The Winter Sister
When they found my sister’s body, the flyers we’d hung around town were still crisp against the telephone poles. The search party still had land to scour; the batteries in their flashlights still held a charge. Persephone had been missing for less than seventy-two hours when a jogger caught a glimpse of her red coat through the snow, but by then, my mother had already become a stranger to me.
On the first morning of my sister’s disappearance, Mom locked herself in her bedroom. I stayed in my room, too—my and Persephone’s room—but I left the door ajar. For a long time, I watched the plows push through the foot of snow that had fallen overnight, and I kept imagining I saw Persephone out there, her fingers tapping on the window that fogged with my breath, and my hand opening it. Opening it every time.
The hours of that day were punctuated by my mother’s sobs. In fourteen years of being her daughter, I’d never heard such a thing. Even on the fifteenth of every month—what Persephone, rolling her eyes, called “Mom’s Dark Day”—there was only silence behind her bedroom
door. Whenever she emerged the next morning, her eyelids were always swollen, but I had never actually heard her pain. But on this day, the first day, she cried so hard and so loud that I could swear I saw my paintbrushes quiver in their cup on my desk.
It wasn’t until years later that I wondered why my mother didn’t try to be strong for me, tell me that Persephone was just being Persephone and that she’d be home before we knew it. What did she know right then? What does a mother feel in her bones when her daughter stops breathing?
Aunt Jill came over with my cousin, Missy, at five o’clock that first day. The roads were clear enough by then, though the snow banks were as tall as our mailbox. Jill tried for fifteen minutes to reach her younger sister. She leaned her forehead against Mom’s bedroom door and softly begged her to open up. When that didn’t work, and the sobs continued, she plucked a bobby pin from Missy’s bun and picked at the lock until the pin snapped between her fingers. “For Christ’s sake, Annie,” she said. Then she ushered my cousin and me to the kitchen where she splayed out Missy’s issues of Seventeen and told us to sit tight while she called the police from my room.
Mom had already contacted the cops early that morning, her sentences sharp and shrill as she berated them for saying they’d “make a note of it” and that she should call back later if Persephone hadn’t come home. Then she’d hung up with a long, tearful moan, and that’s when she went to her room and shut the door. Even as the hours passed and daylight turned to dusk, she never did call them back. She stayed locked away, sobbing, the phone undisturbed on its hook.
Now, I could hear Jill spelling Persephone’s name as she told the police that her niece had been missing for an entire day. But was she really missing? I’d seen her ride off with Ben the night before, just as the first flakes fell, and although I hated him more than I hated stiff paintbrushes or the loneliness of Mom’s Dark Days, I hoped she was with him still—angry at me, maybe, but okay just the same.
“Tell them to check with her boyfriend,” I told my aunt, stepping into the room. My voice startled her.
“Hold on a moment,” Jill told the police. “What boyfriend, Sylvie?”
This was the second way in twenty-four hours that I betrayed my sister.
Ben was a secret—our secret, Persephone loved to remind me. The way he drove down our street and parked his car a couple houses down was a secret. The way Persephone opened the window in our room and straddled the sill until one foot touched the ground was a secret. And here were some more: how I’d keep the window open, just enough for her to slip her fingers under and pull it up when she returned; how, on many of those nights, I’d wake hours later to the cold shock of her snapping back my sheets. Sylvie, she’d whisper, her voice hoarse in the darkness. I need you. And then began the biggest secret of all.
“Ben Emory,” I told my aunt. “The mayor’s son. He graduated last year, and Persephone’s been seeing him. But Mom doesn’t know.”
Jill frowned, the skin between her eyebrows wrinkling. “Why not?”
“We’re not allowed to date. But Persephone sneaks out all the time to see him anyway. She left with him last night, about ten thirty.”
Jill’s eyes widened. “Sylvie,” she said. “Why didn’t you . . .” But then she shook her head, leaving the question unfinished, and put the phone back up to her ear. “She was last seen with Ben Emory,” she said.
