Red

By Ramsey Shehadeh

A young man grieving for his lost sister steps into the world of their favorite board game, in a desperate attempt to find her.

The yellow and blue detectives lay toppled between the dice: yellow on her back, gun pointed up at the sky, blue facedown on the sidewalk between the Library and the Jewelry Store.

“Sorry guys,” said Ansel.

“Good roll,” said his father, righting the figurines.

Ansel moved his own detective—the green one, as usual—two spaces down the board, turned left, and then four more, into the pharmacy. It was roofless, like all the other buildings in the game. The pharmacist stood behind a counter, hands resting on the glass. He was drawn in an isometric three-quarters view: a mop of auburn hair, tinted glasses, silk shirt with wide lapels, suede red pants that flared at the ankles.

Ansel played one of his Interrogate cards—Did you know the MISSING PERSON?—and then drew an Answer card from the Pharmacy’s stack. It said:

Sure, I knew him. Great guy. He really liked to hang out in the LIBRARY. You might try asking the LIBRARIAN when she saw him last.

“What you got there?” said his father. “Something good, I’ll bet.” He looked at Ansel’s mother. “He’s got something good there.”

She smiled and nodded.

The library was a long narrow building in the center of the board. Lines of shelves ran perpendicularly down its length, with trestle tables interspersed between them. Each table had a single lamp, casting a perfect circle of yellow light on its surface. The librarian stood on the western end of the building, reaching for a book. She wore heels, a tight floral skirt, a yellow chemise with its top button unbuttoned. There was the mildest suggestion of cleavage there—nothing more than a quick pen stroke—but it had been more than enough to inflame Ansel’s imagination when they’d starting playing this game, almost 5 years ago, when he was 12 and Louise was 9.

“Care to share, son?”

Ansel could probably have gotten a couple of Detective cards out of this, but he didn’t feel like bargaining. He shrugged and glanced at the red figurine—Louise’s detective—lying on its side in the box.

Oho. Well,” said his father. “Let’s see what’s going on here.” He plucked a Detective card out of his hand with a flourish and slapped it on the table.

EAVESDROP. You overhear another detective’s conversation with a suspect! The player must show you the card from his last INTERROGATION.

Ansel grinned and showed his father the clue. It was a dead end. Ansel knew the rhythms of the game, and all its permutations. He’d once spent a whole day reverse engineering the algorithm the game used to build the skein of clues that led to the missing person. The library led nowhere.

“I knew it!” He glanced sidelong at Ansel’s mother. “Now both of us know something you don’t, my dear.”

Ansel felt suddenly very tired. It was exhausting, watching them pretend. He stood up. “Can we finish this tomorrow? I have some more studying to do.”

“Sure,” said his father. “But don’t think you’re getting out of this, son. I’m on your heels now!”

Ansel smiled, leaned over to accept hugs from both of them, then made for his room. He felt their gaze on his back as he mounted the steps, and imagined their waxen smiles melting down to the expressionless masks they wore when they thought he wasn’t looking.

——

The LIBRARIAN plucked a book off the shelf and fanned through its pages.

“Nope,” she said, and put it back.

Ansel shifted nervously from one foot to the other. “Is there a Crime section?”

“Getting there, Kiddo. Hold your horses.”

The LIBRARY was quiet today. His father had come in about an hour ago, asked a question (“When was the last time you saw the MISSING PERSON?”), doffed his blue fedora and left. His mother walked by every so often—the flash of a yellow trench coat, blurring past the doorway— but she never came in.

The LIBRARIAN picked up another book, whisked it open and frowned at the table of contents. “Nope,” she said, and put it back.

“I can look too.”

“This is my job, Honey.” She glanced over her shoulder. “We’ll find it. You’ll see.”

They’d drawn her as a kind of caricature. She had a large undifferentiated shelf of breasts, bee-stung lips, absurdly high heels. But she was philosophical about it. They just made me, she always said. I am me.

Ansel wandered back to his table and sat down. The timeline he’d been working on lay between two teetering stacks of books, in the lamp’s yellow circle of light. He read over what he’d written so far:

9:33pm. Left SCHOOL. Me on foot, LOUISE on her bike.

9:34pm. Turned right on ROCK SPRING DRIVE.

9:36pm. Turned right on OLD GEORGETOWN ROAD.

