On a bright, spring morning in Central Park, sunlight pours through paper-thin leaves suspended on branches overhead. The sound of traffic and angry drivers is gone as soon as one enters through the gates, as well as the stench of car exhaust and stray trash cans. Squirrels scamper alongside curious pigeons hiding in the bushes lining the narrow walkways.
Here, I could get away from all of the city’s bustle and noise, and just think. Because these days, the thing that I needed to do the most was think, and remember, and guess. The satisfying crunch of gravel underneath rubber soles was the only sound I made as I treaded through the park, seeking solace among the trees. When I found a bench free of people, I sat down quickly and closed my eyes. It had all happened here. I could imagine it all now.
A young boy, skipping down the path. The breeze ruffled his dark hair, causing it to pull away from his face long enough to reveal eyes wide and glittering with joy.
“Look, Skyler!” The boy, so small he barely reached his sister’s knees, twisted about so he could find her. “Look-”
“What do you want me to look at now?” Exhaling with annoyance, Skyler collapsed on a nearby bench and rolled her eyes dramatically. “I can’t deal with you anymore. Can you just let me have a moment of peace?” She shut her eyes and took another deep breath. But when she opened them, he was gone.
I came back to myself with a jolt, shaking my head to bring my thoughts back to the present. Because that boy was my brother, and that girl was me.
When I returned home, I raced to my room without a word of greeting to my parents and jotted my latest memory down in my notebook. It was all coming together now: the day my brother disappeared and left me to find where he was. For the past week, the memories have been returning in bits and pieces, hiding clues to my brother’s disappearance. Bailey, my therapist, had explained to me this was called “repressed memories,” when the mind unknowingly tries to push back memories because of extreme trauma or stress. Somehow, her telling that to me made me feel immensely lighter, as if knowing this was an actual condition other people went though made me feel less alone.
I sat back against the creaking headboard behind me, leaning all of my weight into its polished, reassuring surface. Somehow, I knew this latest memory was the most important: after all, it was the last moment before Jayce had disappeared. I reached out a hand and grasped the stiff binding of my memory notebook, smoothing a finger over the hanging threads dangling from the edges of its worn cover. Taking deep breaths as Bailey had taught me, I calmed myself down enough to clear my overworked brain, so I could think. When I had calmed myself down, I reopened the book to the memory I had just scribbled down, scanning the hasty lines for a hidden clue. What was it that my brother had told me to look at?
The muscles near my eyes twitched and I clenched my fists tightly, my fingernails digging into my palm. My lips tightened and my head began to throb painfully with the pure effort of remembering.
Jayce contorted his body so he could look at my face. “Look, Skylar,” he called.
My eyes snapped open, and I remembered. I scrawled out two words in the notebook, threw it on my bed, then leaped out of the room.
Downstairs, my mother was tying together flimsy stacks of papers, and she jumped when I came bolting down the stairs.
“Oh, Skylar! Good thing you’re here! Would you mind hanging these up around town for me?” She handed me one of the stacks, facedown, her false cheeriness seeping through her words and watery eyes. Months of pretending and acting had carved wrinkles and lines around her eyes and lips, as well as creases in her forehead.
I sighed. “Sure, Mom.”
My mother, being the overbearing, constantly concerned person she was, had declared right after the kidnapping to the rest of the family to make our circumstance a “family matter,” meaning only me and my parents could talk about the situation — with the exception of my therapist, of course.
“And besides,” my mother had added that day, “we don’t want to make a big deal out of this, do we? At least if we use flyers or something, the police won’t think it’s too serious and won’t get involved. We should try to solve it ourselves, in case the police go after the man and he ends of hurting Jayce more and–” at that point, she burst into tears and ran out of the room. She was frightened of the notion that the kidnapper might do something terrible to Jayce to “get back” at us if he was caught. Weeks later, I tried to convince her that she was being ridiculous and had to report it to somebody, but she was firm about her stance and we never spoke about it again.
As I stepped outside, I flipped over the papers and glanced at them. In bold letters, they announced “Missing: eight-year-old boy,” as well as a description and picture of Jayce. I stood in shock. My parents were just going to put up ads for him, as if he was a runaway dog? And they expected me to put up these advertisements for my own brother as if it wasn’t a big deal? I was mortified, but I did as my mother asked me to do. No reason for adding on to her stress when she was clearly constantly worrying.
Half an hour later, I found myself standing in front of a local supermarket, willing myself to enter. It was as if my feet were stuck in cement, and I needed all of my strength to move them. I dragged one foot after another, pulling them until I stood at the entrance of the store. All at once I was inside the store, and facing the row of pre-wrapped bouquets. Sunflowers, daisies, roses, baby’s breath; the colors were intoxicating. I began searching for a clue, or a message of some sort. Although what I was searching for wasn’t exactly clear, I knew I would know it when I saw it. Right?
“Miss?” I looked up at the kind, smiling face of the shop’s manager. “Do you need anything? I noticed you’ve been here a while, and you seem to be having trouble with these- these flowers.”
“I’m okay, thanks.” I wasn’t in the mood to reveal my situation right then.