My pulse pounded as I walked back to the kitchen table, where Missy was braiding her hair to match a bright, glossy photo in one of the magazines. She was sixteen, the age smack-dab between Persephone and me, but she was carrying on as if this were a slumber party.
Why didn’t you? Jill had asked, and it was a reasonable question. Why didn’t I tell my mother about Ben the second I jolted awake that morning, the stillness of the house alerting me to Persephone’s continued absence? I’d like to believe I was trying to protect Persephone’s secret—our secret—but the truth, I know, is that I was trying to protect myself.
A little while later, Jill hurried into the kitchen to ask me for the names of Persephone’s friends.
“Ben,” I said.
“I called over there already. I had to leave a message because no one picked up. Who else?”
I shrugged, and then mentioned some girls I’d once seen Persephone with in the library as they worked on a project for school. Jill retreated back to my room, and I listened through the thin walls as, call after call, she reached a dead end: “Oh, they’re not really friends? Okay, well thank you anyway. Let me give you my number just in case she . . .”
When she ran out of people to contact, Jill insisted we try to sleep—me in my bed, Missy in Persephone’s, Jill on the lumpy couch in the living room. For a while that night, I kept myself awake, listening for the tap of Persephone’s fingers on the window. All I ever heard, though, were Missy’s kitten-like snores in my sister’s bed, and the sound of Persephone’s watch, ticking on somewhere in the room like a promise.
• • •
On the morning of the second day, I waited for Mom outside her door, sitting like a puppy that had been shut out. Normally, she was able to soothe me in ways that nothing else, not even painting, could. Her hand on my forehead was a cool washcloth, her voice a lullaby. We often played a game where she pretended to plant a garden on my face, using her fingers to show me where the roses would go (on my cheek) or where the lilies would be (on my forehead). “You’re blooming,” she’d say, and then she’d pretend to pick some of the flowers. “I’ve got three roses, two hydrangea bunches, and a stem of baby’s breath. How much will that cost me?” She’d pinch her fingers together as if holding a tiny bouquet. “It’ll cost you one hug,” I’d say, and then we’d hold each other tightly, laughing at how ridiculous we were, how happy.
But when her door finally creaked open, her eyes were so swollen they looked as if they’d been punched. Her cheeks seemed to sag, and she was still wearing the bathrobe she’d had on the morning before when I told her that Persephone was gone.
She looked at me on the floor but didn’t kneel down beside me or put her hand on my head. It was almost as if she knew what I had done, and hated me for it.
“Did she . . .” were the only words she uttered, and I felt how deeply I was failing her when I shook my head.
The doorbell rang just then, and Mom ran down the hall to the front door as Jill rounded the corner from the living room. They opened it together without a word, and I craned my neck to see between them. Missy was still asleep in my sister’s bed, and I couldn’t wait to tell Persephone that. “It was so weird,” I would say. “She just kept sleeping as if it was a vacation or something. I mean, you’re missing, right? But she’s just snoring away in there.” I could hear our laughter, even as I watched the police enter the house.
Two officers, a man and a woman, stood in the cramped entryway of our small two-bedroom ranch. They wiped their feet on the doormat, their hands on their belts like they were about to start line dancing.
“Are you Ms. O’Leary?” the male officer asked Mom.
“Yes,” she said huskily. “Yes, that’s me.”
“And I’m Jill Foster.” Jill stepped forward. “I’m the one who called last night.”
“I’m Detective Falley,” the female officer said, “and this is my partner, Detective Parker.” She gestured to the man beside her, who was looking beyond us as if already trying to find clues within the walls of our house. “I wanted to let you know, first of all, that we followed up on what you reported to our desk sergeant, and we spoke to Ben Emory.”
Mom stumbled backward a little. “What’s he got to do with this?”
“We understand,” Detective Falley said, “that he’s the last person your daughter was seen with.”
Mom spun around to look at me, and her eyes seemed grayer than usual, clouded by the horror gathering on her face. I looked at my feet, wiggling my big toe through the hole in my sock.
“Did you know about this?” she asked me.