He closed his eyes and tried to picture it: Louise weaving back and forth on her bike a few feet ahead, leaning into one turn until she was about to topple, recovering at the last minute, leaning the other way, the tassels on her handlebars flaring with each dip.

He picked up his pen.

9:42pm. Approach CHESHIRE DRIVE. ALLISON GRANIER and EVE PRESCOTT and MELISSA NG approximately 40 feet ahead, walking in the same direction.

9:43pm. Confer with LOUISE.

9:45pm. Call out to ALLISON.

Every other streetlamp was off that night—a county power-saving initiative—so the sidewalk was striated with alternating stripes of darkness and light. The moon hid behind an unbroken canopy of cloud.

Louise had outgrown the tassels on her handlebars a long time ago, but she shrugged whenever he pointed it out. Outgrowing stuff is depressing, she’d say. I’d rather not.

“Shouldn’t you be investigating somewhere else, Honey?” said the LIBRARIAN, her voice muffled by the shelf of civic history she’d disappeared behind. “I love your company, but you already know everything I do.”

“I’ve asked everyone all the questions,” he said, absently and wrote:

9:47pm. Stop and speak with ALLISON.

9:50pm. Turn left on CHESHIRE DRIVE, with ALLISON. LOUISE proceeds home.

9:51pm – 10:00pm. Walk to ALLISON’S house.

10:15pm. Start home.

10:30pm. Arrive home.

He sat back and studied the page. He’d written this same thing, more or less, at least a hundred times over the last few months. The working theory—suggested by a therapist, one of the half dozen his parents sent him to after Louise disappeared—was that the act of writing and rewriting the events of that night would shake something loose in his subconscious: a latent detail or word or image or something to fill the empty spaces in the timeline.

He stood up and paced the LIBRARY, weaving in and out of the shelves, trailing his fingertips across the spines. The History of Police Endeavor in the City, said one. George Cameron Carver and the Birth of Square Symmetrical Positivism, said another. A Walking Tour of Downtown said a third.

The LIBRARIAN slotted another book back into place and straightened, frowning at the shelves. “I don’t know, Honey. Are you sure you saw it?”

“Yes,” said Ansel, emerging from the shelves. He stepped into the shallow canal that ran through the center of the building and tightroped down its length, arms out, one foot in front of the other.

“And it’s called May 15th?”

May 15th: A Deconstruction,” he said. “Or something like that. It has a white cover.”

“Ok,” she said, studying a cart of unshelved books. “Well, don’t worry. We’ll find it.”

“Her,” said Ansel. He reached the end of the LIBRARY, turned on his heel, and started back the other way.

“Her,” said the LIBRARIAN, eventually, the edge of certainty in her voice gone.

——

It was better, thought Ansel, when his mother cried herself to sleep. He’d lie curled into himself those nights, head jammed into a pillow to muffle the sounds coming from the other side of the wall: her desperate sobs, his father’s sotto voce attempts to comfort her. That was bad. But their silences were worse.

He pushed the sheets away and swung his legs over the side of the bed, rocking back and forth on his hands. The moonlight streaming in through his window tattooed itself on the floor in four identical squares, slightly oblique, separated by the cross of the window’s framing.

He studied the cross. A presence in negative. Or: an absence made manifest by the things surrounding it.

He levered himself off the bed and crossed to his door, opened it, and stepped into the hall. Glanced right at his parents’ room—their door was slightly ajar, as always—then turned left and padded down the hall, stepping carefully around the loose floorboards. He and Louise had compiled a detailed mental map of the hall’s creak-topography over many years of sneaking downstairs, individually and together: to cadge forbidden snacks or peek at Christmas presents or watch Late-Nite Horror Freakshow! with the sound turned all the way down.

An image flashed through his mind: he’s sitting cross-legged on the floor between the coffee table and the TV, watching a black-and-white swamp creature stagger out of the marsh. He turns to Louise, sitting on the couch behind him with a cushion clutched to her chest, peering over the top of it with wide, terrified eyes. She catches his glance and lowers the cushion just enough to smile at him, conspiratorially.

An old memory, and a good one. He carried it with him into Louise’s room.

