I'm Not Missing, page 1
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For the James Webb Space Telescope, fearless seeker headed into the mystery, and the human minds who made it.
And for Susannah, duh.
How beautiful you must be
to have been able to lead me
this far with only
the sound of your going away
—W. S. MERWIN FROM “ANOTHER TO ECHO”
“It’s not weird.” I sat down in the dirt and leaned back against the cold granite of Manny’s tombstone. I tried to breathe in the winter air, but really all I could smell was enchiladas. “Why’s it suddenly weird?”
“’Cause it’s weird,” Syd said, without looking up from her phone. “It’s always been weird. I just— Now I’m not as tolerant.”
“Whatever. I like being here. It’s relaxing.” I shielded my eyes and looked up at her wild halo of curls, blazing gold in the afternoon sunlight. Earlier, at our Feminism Club’s annual fund-raising enchilada supper, a boy tripped and spilled his entire plate on Syd. She’d had to change out of her Feminism Club T-shirt and into one Katelyn Reed found in her car. It was too small for her and looked obscene. Even the rosette of her black lace bra was clearly visible beneath it. Her shirt read, ironically: KINDA DON’T CARE. There were still bright red splotches of enchilada sauce on her jeans.
“This is not relaxing.” She shot me a two-second look of disgust. “Don’t try to normalize this, Miranda.”
“Dang. Why the grumpus?” I asked, though I knew exactly why the grumpus. It’d been two days since colleges were supposed to tell you if you’d been admitted early decision or not, but Syd still hadn’t heard a word from Stanford about her application. Not a yes, not a no. It was crickets, and the crickets were becoming deafening with every passing minute.
Syd peeled her eyes away from her phone and plopped down beside me in the dirt, then took the elastic from around her wrist, gathered her mass of curls, and affixed them to the top of her head in a loose, unruly bun. It looked like a messy little cloud hanging over her head. “I’m just sick of sitting in a graveyard for fun. You know? I’m eighteen years old. I could be watching and/or making pornography right now. Legally.”
“Whatever,” I said. I leaned back against the cool tombstone and tuned my ears to the whoosh of the traffic passing on the interstate. As soon as I closed my eyes, she poked me with her toe.
“And I’m just sad.” She wasn’t going to let me relax. “I’m very sad.” She toed me again, this time harder. “Miranda.”
“Stop.” I swiped her ankle without opening my eyes. “Why are you sad?”
“I dunno. I guess because our Feminism Club enchilada supper failed for the fourth year in a row to end misogyny and sexism.”
“We made five hundred dollars.” I tipped my face up to the winter sun. “That’s not nothing.”
“It’s not something.” She tossed her phone to the ground. “Seriously, though, you’re the writer. This activity—this, like, metaphor, sitting among graves—it doesn’t strike you as disturbing?”
“No.” Without opening my eyes, I knew she’d rolled hers. “I love it.”
It was true. The graveyard was probably my favorite place in Las Cruces. I loved the way it made me feel swallowed up. Invisible. I loved the way the tombstones faced the interstate, aligned neatly, like seats in a movie theater, and I liked watching the traffic. Something about it felt sacred.
The graveyard was like my church. Or whatever.
Anyway, it’s not like it was a real graveyard. There were no bodies. It was just the dusty corner of the lot behind Syd’s, where her dad, Ray, had dumped tombstones that had gone unpaid for, or that he’d screwed up. I REJOICE IN THY SALIVATION read one slab of marble. REST IN PIECE read another. Ray hadn’t lasted long in the tombstone business. After a year, he sold his tools and went back to bartending, and Syd and I took over the graveyard.
MANUEL P. MONTOYA, ETERNALLY RESTFUL was my favorite: a black slab of granite with a pair of marble hands clasped in prayer rising from the top. Manny died at 101. I thought of his tombstone as a trophy he’d won for living so long. There was a space the shape of my butt worn into the earth beneath it, so great was my devotion to him. Of course, it was too bad Manny’s family wasn’t able to pay for the tombstone, and so it ended up here, behind Ray’s double-wide, forever separated from Manny’s actual eternally restful remains in the San Albino Cemetery a mile away.
Ray was such a loser. “I’m not running a charity here, ma’am,” we’d once heard him say on the phone to some grieving widow while we were watching TV. Asshole, Syd mouthed, grabbing the remote and cranking the TV up so loud that Ray, scowling under his cowboy hat, had had to take the conversation outside.
Of course, we didn’t know it then, but those were actually the good old days. The days before Tonya moved in, when Ray was mostly just gone and we had full rein of the trailer and the acre of dust and junk, each pile of crap further evidence of Ray’s lifelong love affair with failure: piles of car parts, a shed full of rotted firewood, a broken-down stable for a horse-breeding business that never materialized beyond one vial of sperm he’d kept in the freezer for over a year. Now he was the assistant manager at Desperados, a bar in a strip mall between a nail place and a tanning salon. The polos Ray wore to work boasted that Desperados was “the hottest spot in Las Cruces.” Who’d judged it thus remained uncertain. Syd called it Desperate A-holes.
