"It's easy to grab a girl on a run," my mother said after Megan was taken. After she was plucked like ripe fruit; reaped from the road outside my house. "She's tired. Her muscles are shot. She can't fight back."
She said it like it was a fact. Something she'd known all along. Something I should have known already. Why didn't I know that?
The caution tape wrapped around my backyard, marking the spot where Megan had disappeared. Standing in my kitchen, I could see the ribbon rippling in the wind, the blue-suited men hovering around the yard like bees, circling the same area over and over.
"Don't you go out there," my mother warned, putting her hand on my shoulder. She knew I was itching to escape, to go hide in my spot in the bushes.
She gripped my shoulder, trying to seem protective, but I knew it was an act put on for the policeman sipping coffee at our kitchen table. She put on a grand show for them. Smiling, pouring drinks, nodding solemnly while they told her some morsel of news. House dresses appeared, eye shadow creased her eyes. She was the picture of support, of home, of a mother. The policemen used our kitchen as a camp, and I knew this would sicken my father.
But he wasn't here. He disappeared for stretches of time. When he returned, he always took me in his arms like he'd never seen anything so wonderful. I didn't know where he went but I knew why he left. I wished I could too.
The schools sent a notification that they were suspending classes for a few days. Too many mothers feared letting their children stray. "Until she's found," the statement said. Other kids were probably ecstatic, playing video games with next door neighbors and sleeping in late. Or maybe some of them were really afraid, and were happy to be barricaded in their home.
I was trapped.
My father called me a soft heart. I hurt easily, cried too much. I felt the pain of a broken branch or a friend's skinned knee. A crushed ant could break me. I wanted a stony heart like my mother's. A heart that deflected these hurts, threw the ache back into the world.
"You bruise like a peach," my father once told me, and he was right. I absorbed each blow, and it stayed in me, living in my flesh and making me softer each time.
I'd first taken to my secret bush to escape the sounds that thudded inside my chest. Breaking glass, raised voices that simmered under a closed door, an accusation, a sob. They wracked through me and I burst outside, sheltering myself in the bush until I could cloak myself in my imaginary world.
It was hollow in the center and nudged up next to the sidewalk. I made it my own. Something more mine than anything else. I would crawl inside and pretend I lived there, breathing in the wet dirt and twisted roots. I was a feral creature or some prehistoric being, feeding off of earth and fire. A circle of rocks was my hearth, and a slab of wood my armchair. A few hours in this space and I was in another world. A secret one that lived by my rules. I was invisible.
I would watch the people walk by on the sidewalk, not knowing I was there. I was inches away, peering through the branches, eyeing their outfits and purses and backpacks as they swished by.
Where are you going? I'd want to ask. They were always in a hurry.
I daydreamed that I would reach out and touch someone's arm or face as they walked by, making them jump and shriek and look for the offender. But I never did. I just watched them from behind the leaves wondering what was on their minds.
The feeling of a place can change in the flicker of a heartbeat. After Megan disappeared, the bush felt different. When I was finally allowed back out into the yard, it all felt wrong. The air had changed. The warmth had been sucked out. It didn't feel mine anymore.
I sat in the hollow and let my fingers graze the spindly branches and leaves above me.
Had she touched these branches, too? Did she reach out and grab at them, trying to root herself to the cement to resist being taken? Why hadn't they gripped her back? It had always worked for me.
But I stayed there in the branches because I had nowhere else to go. The policeman had vacated and my mother was back to looking through me. So I stayed, and I pictured Megan walking to school, just as I'd seen her so many times before.
The high school started earlier than the middle school, so I had time to watch the girls walk by each day. They had bright neon shirts and scrunchies, faded jean jackets and acid washed jeans. They had hair that moved on its own, large and bouncy, and so unlike mine.
Megan met her friends across the street, but walked right by me each day. I could barely stand my longing when I watched her. The longing to be her, to know her, to be friends with her. She had so much that I didn't.
I was huddled in my bush the day before she was taken, and I was surprised to see her arrive early. She stood on the sidewalk, mere feet away, and looked down the road. I could see she was crying.
What's wrong? I asked her without speaking.
She walked away, her heels bouncing, and left me there wondering. I felt her pain run through me, and I wished I could do more.
I wasn't in my bush the day she was taken. It was a Saturday. My mother was having me clean out old family photos and put them in albums. There were photos of my grandparents, the ones who'd died, on their wedding day. Pictures of my long dead dogs, aunts and uncles who didn't talk to my mother, photos of my father when he was young and happy.
Pictures of my mother, sunlight streaming behind her, a brilliant smile across her lips. An image I hadn't seen in years. Not since some light had gone out in her and made her sharp and brittle. My father and I didn't know why we weren't enough for her anymore.
"It's good for you," she'd said, finding me curled up around the photos, tears leaking into the carpet. "Toughen you up some."
I was weeping for the past when Megan was grabbed by a man in a car. She'd been running, wearing spandex and sneakers, when he pulled up in front of her, waited until she ran by, and snatched her from the street.
People had seen it, but couldn't stop it. These were the people on the news, in the police station, repeating it over and over. A red car. An older man. A girl in tight pink running pants. Gone before they could even register it all.
They passed guilt around like appetizers, ingesting more each time they recalled it, until they were full and sick from it all.
They found her several weeks later. My mother exhaled, relieved it was over. "Now we can get back to real life," she said.
I imagined the mothers across town, holding their children close. My mother scanned her phone, reading the news.
Megan was in the woods, covered by leaves, left for days on her own. She was found by hikers, horrified that the mound on the ground was a girl. Or pieces of one.
I ran to my bush when I heard. It was so unceremonious, unspecial, to be found in the woods. Woods that meant nothing to her. Trees that had never helped her, never sheltered her, never let her grow with them. Why did she deserve to be found somewhere so meaningless?
The grief of this stranger's death rooted me to the dirt. When my mother called for me, I didn't raise my head. Instead, I wrapped my fingers around the branches, holding them tighter, willing them to keep me here until the pain had ceased.
The man who had taken her was still out there. He could steal someone again. While the thought should have filled me with fear, it didn't. Instead, I asked the trees to find him for me. Bring him to me. And take me next.
is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary. Her writing can be found in journals like WhiskeyPaper, Lost Balloon
and Third Point Press
. You can find her also on Twitter @maddieanthes