My sister Gardner, a former Nurse Completionist, is missing, gone completely. She’s been gone for at least two and a half months, and right now that’s about all I know.
She didn’t disappear all of a sudden. It was more like she evaporated, over the course of a year, while I was at the Wars. I got messages from her over there, and then the messages got slower and weirder, and then I didn’t hear from her again. A few months ago my oldest sister, Fred—don’t call her Fredericka—wrote me that Gard had gotten into some trouble, but she was going to handle it. I got only a few messages from my pop the whole time I was over there, and our mother has been gone since we were kids, and Gard, who was working two jobs, was often too busy or tired to write, so Fred has been my best source of news from home. Finally, even Fred’s messages stopped making sense.
My third tour just ended, so I came home, to look for my sister. I’ve been gone for two years and five months, back three weeks.
Fred and I seem to be the only people looking for her, and before I even got back, Fred dumped the responsibility squarely in my lap, in a message that I’ve probably read and reread fifty times:
Nov 18 3:47 PM
Find her. You need to keep looking,
no matter what.
We’ve DEF got to find her
in time for this damn wedding.
And this baby.
I can’t do this without her.
And I’m afraid
of what might’ve happened to her.
You be afraid too.
It hasn’t been easy. I don’t have many leads. Gard’s a grown woman, not wanted for anything, and Security has already closed her file. Our father won’t even talk about Gard, much less help me speculate about what might have happened to her, or where she might have gone. The one thing I have managed to figure out, and it didn’t take long, was that Gard dropped—or lost—all her friends from nursing school, a while back. Probably when she started doing Completion work for low-income women, outside the Standard of Care. That’s not a prestigious line of work, or so I’ve gathered. I wouldn’t really know. My point is I don’t have many sources of information, other than reading and rereading my sisters’ messages to me, and doing some basic sniffing around of my own. My point is I do not know very much. Of course, I’m used to that, I’m a Marine. That’s meant to be a joke. Sort of.
I’m less comfortable with being an ignoramus than I used to be, though.
So that’s why I’m here, at New Grant Park on a Wednesday afternoon, like it’s not a complete shit show, with the twelve-foot perimeter fence and the Security checkpoints. No one in their right mind comes here anymore, but all the same, it’s always crowded. I remember when I was a kid there were these evil-looking blue lights that they used to run across the surfaces of the old fountains, nasty little water mirages, but they don’t do that anymore. They also don’t paint the ground cover green anymore because no one’s bothering to pretend that chewed-up, garbage-strewn, rubberized stuff is grass. I’ve seen the pictures. I know how it used to look. I don’t care. It’s still a park. Even fake leaves make shade.
There’ll be bugs and ears and screens and transmitters in every third bush and bird butt. But it’ll be crowded, and there’ll be noise, plus
the constant helicopter traffic overhead, and the plan is to talk quietly and walk loudly. I’m wearing dress shoes, new for Fred’s wedding—not a style I would have picked. But thick, expensive, imported, and crazy-ass-loud on pavement, which for my purposes today is a plus. Fred’s wedding is this coming weekend, just a couple of days off, and the shoes seem like a pretty good indicator of what’s about to go down in our family. We are all—me and Fred and even Pop—going to be A. J. Squared Away, even if our feet are killing us. Fred’s done good, I guess. I haven’t met the guy.
I move directly toward the park gate, and I don’t look around. In front of me as I’m waiting to scan in are a couple of women carrying their lunches in sacks, standing close together, not talking much, not checking their wearables, and there’s some quick-spreading unease behind them in the entrance line when Security actually blocks both of the women at the gate.
“What’s the problem, Officer?”
One of the women repeats it, sort of blankly. “Ineligible.”
“Ineligible for park access. You’re not making Care Standard. You owe”—Security checks it with a flick of the eye—“a lot. And this one.” He nods toward the woman’s lunch companion. “You’re both, what, halfway through the Completion period? And you already owe this much? No, I’m sorry.” It’s clear he’s not sorry. “Why don’t you go home and take care of your children? That’s where you really should be, isn’t it?”
I have to wait while the points are deducted and both women are turned away with their wearables singing; one woman tearful, both of them looking furious and humiliated. Mothers. It’s hard to watch, harder not to stare.
I keep my eyes down, on my new shoes.
Then it’s my turn to move through the checkpoint, and I can’t help but look up as the Security guard scans my wearable—once, then twice. I don’t have any reason to be nervous about being bounced. I’m a veteran; they’ll keep their hands off me. But since coming home I’ve been given more than a few opportunities to understand, in case I didn’t already know, just how deep the average person’s dislike of veterans like me runs.
“Thank you for your service,” the other Security guy pipes up, and as usual I have no idea how to respond to that.