I swallowed. “Yes,” I said. “I saw her leave with him. She . . .” I paused, unsure of how far to go in my betrayal. Then I looked up, keeping my eyes on the detectives, neither of whom could have been more than thirty-five. Parker even had a small patch of zits around his nose.
“She sneaks out of the house a lot to see him,” I said. “He’s her boyfriend. They’ve been doing this for months.”
Any color left on my mother’s face disappeared. Her skin became as gray as her eyes, as gray as the cold light from the cloudy sky outside. “Boyfriend?” she asked, her voice quivering.
“This is Sylvie,” Aunt Jill said to the detectives, gesturing toward me. “She’s my niece. Persephone’s sister.”
Falley nodded. “Ben says he doesn’t know where she is. Says they were driving around, got into a fight, and she demanded to be let out of the car so she could walk home. He says he let her off on Weston Road and then waited out the storm at his friend’s house overnight. We checked with the friend’s mother and she confirmed that Ben arrived around eleven p.m. and stayed until ten or so the next morning.”
“Then where is she?” I asked. “And why would she want to walk home when it was snowing? Ben’s lying! He has to know where she is.”
The detectives looked at me. Aunt Jill looked at me. But Mom just stared into nothing.
“He says she was very adamant about leaving the car,” Falley said. “Says she was opening the door and seemed ready to jump out if he didn’t stop. According to him, he pulled over to try to calm her down, but then she got out and wouldn’t get back inside. Says he got mad himself and finally drove off.”
“What were they fighting about?” Jill asked.
“Sounds like typical relationship drama,” Falley said. “He says she
got angry when he snapped at her about something. It escalated from there.”
I shook my head. The only part of Ben’s story I believed was that he’d gotten mad at her. I had seen plenty of evidence of his anger; I knew he was dangerous, but I also knew that Persephone never shied away from danger.
“We’re going to question him more about the fight,” Parker finally chimed in. His voice was deeper than I expected, and this comforted me. I didn’t know my father—my mother had always told me I’d been the product of a one-night stand, or a “one-night miracle,” as she liked to say—but I always imagined that when he spoke, his voice was strong and unwavering, the way that Parker’s was now.
“We drove around Weston Road, where Mr. Emory said he let her off, but we haven’t found anything yet,” he continued. “Please understand, though—we’re doing everything we can to locate your daughter.” He said this directly to Mom, who was leaning into the coatrack. She looked so fragile that the jackets and scarves tossed over the hooks seemed strong enough to bear her weight. “We’re going to talk to the people who were operating the snowplows that night, see if they saw anyone walking around. In the meantime—can you think of anywhere she might have gone? Friends’ houses? Places nearby that she frequents?” He pulled a small notepad out of his back pocket and clicked the top of a pen.
I looked at Mom, waiting to see if she’d answer, but her eyes were still locked on some distant air.
“I . . . there’s . . .” I tried. Then I cleared my throat as Parker turned his attention to me. “Well, my aunt and cousin live just over in Hanover. But . . . they’re here, so she’s obviously not with them. Um, there’s also . . .”
But there wasn’t also.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The only person she really hangs out with anymore is Ben.”
That’s when the coatrack crashed to the floor. It landed across the
entryway like a fallen tree, separating the detectives from my mother, Aunt Jill, and me. We all jumped backward. All except Mom, that is—because she’d pushed it over.
Next came the little yellow table where we dumped our mail and keys when we walked in the door. With one quick shove, it clattered to the floor, and Mom reached for one of the legs, snapping it off as if it were nothing more than a twig. We were all stunned, even the detectives, and it wasn’t until Mom swung the table leg against the entryway mirror that Parker stepped over the coatrack and grabbed her arms. Mom struggled against him, her bathrobe opening, revealing the stained T-shirt she wore underneath, and when he tightened his grip, she screamed.
“Annie!” Aunt Jill cried. “What are you doing? Calm down!”
