All the Missing Girls - Megan Miranda Page 0,1

to run. Early meeting on the other side of town.”

We met halfway for one last kiss. I grabbed his elbow as he pulled away. “Thank you,” I said.

He rested his forehead against mine. “It’ll go fast. You’ll see.”

I watched him go—his steps crisp and measured, his dark hair brushing his collar—until he reached the elevator at the end of the hall. He turned back just as the doors slid open. I leaned against the doorframe, and he smiled.

“Drive safe, Nicolette.”

I let the door fall shut, and the reality of the day suddenly made my limbs heavy, my fingertips tingle.

The red numbers on the microwave clock ticked forward, and I cringed.

It’s a nine-hour drive from Philadelphia to Cooley Ridge, not counting traffic, lunch break, gas and restroom stops, depending. And since I was leaving twenty minutes after I said I would, I could already picture Daniel sitting on the front porch, tapping his foot, as I pulled into the unpaved driveway.

I sent him a text as I propped the front door open with a suitcase: On my way, but more like 3:30.

It took two trips to drag the luggage and remaining boxes down to the car, which was parked around the block, behind the building. I heard the beginnings of rush-hour traffic in the distance, a steady hum on the highway, the occasional honk. A familiar harmony.

I started the car, waited for the air to kick in. Okay, okay, I thought. I rested my phone in the cup holder and saw a response from Daniel: Dad’s expecting you for dinner. Don’t miss it.

Like I might be three hours later than I’d claimed. That was one of Daniel’s more impressive accomplishments: He had perfected the art of the passive-aggressive text message. He’d been practicing for years.

* * *

WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I used to believe I could see the future. This was probably my father’s fault, filling my childhood with platitudes from his philosophy lectures, letting me believe in things that could not be. I’d close my eyes and will it to appear, in tiny, beautiful glimpses. I’d see Daniel in a cap and gown. My mother smiling beside him through the lens of my camera as I motioned for them to get closer. Put your arm around her. Pretend you like each other! Perfect. I’d see me and Tyler, years later, throwing our bags into the back of his mud-stained pickup truck, leaving for college. Leaving for good.

It was impossible to understand back then that getting out wouldn’t be an event in a pickup truck but a ten-year process of excision. Miles and years, slowly padding the distance. Not to mention Tyler never left Cooley Ridge. Daniel never graduated. And our mother wouldn’t have lived to see it, anyway.

If my life were a ladder, then Cooley Ridge was the bottom—an unassuming town tucked into the edge of the Smoky Mountains, the very definition of Small Town, America, but without the charm. Everywhere else—anywhere else—was a higher rung that I’d reach steadily with time. College two hundred miles to the east, grad school one state north, an internship in a city where I planted my feet and refused to leave. An apartment in my own name and a nameplate on my own desk and Cooley Ridge, always the thing I was moving farther away from.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned about leaving—you can’t really go back. I don’t know what to do with Cooley Ridge anymore, and Cooley Ridge doesn’t know what to do with me, either. The distance only increases with the years.

Most times, if I tried to shift it back into focus—Tell me about home, tell me about growing up, tell me about your family, Everett would say—all I’d see was a caricature of it in my mind: a miniature town set up on entryway tables around the holidays, everything frozen in time. So I gave him surface answers, flat and nonspecific: My mom died when I was sixteen; it’s a small town at the edge of the forest; I have an older brother.

Even to me, even as I answered, it looked like nothing. A Polaroid fading from the edges in, the colors bled out; the outline of a ghost town full of ghosts.

But one call from Daniel—“We have to sell the house”—and I felt the give of the floorboards beneath my feet. “I’m coming home,” I said, and the edges rippled, the colors burned: My mother pressed her cheek against my forehead; Corinne rocked our cart gently back and