“They make porn in Las Cruces, I bet. I bet I could be starring in my own porn by eight o’clock tonight if I wanted to. Right?”
“Let’s just be quiet for two seconds,” I said.
When she was actually quiet for two seconds, I became suspicious and I opened my eyes to find her leaning sideways against the grave next to mine, ISADORA THORNE, BELOVED SISTER AND AUNT. She was staring at me, her arms wrapped around her knees.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just being quiet. I’m just sitting here very quietly, coming up with my porn name.” She put her finger in the air. “Misty Buckets. That’s it. Yes. That’s who I am now.”
“Stop.” I sat up straight and turned to face her squarely. “Stanford’s gonna write. It’s gonna happen. And you’re gonna get in. And if you don’t get into Stanford, you’re going to get in somewhere even better with Misty Bucketsful of financial aid and you’re gonna get out of here and it’s going to be great and someday you’ll fly your private helicopter jet over this shit hole of a town and laugh and laugh and laugh. Please. Let’s wait five minutes before you commit to a life of porn. Okay?”
She looked at me sternly for a moment, skeptical. “What’s a helicopter jet?”
“Shut up—you know what I mean.” I didn’t know what else to say. I had very little experience giving pep talks to Syd. Syd was usually the one giving them to me.
She laid her cheek on her knees, and the little cloud of curls flopped to one side. She look
“Okay.” She gave me the tiniest of smiles. “Yeah,” she said.
Syd’s Escape Plan had become legend at Las Cruces High. Her mom was a drunk who’d abandoned her, and her dad was a professional jackass. But Syd was different. She was defying the odds, and people loved it when people defied odds. She’d stockpiled awards and honors. She’d ranked number one in our class three semesters in a row. When, as a junior, she maxed out on AP math and science classes, she started spending half her days down the road at New Mexico State. She’d formed no fewer than four clubs since freshman year, each one earning its own venerated line on the work of art that was her college résumé. STEM Club, Robotics Club, Feminism Club, and, by far her most successful endeavor, College Prep Assembly, which everyone had quickly come to call Life Club and mainly involved Syd coaching other kids on how to properly execute their own escape plans.
She hadn’t always been like this. Everything changed the summer before our freshman year, when her mom left the rehab facility where she’d spent two months getting sober and hightailed it to Colorado, surrendering full custody of Syd to Ray. She left Syd without an explanation or an apology or anything. It was baffling. I was wrecked. I stopped sleeping; my panic attacks returned full force. My father went into emergency mode, sending me back to the therapist I’d seen after my own mother had left seven years before.
I made incremental progress in processing the loss in context of previous traumas, as I overheard my therapist report to my father.
Syd, on the other hand, made a plan.
She was always smart, but the morning after Patience left, she woke up a genius. And she was hell-bent. That morning, she sat at my laptop with a singular focus, Googling, reading, taking notes. In about thirty minutes she’d put together her Escape Plan. That afternoon we walked to the high school and met with Ms. Yslas, her guidance counselor, who grudgingly changed all of Syd’s classes: the easy ones to hard ones and the hard ones to the hardest.
Ms. Yslas was skeptical. Syd took that as a challenge.
A few days later she brought an empty Altoids box and a garden trowel out to the graveyard. She’d printed out a contract. It stated that, because the two of us were now both motherless, we were adopting each other. From now on we were officially the other person’s person, and as such we were bound by honor and blood (And blood? I’d thought as she read the document aloud) to never stray from the other, and to never go after our mothers. “Our mothers left us,” she said, her voice erupting dramatically, like a lawyer’s on a TV show. “We won’t go begging for scraps.”
For me, the part about going after our mothers was pretty immaterial. My mom had been at the Garden over seven years by then. All efforts on the part of my father and my uncle Benny to extract her had been fruitless. My father had set about erasing all evidence of her existence. I’d forgotten what it’d been like when she was around. Patience had been gone a handful of days. For Syd, this strange ritual was a necessary protection. It was an action, and actions were all she had, besides me. And while I really loved the part about us adopting each other, I’d have preferred a milder action, something less blood pact-y. A dorky best-friends-forever necklace from Claire’s would’ve worked just fine for me.
For Syd, only blood would do.
We signed our names with a pen, and then Syd quickly poked her finger with an old pin she’d taken off my backpack. When it was my turn, I couldn’t do it. But Syd was dead set. So I handed her the pin and closed my eyes and felt her clasp my hand tightly and then push the point to my index finger.
“There,” I heard her say. When I opened my eyes, I found a perfectly spherical drop of dark red blood on the tip of my finger. The graveyard spun. “Don’t barf, okay?” Syd whispered. “Just breathe.” I nodded, unable to speak. I pressed my bloody fingerprint to the page next to hers. She folded the paper until it was small enough to fit into the Altoids box. Then she dug a deep, narrow hole between Manny and Isadora, and buried the box.