This only made her scream louder, her face reddening like a newborn’s, and she kicked and twisted until Parker’s hands loosened just long enough for her to escape. She jumped over the coatrack and ran down the hall. We turned the corner as her bedroom door slammed shut, Missy standing in the hall with wide sleep-filled eyes.
“Mom?” she said to my aunt. “What happened? Is Persephone back?”
Any answer Jill might have given was lost in the sounds coming from Mom’s room. Furniture crashed. Throaty growls gave way to high-pitched screams. I recognized the squeak of her mattress as she—what? Pummeled her fists against it? Detective Parker marched forward and tried the knob. When the door wouldn’t open, he looked back at us. “Falley,” he said, and his partner nodded, steering me into the living room.
“Does your mother do this a lot?” she asked. She bent over slightly, staring into my eyes. “Has she thrown things and gotten angry like this before?”
I could hear Jill’s voice pleading from down the hall—“Annie, please, open up. We’ll find her, I know we will”—and I knew that Falley was waiting for me to say something, but I’d already forgotten what
she’d asked. Who was that woman inside my mother’s room? What rabid animal was making those noises?
“Sylvie,” Falley said. “It’s Sylvie, right?”
I nodded slowly.
“Have you ever known your mother to hurt your sister—physically?”
“Um,” I said, “she . . . what did you say?”
“Annie, please. Open the door and let me be here for you.”
“Ms. O’Leary, would you mind opening the door for a moment?”
“I said, have you ever known your mother to hurt your sister? Did she maybe hit her one time? Push her?”
I later learned that Falley was breaking protocol by asking me these questions—not because she felt that the situation was too urgent for all the red tape of recording devices and child psychologists, but because she was, in fact, a young detective. She’d only been promoted to that title six months before, and when she put her hands on my shoulders that day, they were shaking.
“Sylvie,” she said, “do you understand what I’m asking you?”
Something about my mother. Something about somebody hurting my sister.
No one thought to look at my hands. But even if they’d noticed the splotches of blue and gray on my fingers, or the flashes of red near my nails, they wouldn’t have connected it to Persephone walking toward Ben’s car and not coming back. They wouldn’t have seen it as evidence of a terrible crime. But Sylvie, she’d whispered the night before she disappeared, I need you.
• • •
As usual, I hadn’t heard her return. I’d only woken to the feeling of my sheets and comforter being ripped off my body. “No,” I groaned, trying to roll toward the wall.
“Yes,” Persephone said, grabbing my arms and shaking me. “There’s not much this time. Come on, you have to do this for me.”
I opened my eyes to find my mother staring at me. That’s what it seemed like, anyway, the two looked so similar—their large gray eyes, their blonde hair, their chins that came to a delicate point beneath their mouths. I knew that my sister and I had two different fathers, but with my brown hair and brown eyes and paler-than-pale complexion, it always surprised me how little I resembled the rest of my family.
Persephone leaned over and swung her head so that her hair tickled my face.
“I can do this all night,” she said. She moved even closer to me, still swishing her hair around, but now the gold necklace she always wore fell forward, and the tip of the starfish pendant grazed my lips.
“Okay, fine,” I conceded, pushing her hair, her necklace, away. “Show me.”
Persephone turned on my bedside lamp and lifted the side of her shirt. “There’s this one,” she said, pointing to a fresh bruise the size of a quarter just beneath her rib cage. “But Mom won’t see that one.” She let her shirt fall back down and then showed me the inside of her right wrist. There were two more bruises rising toward the surface of her skin. “It’s just these ones really.”
I swore I knew the size of Ben’s fingertips better than I knew my own. I sighed as I reached beneath my desk for the bucket of acrylic paints Mom had bought me for Christmas two months earlier. Grabbing some brushes and a Styrofoam palette, I sat back down beside my sister. Then I took her arm in my hand and turned it this way and that, assessing my canvas.
I worked in silence. I squirted Midnight Blue onto my palette and mixed it with Eggshell, not bothering to ask Persephone why she stayed with him. As I painted a moon over the first of the bruises, then crossed it with red-tinged waves that covered the other, I didn’t remind her that I thought love should be painless, that it shouldn’t be
sneaking in and out of windows, or blood vessels bursting. We’d already had those conversations before, and they all ended the same way: “You don’t understand. You don’t know him. It’s not what you think.”