Inside the park I move in the direction of the Buckingham, following the general drift of the lunchers and the lonelies. It’s a hot day, and shade under the stressed-looking fake trees is thin. The smell is baked rubber. The noise in here is almost overwhelming—there’s piped-in Christmas music, plus the chirping of the not-birds in the not-trees, and below that the usual environmental soundtrack of fountain waters chuckling and soft breezes shushing, broadcast just low enough for people like me to hear, people who are paying too much attention to everything. Most people aren’t even trying to talk over it all. And of course the helicopter traffic overhead, constant, chopping the air into rags.
At the fork of the path that bends toward the gravel circle around the Buckingham, I stop and lean against a lamppost and rub my ankle. Partly because the shoes really are starting to bother me.
I hear crunching footsteps approaching, light and purposeful on the gravel walk, but I keep my head low for an extra beat or two, just to make sure.
“You,” she says.
That’s my cue to straighten up and look. She’s pretty. I think most women are pretty, actually—after two and a half years in the service my standards are not what you’d call high. But this one, this Natalie B., she’s really pretty. Nice hair: an off-center halo of dark curls. Nice skin: makes me think of bittersweet engineered coffee, shining in a cup. Her eyes are big and dark, with long lashes. It surprises me a bit to see that she has a fairly large, detailed tattoo on her left forearm. I try not to look like I’m looking too closely at it, or at any part of Natalie B. in particular. Her mouth is set in a funny expression. Exasperation. I recognize it from having two sisters.
“Thanks for meeting me.”
“Let’s walk. I don’t like this,” she says curtly.
“Okay. You’re the boss.” We head down the paved path that leads toward the loudest, most crowded part of the park. “You been waiting long?”
“Then why are you so pissed off?” I give her a smile; she gives me a look. I’ve been demoted from exasperating to moronic. Also easy to recognize from having two sisters. “Well, thank you anyway.” I’m trying now. This meeting has taken a lot of effort to arrange. “I realize it’s not easy for you to get away. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.” We’re coming up on a particularly loud not-bird, set on a branch at the height of a grown man’s shoulder. Someone has knocked the top of its head off so that the little plastic voice box, broadcasting its chirps and tweets, is visible and totally unmuted. This is where I start to slow my pace. “I really don’t have much time,” Natalie B. says. Then she notices the bird. “You do that?”
I don’t answer. “I know you’re in a rush. I just need to know when and where you saw Gardner last.”
Natalie shakes her head. “You already know I can’t tell you that.”
It’s hard to control my temper even when I’m not standing in hard-ass dress shoes right next to a piercingly loud robot bird with a chopper circling overhead that’s been ripping up my eardrums for a good half hour. “You agreed to meet me.”
She snorts. “Like I had a choice.”
I hadn’t given her a choice, she means. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks messaging her nonstop, asking her—begging her, really—to meet with me, somewhere, anywhere she wants. Because if anyone knows anything about what happened to my sister, it’s got to be Natalie B.
I try another charm offensive. I hold out my hands, big ones, imploring. “Look. I’m begging you here. She’s my sister. You know why I have to ask.”
This Natalie B., standing by the loud not-bird, puts her hand on her hip and looks up at me, and I can tell she’s trying to actually see me—she’s doing her best to understand what I might look like if she didn’t have to squint at me through a veil of irritation and anxiety. I’m white and she’s not, and that’s part of it. I’m a combat veteran and she’s a civilian. That’s part of it, too. But she’s a veteran of a sort herself—between Pop and my sister Gard, I’ve known enough medical people to
understand that they form their own kind of armed force, a professional tribe who have seen unimaginable, disgusting, beautiful things most people won’t have to—and in that world I’m half a civilian, because I’ve seen those things, too, but not because I was trying to fix them.
Also, I make her irritated and anxious. I have that effect on people, just in general—more often than I like.
Finally Natalie says, “I don’t know why. You could have a million reasons for wanting to find your sister.”
That surprises me. I can feel my heartbeat starting to galumph, and a strong, familiar smell of flowers is crawling down my throat. These are not good signs. Suddenly I’m talking fast. “The hell does that mean? She’s my sister. I haven’t heard from her in months. I’m worried about her. She could be dead.” Now in my ears there’s a ringing. So I have to stop.
After a beat, Natalie says quietly, “Gardner’s not dead.”
At this point I’m just trying to catch my breath. “What—what did you say? How do you know?”
Natalie shakes her head. “I can’t tell you any more.”
“You know? You know she’s not dead? You know where she is?” I need to calm down. Need to. Calm down so you can hear what she’s saying. Breathing. Breathing here and now. In and out.
“Not here. I can’t tell you any more here.” She touches her forehead, and the exasperation is back. “Look, if you really want to know—”
“Wait. Wait, wait, wait—” I hold up a hand, the other hand is shielding my eyes. I gulp in a few wheezy breaths. After two-plus years out west it’s hard for me to catch my breath even under the best of circumstances, but I have to get myself under control or the ringing in my ears will start again and I won’t hear a word she’s saying, and I might never get another chance. “I just need a second, wait.”