“Okay. I just wanted to let you know the store will be closing in ten minutes.”
I blinked. “Oh. Sorry. I’ll — I’ll go now.” I was stuttering, and I could feel my face getting red, but I fled.
I continued back home through the city, shoulders hung dejectedly. Bailey always told me in that soft, soothing voice of hers to “feel strong, look confident,” and repeating that phrase over and over always used to help me pull myself together and quiet my mind. And now, I could feel the corners of my mouth dipping, my brow scrunching, but I made no attempt to change that. I knew I should be imagining my “happy place,” “practicing self-love,” and all of that other crap everyone tells me to do, but I felt discouraged, so why couldn’t I look discouraged?
This angry rant had been playing in my head for a few blocks when suddenly, I paused. On a streetlamp near me hung one of the signs I had posted earlier that day about Jayce, but next to it was another paper that wasn’t there before. It was a small square of computer paper folded in half, with my name, Skylar, printed in a plain font on the outside. I whipped my head around, chest thumping.
How did he know I would pass by here? How does he know my name? What if someone else had picked it up? Then one, last thought: What if he’s following me?
I was frantic. Should I take the note? Obviously, it was intended for me, because it was near impossible to find someone who had a name like mine. All I wanted to do was be safe at home. I was at a loss for what to do.
With one last second of hesitation, I grasped the note and ripped it free of the lightpost, a stray piece of tape detaching and fluttering to rest at my feet. Then, I turned around and ran, feet pounding against the pavement and the note crumpled tightly in a sweaty fist.
The next morning, I was awake and alert by dawn. No one was awake except me, so I crept out the front door, last night’s note folded neatly and pressed against my thigh.
What I had found inside the slip of paper shook me. It contained only a few typed lines of information, telling me Jayce was kidnapped and hidden somewhere in the city. The longer I took to find him, the more I would have to pay to get him back. Having this knowledge simply made me more determined to get my brother back, so I resolved to find him soon.
Along with that came a few stray insults about my parents, including that my mother was a “nosey know-it-all” who had no business doing anything with me. In fact, it specified I was not to let her help me or let her know about my situation. I was tempted to disobey the note, but who knew who I was dealing with? Better play it safe.
I wandered along, resuming my search for flowers. What could that mean? I walked down block after block, turning my head left and right as if I were a broken record. Still, nothing. My feet began to throb and sweat trickled down my back, and for the second time in two days, I felt completely, utterly lost. There was no way I would ever find Jayce in this maze of a city. It would be so easy to just give up, go home, and leave it to the adults. When the sun had crept halfway up to the top of the sky, I found myself back at the gates of Central Park. I was drawn by the joyful shouts of children laughing on swingsets and scrambling about on their light-up sneakers.
That’s when a wave seemed to hit me and I sank down to the ground immediately, spine pressed painfully against the sharp iron rods of the park’s gates. The memory washed over my mind and obscured my vision, forming a new scene:
Snowy tablecloths stretching underneath silver forks and knives, candles glimmering dimly and casting flickering shadows, the gentle clinking of plates over soft jazzy blues drifting from a speaker. Jayce, inky curls combed back neatly, but he had a somber glint in his eyes.
“Skylar? Do you actually… like me?”
His sister was startled. “What do you mean? You’re my brother, of course I like you.”
“Then why is it that sometimes you do this thing–” He scrunched up his pudgy face and made an attempt to imitate Skylar’s infamous eye rolls. “–at me?”
“It’s…” She sighed, exasperated. “You ask questions like this, and I get annoyed, okay? Just… Not now, Jayce. Eat your dinner.”
My eyelids snapped open, and I reached a hand reflexively up to touch my face, only to discover a cool tear rolling down my cheek.
I entered the park, my mind clear and prepared. I was going to find him, no matter what. I marched purposefully through the park again, scrubbing impatiently at the tears still leaking from my eyes. Now was not the time for self-pity; I had a job to do.
I walked briskly towards the spot I had been the day before, which was also where Jayce had first disappeared. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I should have just checked the flowers Jayce wanted to show me before he went missing. Lowering myself to my hands and knees, I tried to imagine what my brother would have noticed first. It was difficult, my senses overwhelmed with the colors and scents and shapes of all of the flowers around me. How I wished I had paid more attention to Jayce’s personality while I could!
Finally, a flash of bright color caught my eye. I twisted my head fast, and in front of me was the most intricate flower I had ever seen. Slim petals ringed in sapphire blue curled slightly into one another, accentuating the flower’s pale yellow center that pulled out to the edges, like watercolors dragged together with a toothpick. A delicate tongue extended from the center of the layers of petals, tapering slightly near the end. It was the only one of its kind I could see, a mutant flower among its ordinary cousins. This had to be the one he pointed out. I reached out a hand and groped behind it, feeling around. My hand hit a rustling object, and I pulled it out.
It was another note, again folded inwards with “Skylar” printed on the front. I opened it hastily, and read the simple message inside:
36 Central Park S
I leapt to my feet without a moment’s hesitation and ran out of the park.
