings and waited by the closed door. He talked to me while I was in there, prompting me to speak. Those first few days, I stared at the tile between my feet while I peed so I wouldn’t have to look at the bathtub Julia died in.

After a few weeks I stopped asking when I’d get to go home. I hoped that the more I immersed myself in my role, the sooner Ray would be satisfied and let me go. Like a method actor, I spent hours studying source material. I watched grainy home movies of young Julia eating birthday cake and feeding ducks in the park. I watched later videos shot by Julia herself, on a digital camcorder that plugged into the TV. I practiced her mannerisms in the full-length mirror mounted to the door of her closet. When I spoke to Ray, I mimicked the haughty cadence of his teenage daughter’s voice in her final recordings.

Ray had planned the abduction for months. He’d retrofitted his house: bars on the windows, special doors that locked from the inside with a key. He took a leave of absence from his welding job so he could be near me at all times. No phone, no cable. I had a TV in my room—Julia’s room—and all the David Duchovny seasons of The X Files on VHS. It was Julia’s favorite show. She wrote about Mulder in her diary, explicit sexual fantasies that made me cringe. I watched the episodes again and again, trying to make myself desire him, but all I saw was a tall, mopey man with an enormous forehead, a man stunted by his inability to let go.

I wake the next morning to pebbles buffeting my window. Will stands under the west side of the house, sunk in snow to mid-calf. He’s wearing the puffy orange jacket I remember from last winter. We would drive to a cornfield on-ramp to drink Icehouse beer and have sex in the backseat of his mom’s Jetta. Once I’d accidentally grazed the coat’s muscular sleeve with a lit cigarette, leaving a puckered hole, as though Will had been shot.

I give Will a “What the fuck?” gesture, wrists upheld. His hand loops in a “come down” motion. His mouth forms the word, “please.”

The shower runs in my parents’ bathroom. Their sheets are unmade, softly rumpled like the wrappings of an opened gift. Downstairs, pancake batter waits to be spooned onto a greased pan. I meet Will at the basement door. I expect him to hug me, but he looks scared, as if I might burst into flame.

“You’re really back,” he says.

Will’s front teeth are gapped, his eyes close-set behind thick glasses. His hair is cropped short, exposing his small, pink ears. I wonder what Julia would say about him. As much as she loathed the jocks and the popular girls who wore their hair in lacquered ponytails, she reserved a special disdain for the “alternative” crowd. She kept herself separate from any subculture that might embrace her, guarding her loneliness like a precious thing.

“I just wanted to say sorry,” Will says. “The whole time you were gone, I just kept thinking, ‘If only I’d called her that night like I said I would.’”

“You’re right,” I say. “It’s all your fault.”

Will looks at his feet and I worry he’s going to cry. “I’m just kidding,” I say.

“I know things were weird between us,” Will says. “I was selfish. I thought I didn’t want a girlfriend, but I was wrong.”

I wait a few extra beats, savoring his vulnerability. Before my abduction, I had fantasized about a moment like this. All I feel now is a faint disgust that I had ever cared about the affection of this timid, ordinary boy.

“It’s too late,” I say. Will nods and inhales sharply.

“Will you at least come to my New Year’s party? My parents are going out of town. We’re getting a keg.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say, and shut the door.

We eat pancakes in the three-lobed shape of Mickey Mouse’s head, a nod to our trip to Disney World when I was six. My mom is freshly showered and wrapped in her lavender robe. My dad’s dressed in his weekend attire of a flannel shirt tucked into jeans. He’s taking off the remaining days before Christmas.

“Just to be near my sweet little squirrel,” he says.

“Is there anything you want for Christmas, sweetie?” my mom says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Isn’t that your job to figure out?”

“Maybe we can go to the mall and get some ideas,” my mom says without missing a beat.

My parents spend the rest of the day compensating for their lack of holiday preparation. My mom launches into a frenzy of baking. My dad goes to buy a tree, and when he comes home he strings up the outdoor lights, big colorful bulbs kept in tangles in a box in the basement. Mid-afternoon, I run into him in the hall as I’m coming out of the bathroom.