It was dark in there, and smelled slightly musty. He moved across to the window and opened the curtains. Moonlight fell on the dresser, illuminating her collection of pewter animals: Bashful Bear sitting on his haunches, legs splayed; Tigger resting on his corkscrew tail; Mrs. Elephant lifting her trunk to Senõr Giraffe—and so on, down the line. She’d been collecting them since she was two.

The bed was made up, her stuffed animals clustered together against the headboard. The stack of books beside it was like an archeological dig of her interests, each stratum a different phase: Pooh at the bottom, then L’Engle, Tolkien, Plath, King, Orwell, Faulkner. Loose pages from her sketchbook sandwiched in between. All of it covered in a thick layer of dust.

He looked out her window. The street was quiet, the identical houses that flanked it dark. He’d glanced incuriously at them thousands of times over the years, those houses, but tonight he found himself trying to see through their placid facades, and imagine the sadness or heartbreak or violence that lay behind them.

He lay down on the floor and turned on his side in the moonlight, waiting.

——

Ansel stepped out of the east door of the LIBRARY onto the narrow cobbled street, the book tucked under his arm.

The LIBRARIAN had found it under a table, pressed up against the wall. It had a gray cover, not a white one, and it was so worn that you couldn’t really read the title. But he was sure this was it. Pretty sure, at least.

You really weren’t supposed to be able to take anything from the buildings. He’d been as surprised as the LIBRARIAN when he walked out with it.

Across the street, the doorway of the JEWELRY STORE stood open. His father’s voice filtered out into the street, running robotically through the standard list of questions:

When was the last time you saw THE MISSING PERSON?

Did the MISSING PERSON have any enemies?

What were you doing on the afternoon of May 15th, 1987?

He heard the JEWELER mutter answers he’d already given a hundred times. They would lead his father—as they’d led Ansel—to the GROCER, and from there to either the POLICE STATION or the NEWSSTAND, and from there to the SUBWAY. And there it would end.

He turned and headed downboard, toward the PHARMACY. And then stopped. His mother was coming up the street, toward him. She moved quickly, head down, hands jammed into the pockets of her yellow trench coat

“Mom?” he said.

She hurried past, turned left onto BEAL AVENUE and disappeared.

Ansel stood listening to the receding sound of her footsteps. His mother didn’t bother questioning people anymore. She didn’t look for evidence, or interview suspects, or buy clues. She just walked. She haunted the streets.

He waited until the sound of her faded away entirely, then turned into the PHARMACY.

The PHARMACIST was still behind the counter.

“Weren’t you just here, man?”

Ansel shrugged and turned to the shelves lining the walls. The artist who’d drawn this place had either never seen a modern pharmacy, or thought everything had gone downhill right around the turn of the 20th century. The shelves were stocked with glass jars half-filled with odd powders, opaque brown bottles with inscrutable labels—Ointment of the DuodenumFlybelly ExtractPhilosopher’s Tincture—and baroque, mysterious brass instruments.

The PHARMACIST was watching him intently. “So. Got a question for me?”

Ansel pulled one of the instruments off the shelf: some sort of uneasy cross between a stethoscope and a bellows. “Do you know the missing person?” he said, absently.

“Sure, I know her. Great girl. She really liked to hang out in the LIBRARY. You might try asking the LIBRARIAN when…”

“No,” said Ansel.

He blinked. “No?”

“No. You don’t know her.”

A long silence. Ansel put the stetha-bellows down and picked up a pair of clamps. “Do you know what her favorite kind of ice cream is?”

The PHARMACIST shook his head, puzzled.

“There are two answers to that question. There’s the kind she tells people she loves, which is rocky road. And then there’s her actual favorite, which is mint chocolate chip.”

He shrugged. “Ok.”

“Why doesn’t she just say mint chocolate chip?”

The PHARMACIST was equipped to answer exactly six questions. He’d come into the world standing behind his counter, waiting for customers in trench coats and hats to come into his shop and ask them. The answers would slip into his mind and then boil away in the act of answering. But this kid wasn’t asking the right questions.

“I don’t know, man,” he said.

“Because she likes secrets. Not big secrets. Just little, harmless ones. She hoards them. Do you know why?”

Something like panic entered the PHARMACIST’s eyes. “She was last seen at the corner of 45th and Pasadena,” he said.