I’ve either frightened or surprised her, so she stops talking. After a couple of moments I take my hand away from my face, but I keep my eyes low, on the ground. Her shoes are the on-my-feet-all-damn-day type of rubber-soled clogs. One thing we share anyway—our feet hurt.
“Okay. Okay.” As usual when this happens, I hate myself more than I’ve ever hated anything.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Fine. Just—please. Continue. If I want to know where Gardner is I should come to your clinic. That’s what you were going to say.”
She steps closer to me, close enough that I could smell the scent of her, if the flowers weren’t choking her out. “Why did you think I was going to say that?” Her voice is low and not pleasant.
“I didn’t know everything about her life, but I knew some things.”
“And you wonder why she disappeared.”
“I do. I do wonder why.”
“I always heard they drafted the dumb ones for the Wars.”
I roll my eyes and smile for her. “You think that’s supposed to hurt my feelings? I grew up with two sisters, Doc.”
“You think this is a good time for a joke.” Natalie B. is spitting daggers. No amount of charm is going to work on this one. Time for a change of maneuver. My head is still ringing, I can barely breathe, and I’m tired of charming.
“Honestly? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s appropriate here. I’m not a detective; I’m not Security. I’m not anything. I’m just home because my sister’s missing and no one but me seems to care about finding her. And you, you acting the way you are, you’re giving me this feeling, Natalie, that as worried about Gard as I already am, I’m not worried enough.” I rub my eyes, still trying to clear them. “Is that right?”
Natalie B. is no dummy. Her expression is carefully composed. “She’s not dead. I’m pretty sure. But other than that, I couldn’t say.” Then her eyes narrow, and she actually sneers at me. “Even if I wanted to scare you, I can’t imagine what would frighten someone who’s been to the Wars. I imagine it would take a lot.”
People hate us. I know that. I learned it while I was over there, and I keep relearning it every day now that I’m home. The Wars have been dragging on for so long—too long, most people say, now that life in the New Cities is tolerable again. Long enough for the conflict to seem less like a necessity or a reality and more like a cruelty, an unending sucker punch. One side just getting kicked and kicked and kicked, and nobody can sort out why, not the kicker, certainly not the kicked. And meanwhile the way we’re fighting over there has escalated out of all
proportion to what’s on the receiving end of the firepower. It’s just an obliteration party.
So all I can do is agree with Natalie: “It would take a lot.”
This time, she doesn’t swing out at me with a follow-up punch. Maybe I’m not just an annoyance to be swatted at after all. She folds her arms, stares into the tweeting larynx of the decapitated not-bird like it’s trying to explain how it got like this. She’s not walking away. Yet. I still have a chance.
“Natalie, I know I don’t know much. About anything. I admit it. But Gard told me she trusted you. She told me once that she owed you her life. I know you worked together, I know she . . . I know she was having a hard time. Before she disappeared.” Natalie’s eyes soften at this; it’s noticeable, even though she still won’t look at me. “She told me some things. Not much. But enough that I guess, I mean, I’m glad to have met you, just to say thank you for looking out for her.” Now Natalie glances up at me, with some surprise. I lean closer to her, partly because I want to and partly because I don’t seem to be able to help it. “She liked you. She trusted you. So I trust you, too.”
Natalie clears her throat a bit and murmurs something like okay. It’s hard to catch, it’s mostly delivered toward the baked and cracked ground we’re standing on.
“So. If you wouldn’t mind telling me where I can find my sister.”
The moment breaks. Natalie throws her hands up. “How many times do I have to say it? I can’t tell you. If you really want to know you’d have to— Oh, for God’s sake, forget it. You know what, I’m leaving.”
She sidesteps into a crowd of people moving past us and is carried off in their current, just like that. I’m alone in the crowded park with the not-bird. I scare people, more often than I’d like.
• • •
I’ve searched through Gard’s place and looked at her portal. I’ve tried to talk to Gard’s friends, the few I could track down other than Natalie B. I’ve asked Pop, Fred, the few other people who I thought might know anything, the same pointless questions. Where did you see her last? Where do you think she went? I’m no detective, just like I told Natalie
B., but if she’s the only one saying Gard’s still alive, somewhere, then I have to believe she might also know where somewhere is.
So. My first meeting with Natalie may have been a bust. But I can still keep sending her messages. Which, from the first bar I can find near New Grant Park, I do. While sitting over a nice, cold, golden, engineered beer.
The truth is, the mysterious Natalie B. is the only lead I have left.
Dec 18 2:27 PM
Sorry to bother you again, Natalie.
I just wanted to let you know
I appreciated your meeting with me today,
and I heard you loud and clear.
I’ll meet you at your clinic tomorrow.