“Can I hug you?” he says. His frame is smaller than Ray’s, and I feel not so much enveloped as clung to. His hands are motionless on my back while Ray’s would have roamed, patting and rubbing my shoulders and spine.

Each day with Ray began with a hug. His weeping was so quiet, I only knew it was happening from the ticklish sensation on my scalp, his tears forming a tiny river in the part of my hair. At first, I resisted Ray’s embrace. I called him a pervert. I spat in his face. I tried to squirm away, kicking at his shins. Ray just cinched his arms tighter around me. He whispered into my ear, “It’s okay. You’re okay, Julia. You’re home now.”

The day before Christmas Eve, my mom and I drive west on I-80 until the mall erupts to our left in a single-story sprawl. The parking lot is full. We circle, searching for a spot. My mom thumps the heel of her hand against the steering wheel as if keeping time to a song only she can hear.

“All these people, waiting until the very last minute to do their Christmas shopping,” she says.

We pierce the skin of the mall at the joint between Target and Bennigan’s. Before us splays the food court. Panera, Panda Express, A&W. We’re wrapped in the distinctive mall smell of disinfectant and soft pretzels. Throngs of people crush against us, carrying winter coats in the crooks of their arms.

My head feels packed with gauze. I blanch, blood pooling at my feet.

“Are you okay?” my mom says.

“I’m fine,” I say. “Take me to Hot Topic.”

I peruse a rack of studded cuffs, trying to decide which one Julia would like most. I move to the rack of hair dye. I need to touch up my hair, which has grown an inch of light roots. I hand my mom a jar of Manic Panic. She shakes her head sadly, but goes to the register anyway.

Julia was a brunette who dyed her hair a severe burgundy. I dyed my hair when I’d been at Ray’s house two weeks, soon after he untied me and left me free to roam the ironclad house. One night I found supplies on the bathroom sink: Feria dye already mixed in an amber bottle, a silver tube of high-octane conditioner, a pair of latex gloves.

I went to the kitchen, where Ray was feeding kale into the blender. I placed the bottle of dye on the counter.

“I’m not doing this,” I said.

“What do you mean, Julia?” Ray said. “You’ve begged me for weeks to let you dye your hair.”

That night, after Ray went to bed, I searched for ways to escape. I found a flashlight under the kitchen sink and waited by the living room window. An hour later, headlights appeared to the right. I shined the flashlight between the bars. I flicked the beam on and off, but the car didn’t slow.

I was clumsy, and by the time I’d distributed the dye through my hair, my face was blotched in rust. I waited thirty minutes, perched on the edge of Julia’s bed. I re-watched an episode of The X-Files called “Home,” in which Scully and Mulder investigate a family of reclusive, incestuous farmers. Then I stood in the shower, letting the red work its way out until the water puddled clear at my feet.

When I came to breakfast the next morning, Ray stood and drew my body close to his.

“You look beautiful, Julia,” he said.

“Thanks, Dad,” I said.

Christmas morning, I sit on the living room carpet, my back grazing the hot lights of the tree. On one knee I balance a paper Santa plate of my mother’s cranberry bread, its granular surface smoothed by a white layer of margarine. My mom has placed big jar candles around the room. Each produces a different Christmas-themed scent—apple cinnamon, pine tree, gingerbread cookie.

“They didn’t have a silver one?” I say, holding up the purple Discman.

“I thought you’d like purple,” my mom says. “It was always your favorite color.”

“Not anymore,” I say.

“Jeez, sweetie,” my dad says. “Can’t you at least thank your mom for getting you something you wanted?”

I continue opening presents, but my ingratitude has soured the mood. Maybe it would have been better if I’d never come home. I had seen some of my possessions stacked in boxes in the closet. My parents had started to catalogue my existence and purge the house of it in trips to Goodwill. I resent them for giving up so easily. Julia’s been dead five years, and still Ray keeps her things for her, washing her clothes every few weeks, carefully dusting the knick knacks in her room, as if it might still turn out to be a joke.