“Okay,” I told Persephone, lifting my brush from her skin. “I’m done.”
She smiled approvingly at the moonscape, and I rubbed at the colors that had bled onto my hands. There were always traces of my work on my own skin in the morning, and though my mother often commented on what I’d done to Persephone, praising me for the “beautiful little tattoos” I’d given her, she never seemed to notice the tattoos I’d given myself, the paint that screamed on my knuckles and fingers. When Persephone showered each day, she was careful to keep her concealed bruises away from the water. When I showered, I scrubbed and scrubbed.
• • •
“Sylvie.” Detective Falley squeezed my shoulder gently. “Are you okay?”
The screaming had stopped. The hammering and crashing of furniture had stopped. Now, all I could hear from down the hall was the faint sound of paper being ripped, over and over, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk. What could she be tearing in there? Photographs? Letters? Secrets? Later that day, when Mom finally left her room to use the bathroom, I crept across the hallway to find that it was a calendar she’d been destroying. Scraps of months lay scattered across the carpet like seeds in a garden, and among all those fragmented squares of dates, every fifteenth was circled in red.
“I’m really sorry about this, Detective,” Aunt Jill was saying to Parker as they walked into the living room, where Falley still bent toward me with concerned eyes. “I don’t know what to say.”
Missy followed them. She was wearing one of Persephone’s T-shirts,
which snapped “I DON’T CARE.” I hadn’t seen her take it from our dresser the night before or I would have offered her some of my own clothes to wear. Missy shuffled in slippers—Persephone’s slippers—toward the couch.
“Are you able to stay here for a while?” Detective Parker asked Jill. “With the family?” He shifted his eyes toward me.
“Of course,” Jill said. “The girls have tomorrow off for Presidents’ Day. I’m a teacher’s aide—over at the middle school in Hanover?—so I’m off, too. We can be here, no problem.”
“Good,” Parker said. “Now, do you have a recent picture of Persephone we can take with us?”
“Yes!” Jill said. “I actually took out the photo albums first thing this morning. I was thinking of making some flyers to hang around town.” She walked into the kitchen, which was open to the living room, and flipped through one of the faux-leather books on the table. “It would just feel better to actively do something, you know?”
She pulled my sister’s senior portrait, taken earlier that school year, from its plastic sheath. In the photo, a painted bruise peeked out from Persephone’s neckline, a shadow to anyone who didn’t know, but to me, a focal point.
“So should I put the police station’s number on the flyers,” Jill asked, “or have people call us directly?”
Parker reached into his pocket and handed Jill a card in exchange for the picture. “Thank you,” he said. “You can put that info on the signs. Though I should warn you that, with things like this, we get a lot of false information. Ninety-five percent of the calls that come in are useless.”
“Well, that still leaves five percent,” Jill replied.
Ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk. In my mother’s room, paper kept ripping.
Clearing his throat, Parker rubbed his hand over the light brown stubble on his face. “Just a couple more things,” he said, shifting his gaze toward me. “Is it okay if I ask you some questions, Sylvie, before we go?”
I looked to my aunt.
“Go ahead, Sylvie,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
Parker looked down at his notepad and clicked the top of his pen. “Your aunt reported that you saw your sister drive off with Ben Emory at about ten thirty the night before last. Is that correct?”
“And how did she seem just before she left? Was she angry, for example? Sad? Excited to see her boyfriend?”
I imagined what the expression on her face must have been as she looked at me through the window Friday night, her breath making ghosts on the glass as she called my name. She must have looked angry, annoyed. She must have looked ready to kill me.
“I don’t know,” I told Parker. “I guess she was . . . neutral.”
He made a note on his pad. “Okay. Now, you also mentioned that she snuck out a lot to see him. Why is that?”