I take a long drink.
Dec 18 2:30 PM
You don’t have to reply.
I know where it is.
A nice long drink.
Like most human beings, certainly like most veterans I know, I’m a better person—funnier, calmer, more decent—with about five inches of beer in me. But I’m not a drunk. I know better than that. I’ve known a lot of guys who come back and start drinking like it’s their new job, which, to be fair, in a lot of cases it is.
I also do not have a job, obviously. Which I’m sure is why Fred holds me fully responsible for our mission to track down Gard. And also why I’m in a bar drinking at two thirty in the afternoon on a weekday.
This bar is the kind of place I might have ended up at every day if I were a different kind of person—a guy like Fred’s fiancé, maybe. It’s empty now, but by a few minutes past the start of happy hour it’ll be full of men, traveling in packs with other men from their offices. Department guys. There’s a suitable engineered bourbon collection, and the bottles gleam in the colored afternoon light coming through
the stained glass windows at the front of the bar. I’m not a bourbon drinker, but if I were, the sight of those bottles would be something religious. It’s as cool and dark and sleek in here as it is hot and glaring and wild out there. The guy behind the bar is wearing a collared shirt, watching the portal screen overhead while absently polishing the glasses. No one’s paying any attention to me. No one has been, in fact, since I came back. Honestly, I can’t decide whether that’s such a great thing. The military puts you in the habit of being watched, and on watch, at all times. Partly because you and your buddies are obligated to keep one another alive, if you can, but also because they’re convinced that you’re always about to fuck something up colossally. They’re right, of course.
I have sent Natalie B., who I’d never met in person before today, about a hundred messages, by my estimate. Scrolling through the most recent forty or so, I would say that I’ve been polite but persistent. Not stalking or harassing, not exactly, but not unintrusive, either. My sister Gard had a name for this kind of thing: she called it “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.” Sort of a catchphrase of hers. Gentle Pressure, Relentlessly Applied would not have been a bad operation name for most of what I ended up doing in the Wars, in fact.
As I’m rereading the thread between me and Natalie B., a message from Fred slides in over the top layer.
Dec 18 2:48 PM
What are you doing at a bar?
Why aren’t you out looking for Gard?
Of course Fred would know where I am. Her wearable, like mine, like everybody’s, shows her not just her own Care Hours balance and her heart rate and her messages and her account balances and her med status and her reminders but also her geo status, and the geo statuses of her immediate family, because that is supposed to keep families safer, because this whole system of Care Hours and Care Standards and everyone knowing everything is supposed to be all about keeping families
safe; it is precisely what’s supposed to prevent people from getting lost or disappearing.
Dec 18 2:50 PM
I don’t like this, Carter.
Why are you at a bar?
I don’t particularly like that I’m here, either, come to it. I allow that some part of me might be here just to piss her off. But I know better than to respond with that.
Dec 18 2:52 PM
Just resting my paws. Long day on the hunt.
Dec 18 2:52 PM
Anything new? Please say yes.
Did you talk to that NC she knows?
Dec 18 2:53 PM
I have to pause, think about how to put things. There is little gentleness about Fred but plenty of relentless application, probably the one thing you can’t help but understand about her if you’ve spent so much as five seconds in her company.
Dec 18 2:55 PM
I can’t quite get a read on her.
Dec 18 2:55 PM
Do you think she knows anything?
Dec 18 2:57 PM
I hope she does.
Dec 18 2:57 PM
We’re almost out of time, CQ. This fucking
wedding is this weekend. It’s this
Friday night. I can’t do this without Gard.
Dec 18 2:58 PM
Wedding? What wedding?
Dec 18 2:58 PM
FUCK YOU NOT FUNNY
Dec 18 2:58 PM
You just want to find Gard in time
for her to talk you out of it.
Dec 18 3:00 PM
FUCK YOU ALSO NOT FUNNY
Fred has always talked a foul streak. As her kid brother I was only too happy to follow her example when it came to gratuitous cussing. Gard, though, usually managed not to swear. If Natalie B. is right and she’s still alive somewhere, Gard is the only person in our family who doesn’t curse like it’s her job, her passion, her one true love.
Dec 18 3:07 PM
Don’t worry, Fredlet. I’m on the case
Dec 18 3:07 PM
You better be. I’m serious.
This is fucking serious.
Dec 18 3:07 PM
Dec 18 3:08 PM
It’s not about the wedding.
Dec 18 3:10 PM
Suddenly another window layers in over Fred’s thread. There’s a new message from Natalie. A response.
Dec 18 3:10 PM
I don’t know you.
I don’t owe you anything.
It’s not a no.
I’m still thinking about how to reply when one last Fred message layers in.
Dec 18 3:15 PM
And don’t forget the wedding rehearsal
and the party at my in-laws’ tonight.
Don’t you dare be late dammit.