Will embraces me in the foyer and whispers, “Thanks for coming” into my ear. A dozen of my classmates are gathered in the finished basement, close to the keg. I huddle on a corner of the leather couch. A Tribe Called Quest blares through the speakers. The big-screen TV is muted with the closed captioning on, turned to ABC, a rerun of some second-rate hospital drama.

It took days to convince my parents to let me come to Will’s party. Of course, I didn’t mention that his parents are out of town. I painted a wholesome tableau, an evening spent in a warm den with a fireplace and mugs of hot chocolate, Will’s mom cycling through with a plate of cheese and crackers, a toast of sparkling apple juice at midnight. My parents finally agreed, on the condition that they would drive me there and pick me up at 12:30. Ray still hasn’t been caught, and in my parents’ imagination he roams the countryside searching for me, diffuse and omnipresent as prairie smoke.

In Will’s basement, I look around at girls I once liked, who once liked me. Across the room, chatting with a pie-faced boy six inches shorter than her, is Rachel Brandt, who writes dark poetry and uses masking tape to bleach checkerboard patterns into her hair. Near the mini-fridge stands Melanie Tomae, a tough blond who coached me on how to make Will obsessed with me. I was starting to become friends with these girls when I was kidnapped. We had shared things—lip gloss, Kamel Reds, SAT practice books. Now, they smile when they see me looking and wave without pausing their conversations.

Doug Nagle sits next to me and drapes a leaden arm across my shoulders. “Hey you,” he says. “Where have you been? I mean, where the fuck did you even go?”

Doug’s yeasty breath laps my face. Red cobwebs mask the whites of his eyes.

“You’re in my seat,” Will says. I’m surprised by the chill in his voice. Will and Doug have been best friends for as long as I’ve known them. Doug wanders off toward the keg. Will slithers in beside me.

“I brought you these.” Will holds out a paper towel that sags under the greasy weight of mozzarella sticks. My stomach lurches in response to the oozing tubes of cheese and Will’s loving gaze.

A hush falls over the room. I look up to see my own face on the TV screen. The 10 p.m. local news has begun, and I am the lead story. My mom must have given the news people this photo, from a sleepover five years ago, when were all obsessed with Star Wars. It was Abby’s birthday, and we’d chipped in to buy her a life-sized cardboard cutout of Chewbacca. Abby is the real focus of the photo, but her face is blurred, along with those of the other three girls. I sit cross-legged on my sleeping bag, a vision of drowsy innocence.

The image switches to a photo of Ray’s family standing in front of the house on Palmer Road. Ray’s arm coils around the narrow shoulders of his wife, a red-haired woman with a thin, serious face. Julia stands between them in a floral romper. She presses one small fist against her mouth and glares at the camera.

After three months at Ray’s, my transformation was complete. I looked in the mirror and Julia stared back at me. I’d already possessed her slight build and pale complexion, crude factors of resemblance that originally drew Ray to me. Now I had achieved the spark of insolence in her eyes, her tightly drawn mouth, all the finely wrought features of her unhappiness.

“I don’t like it when strangers are nice to me,” I said one night at dinner, quoting from Julia’s ninth grade diary, volume 2, page 13. “It feels like when you catch a big soap bubble in your hands and it’s beautiful but you know it’s going to break any second.”

“That’s a very nice metaphor, Julia,” Ray said. “You know if I ever lost you, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t think I’d be able to go on without you.”

I recalled a sentiment Julia had expressed many times in her diaries. “Maybe you deserve to be left alone,” I said. “Maybe if you’d been a better man, Mom would still be alive.”

Ray regarded me steadily. “It’s good to talk about Mom,” he said. “I always meant to tell you how sorry I am.”

I excavate my coat from the heap in the guest bedroom, my shoes from the pile in the foyer. I step out onto Will’s driveway. The red pickup idles at the curb. The sky is satin-black and starless. Fireworks crackle in a distant subdivision. A ball of light rises and fractures to sparks. I fill my lungs with thin air and make my way.