After that, Syd never mentioned Patience. She focused all her attention on the Plan. Junior year, she decided she wanted to go to Stanford because Stanford was a pipeline to Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley was where Syd would make her eventual millions—doing what? It didn’t matter. She’d figure that out later. Her mind was worth millions. California was her destiny. She talked about it with such specificity and nostalgia, you’d never guess she’d been there exactly zero times.
It was her Goldilocks planet, she’d decided.
We’d learned about Goldilocks planets from my dad, who’d made it his career at the small NASA facility outside town to help in the effort to find one. A Goldilocks planet was a planet like Earth, not too hot and not too cold, just right for sustaining life. To us, though, it’d come to mean more. For us, a Goldilocks planet was a place, definitely away from here, where a person became the person they were meant to be. A place to live. I was still looking for mine, though I suspected Las Cruces, New Mexico, was not it. I had lower expectations than Syd. But then again, the entire world had lower expectations than Syd.
And so, seeing as there was nothing else to do but join her when she kicked into high gear, I signed on to the Plan myself. I did all of the extracurriculars. I found cross-country, the one sport that didn’t require coordination or even real speed, and I ran, sometimes training with my dad, until actual muscles were cut into my long, scrawny legs. I was the editor of the school paper and had won an award from the New Mexico Press Association for a series of essays I wrote documenting the life of the Future Farmers of America’s prizewinning pig, Gracie. All that was only step one. I’d also taken as many AP classes as I could, except math, which I would have failed. Step two. And, by taking less difficult math classes, I’d kept my grade-point average sky-high. Step three. I’d even accomplished step four: after months of tutoring sessions with my dad that he often ended with baffling encouragements like “You are the math, Miranda,” I’d managed a decent score on the SAT. I was sure my efforts would get me into UNM in Albuquerque, maybe even get me a scholarship. I’d started to think Albuquerque could be my Goldilocks planet. It was far enough away that only a handful of people would know about the Nick Allison Event, but close enough that I could visit my dad. I was happy with that. I was even a little proud.
Of course, Syd had walked away from the SAT with a score so close to perfect, she set a record for the school and they wrote about it in the Las Cruces Sun-News. She was unstoppable, an honest-to-god phenomenon, and until two days ago there’d been no doubt in my mind she would achieve the dream: early admission at Stanford. Honestly, I hadn’t even considered the possibility the Plan wouldn’t work. It hadn’t dawned on me to imagine the world handing Syd a no.
Now doubt had begun to seep in, and I found the only way to hold it back was to feed Syd a constant stream of assurances, trying hard to deliver them with a disaffected air, even a slight annoyance, so as to indicate a certainty in me so complete, I was getting sick of talking about it.
“Seriously,” I said, “stop being an idiot. You’re a genius. They’re gonna write.” I leaned back against Manny again. “Misty Buckets. That’s so gross. What’s in the buckets?”
A huge, proud smile appeared on her face and I was relieved to see it. “Don’t act like you don’t know what’s in the buckets.”
Behind us, I heard the door of the trailer open and smack shut.
“Ugh.” Syd’s smile disappeared. She swung around and hid behind Isadora. “Devil or spawn?” I turned to see Tonya’s son, Tyler, his shaggy red hair flying, running across the lot to us at top speed.
“Spawn,” I said, but when Syd turned to see him coming, her face brightened again. “Slow down, mister!” she called.
We’d tried so hard over the last year to hate Tyler, but he was just too cute. We were his heroes. We couldn’t help but love him. Syd consoled herself
“Hi.” He planted himself directly in front of us, breathing hard through his mouth.
“What up, T-bone?” Syd put out a fist and Tyler bent at the waist and bumped her fist painstakingly with his own.
“My mom said to tell you to stop using her hair dryer.”
Syd turned to me, smiling, and shook her head. “B-I-T-C-H,” she said. “She sent you out here just to say that?” she asked Tyler. He nodded.
“Okay. Tell her okay.” She looked at me again. “And tell her I’m really sorry.”
“Okay,” Tyler said. He turned to run back, hyper-focused on the responsibility of relaying Syd’s message, but he stopped again when Syd called his name.
“What?” he said.
“Love you, Ty.” It was a rare display of affection for Syd, and it made me feel weird sitting there being witness to it.
“I love you too, Sydney,” he said, and then cut off through the dust back to the trailer.
“Oh my god, she’s, like, next-level bitch,” Syd said, putting both hands on top of her head. “Fucking major league.” Her phone received a text and she snatched the phone up and dusted it off.
“What? Who is it?” I had the momentary hope it was Stanford, but then realized that was ridiculous. Stanford wouldn’t text. She shoved the phone in my face. She’d received a text from someone she called Medium Hottie.
Party at 10k Poles, the text read. COME.
“Who’s Medium Hottie?” I asked.
“I can’t remember. Joe Moya? Isaac Chavez? I think it’s Joe.”
“Dude, you need to stop screwing with your contacts. Someone’s going to see that someday and get mad.”
She cocked her head. “Um, someone like you?”
“No.” I looked at the highway. “I know what you call me.”