Dodging people, strollers, dogs, and cars, I managed to make my way to my destination. After bending over to catch my breath, I looked up, wiping the sweat off my forehead and panting. A hotel loomed over me, glass doors under an olive awning. I took a deep breath and walked in.
“Ah, Skylar! So you found me at last.” A man stretched lazily across the couches, dressed in a pressed collared shirt and khakis. I somehow imagined him to be wearing a full tuxedo, the brim of a black hat over an eye and dark sunglasses covering his face, but instead he just looked like an average New York City pedestrian, an ordinary father to some unfortunate kid somewhere. I could have passed him on the street and not spared a second glance at him. But somehow I knew, he was the one who took Jayce.
Through gritted teeth, I growled,“Where’s my brother?”
“Oh, you’ll get him back eventually. And I’m glad to see you didn’t bring that good-for-nothing mother of yours. But first, money?”
I ignored his comment about my mother and shook my head.
“No, I want Jayce back first.”
He scanned me up and down apprehensively. “No offense, girl, but it doesn’t look like you got much money on you. How would I know you aren’t trying to trick me?”
His smooth words aggravated me, but he was right. I had forgotten to bring any money. I narrowed my eyes. “Alright. How much do you want?”
My heart raced. FIve thousand dollars? There was no way I could do this. “How about… two thousand?”
I tried not to let the doubt show on my face, to keep my composure together.
“Actually, let’s make that thirty five hundred.” His voice was firm, but amusement was evident in his eyes, teasing me and watching me squirm uncomfortably. “Come on, I’m being nice here. Save thirty five hundred dollars, or get your dear brother back?” He knew which one I would pick.
“Who are you, anyway?” I demanded, desperate for time to think. A concierge looked our way suspiciously, and I lowered my voice. “What did I ever do to you to make you do this?”
“Nothing, dear child. Nothing at all. I just needed the money.”
“That’s none of your business, girl.” He spat the last word out scornfully.
“Don’t call me girl, and yes, it is my business. You took my brother, and I need him back.”
He looked down at the ground and back up at my face, and something softened in his features, like he recognized my struggle. “If you really want to know, I have to pay for something. It’s for– it’s for my kid, who in fact, kind of looks like your brother.” His gaze drifted off dreamily, them he snapped back to reality. “He needs help and–well, you don’t need to know.”
So he was a dad. “Yes, I do need to know. Maybe I can help.” What was I doing, sympathizing with a kidnapper, a criminal?
“Sorry, dear, but you don’t know nothing about mental illnesses. Stay out of it. I just need the cash.” He beckoned his hand, almost mockingly.
“Yes, I do,” I retorted angrily. “Because of you. Because of you, I cried every night because of my guilt. Do you know what that feels like? The burden of losing Jayce is like a weight on my shoulders I have to bear, and I can’t carry it anymore. Because of you, I go to therapy every week and bawl my eyes out like a stupid, defenseless child! Because of you, my family is torn apart.”
“Now, now, girl. That’s no way to talk. I–”
“Just… Shut up! Here–” I tossed him one of Bailey’s business cards at him. “Take this, and give me my brother back.”
I watched, my chest heaving, as he picked up the card and read it.
“Hold on,” he murmured. “This is actually fantastic. I needed the money for therapy, and here it is… right on the card: ‘Children under ten get half off each session.’” He looked up, beaming. “I can’t thank you enough for this.” He turned around and snapped his fingers, and from under the coffee table crawled Jayce, shaking uncontrollably and tears welling up in his eyes. I reached out and snatched his hand.
“Come on, Jayce. Let’s go.” We left the hotel, before the man could change his mind. I knew next to nothing about him and why he let me go that easily, but I didn’t want to. All I knew was that I was with my brother, safe, and I was leaving that chapter of my life behind me.
“Would you look at that!” My mother slid a newspaper in front of me, jostling my cereal bowl and splashing milk over the sides. “Oops. Sorry about that.”
I dragged a napkin on the spilled milk and studied the paper. The face of a man gazed up at me haughtily, and I gasped. It was him. The man who took my brother all those months ago. Now, quite a while later, snow covered the ground and I tried not to remember those sleepless summer nights and frantic summer days searching for Jayce. The title read: “Man tried for robbery; found guilty for two crimes.” As I read on, I found out that while at court, the man, named Aaron Petrone, broke down and confessed to the kidnapping of my brother. I laughed to myself wondering why he needed the money he stole now. He was still the same dishonest yet emotionally-disabled man I met that day in the hotel, but I still couldn’t help feeling bad for him. At least now he was being punished fairly for what he did. Who knows, maybe I’ll be called to testify for the case and I’ll be able to give my version of things.
“Skylar!” I turned my head and saw my brother, bundled up in three sweaters and puffy ski pants pulled halfway up to his torso. Chunky boots engulfed his feet and a knitted red hat sat atop his head. I grinned at the sight of such a small boy being wrapped up in layers almost double his width. “Do you want to play with me?”
“Sure, Jayce. Let me just go get my things.” I stood up and planted a quick kiss on his hat, then raced upstairs to grab my jacket. I then hurried back down and flew out the door, shouting over my shoulder, “Let’s race to Central Park! I’m gonna beat you!”