“Because she wanted to save them for the people she loved,” he said. Or tried to say. He couldn’t quite get the words out. He blinked at the shelves through a sudden scrim of tears, scanning desperately, until his eyes lit on a divining rod, short and brass and bifurcated at its base.

——

The walk home from school took fifteen minutes, worst case. Two minutes down Rock Spring Drive, then anywhere between four and nine (depending on the lights) on Old Georgetown, to the street where they lived.

But it took a lot longer when he walked home with Louise, because there was a little shopping center she loved along the way. It catered to affluence—gourmet grocer, tea emporium, olive oil vendor, that sort of thing—but Louise always insisted on stopping there anyway. “Let’s peruse the baubles!” she’d say, brightly, and duck into the narrow artisanal jeweler, or the old-timey apothecary, or the increasingly-politically-incorrect fur shop.

The stores were all closed that night. Louise was on her bike, dipping left and right in front of him. Allison and her friends were walking a block ahead, also on their way home. The sun had set some time ago, and the moon lay sequestered behind clouds, so the only light came from streetlamps along the way and the occasional sweep of oncoming headlights.

“I think it’s going to rain,” said Louise. She glanced back when he didn’t answer, then followed his gaze to Allison, and smirked. “Ah.”

Rehearsal had run late. Opening night was only a week away, and Mr. Peliciotto had been in his usual meltdown mode. “Mister Patrick!” he’d screamed, in the middle of their third run through Ansel’s climactic scene. “I said sweep Miss Granier into your arms. Do you know what ‘sweep’ means? It does not mean tackle. I do not wish you to tackle her into your arms, Mister Patrick!”

Ansel could hear his sister giggling in the wings with her friends. He’d looked sheepishly at Allison. “Sorry. I’m not much of a sweeper.”

She’d shrugged. “I’ve been swept worse.” And then she gave him an interesting smile.

That was two hours ago. He’d been thinking about it ever since.

Louise peddled up beside him and studied his profile. “You know,” she said, in a stage whisper, “she won’t bite.”

“Shut up.”

“They’re talking about you.”

He looked at her. “How do you know?”

“Watch their heads. Every so often Eve or Melissa makes like they’re going to turn around, and then they don’t. That’s your girlfriend telling them not to.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

“Aspirational girlfriend.”

“I don’t know what that means.” English teachers loved Louise. She was the only sophomore in AP English that year, and she’d already won the school’s literary prize twice. It was annoying.

“Yes you do, silly,” she said.

Eve twisted her head around. Allison hissed something at her. She turned back.

“Ok,” said Ansel. He took a breath, steeled himself. “Ok,” he said again, raised his voice, and called out: “Hey Allison!”

All three of them stopped, and turned around.

“Keep it casual,” said Louise.

He closed the distance as nonchalantly as he could with his little sister by his side and three girls staring at him in the awkward silence.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” said Allison.

Another silence, dilating uncomfortably.

“Good rehearsal today,” he said.

“I guess. Pellicioto only spazzed like six times.”

“Only six withdrawals from the spaz bank,” he agreed. “He must be saving up for tomorrow.”

She laughed at that, maybe a bit longer than the joke warranted.

“So,” he said. “I was thinking maybe we could practice our lines a little more tonight.”

An intake of breath from Louise. Too soon.

“What, like right here?”

“No, no,” he said, quickly. “No.” His mind went blank. He hadn’t really thought much beyond his last question.

“I suppose you could walk me home,” she said. “That’ll give us ten minutes.”

He brightened. “Yeah, that works.” He looked at Louise. “I’ll meet you back at the house, ok?”

She frowned. There had been express instructions earlier in the day, before they’d left for school. Come home with your sister, Ansel. Ok? You walk home together.

The way she looked at him then—uncertainty, mingled with reproach and the barest traces of fear—is what Ansel woke up to every morning now. That expression, fading into the morning light, like a heat image. It lived in the darkness behind his eyelids. It haunted his dreams.

“Sure,” she said. “I guess.”

“Ok, great.” He turned back to Allison. “Shall we?”

She shrugged and started down Cheshire. Ansel fell in beside her. Eve and Melissa, probably responding to some subliminal girl-signal, fell in behind them, chatting.

“Teresa,” he said, in his dumb leading-man voice, “There’s something I need to tell you.”

“Oh Franklin,” said Allison, breathlessly, pressing her hand to her sternum. “I know. I already know.”

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