Everyone stared at me, the two detectives standing closest, my aunt and cousin on opposite ends of the room. So much seemed to hang on what I had to say, but how could a fourteen-year-old girl be expected to know what needed knowing?
“She’s not allowed to date,” I said. “Neither of us are. But I’m—I wouldn’t date yet anyway.”
“So your mother had no idea that your sister has been seeing Mr. Emory?”
“Well,” I started, “she didn’t know she was still seeing him.”
“Go on,” Parker prompted.
“My mom came home from the diner one night—she’s a waitress; I don’t know if that matters—and she found Persephone with Ben. They were just watching TV, I think, but it was the first time she’d ever brought a guy home, and my mom got upset. Persephone had broken the rule.”
From there, after Ben had slinked out the front door, the two of
them erupted at each other, Mom yelling at Persephone for her “blatant disrespect” and Persephone screaming right back about Mom “treating us like babies.” At one point, Persephone knocked over a lamp with her wild gesticulations, and they both stared at it on the floor for a moment. Then Persephone tore off its flimsy shade and threw it across the room, where it whizzed by Mom’s face and toppled some picture frames.
“Since then,” I told Detective Parker, “Persephone’s always just snuck out to see him.”
“How well do you know him?” Falley jumped in.
“I barely know him at all. He graduated last year, so I’ve never even gone to the same school as him.”
“And Persephone’s a senior this year, correct?” Parker asked.
“Yes,” Jill and I said in unison.
Falley took a step toward me. “The reason I asked, Sylvie,” she said, “is because when we first got here, you seemed pretty sure that Ben had something to do with your sister being missing. Why is that?”
“Has he ever hurt your sister before, or done anything that would put her at risk?”
“I . . .” I looked around the room. Four sets of eyes were latched onto me. “Like I said, I don’t really know him.”
“That wasn’t the question,” Parker said.
Why was I being interrogated? And where was the hot, bald light I’d seen on TV shows, the one that would shine on my face and sweat out all my secrets? At least then I wouldn’t have a choice if I betrayed Persephone. As it was, though, the living room was cool and gray. The faces of the detectives remained serious, but kind enough.
Aunt Jill came to put her arm around my shoulder protectively. I leaned into her, grateful for the save, but then she whispered in my ear, “It’s okay, Sylvie. Just tell the detectives whatever you know.”
We’re sisters, Sylvie, Persephone would always say. And that’s sacred.
So I know your promise to keep this a secret isn’t just words. It means something to you. Just like you mean something to me, and just like I hope—I really, really hope—I mean something to you.
Of course you do, I’d say.
Then prove it.
“I don’t know if he ever hurt her.” I looked at Falley and Parker, at Aunt Jill. I even looked at Missy, who sat with her chin resting on the palm of her hand. They were all listening to me, somehow sure that I had the right answers. “He just has to know where she is. She was with him that night.”
Ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk.
Falley glanced back toward the hallway, listening to the muted sounds of my mother’s rage. She looked at her partner before speaking.
“Sylvie,” she began, “when your mother’s acted like this in the past, did she—”
“My mother’s never acted like this,” I interrupted. “She’s never had a daughter who’s been missing before.”
Silence spread through the room like a gas. Even the sound of paper paused, and I imagined it was because Mom had heard me defend her. I could almost feel the soft approval of her fingers stroking my cheek.
The detectives shared a glance, Falley tilting her head at Parker, her eyes asking a question I couldn’t read. Then Parker nodded, closing his notebook and clicking his pen one more time.
“Thank you,” Parker said. “You have our information. Please feel free to call us anytime.”
He slipped his notepad into his pocket and headed toward the front door. Falley stayed behind a moment to put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re being really brave,” she said gently. “We’ll find your sister. Don’t worry.”
Aunt Jill walked toward the entryway to see them out, and I sank into the couch cushions, which were still blanketed with Jill’s makeshift bed.
“This is crazy,” Missy said, the expression on her face one of slow understanding, as if she was just beginning to comprehend how serious the situation was.
Down the hall, behind my mother’s door, the sound of shredding paper started up again.