Read part 2 here.
It took me about an hour to explain everything to Erin. Well, not everything, if I’m being honest. I didn’t tell her much about Gretchen, just that she had been a friend of mine when we were kids. I also didn’t go into detail about Clay — just said he was a shitty step-dad and moved on.
At first she thought I was fucking with her. She had this look on her face like she was waiting for me to burst out laughing and say “Just kidding!” but that look went away when I played her the first DVD.
“Jesus Christ,” Erin said, putting a hand over her mouth. She glanced from me, to the screen, back to me.
“Yeah,” I agreed grimly.
She was silent, staring at the video until the final warning message flashed across the screen: INVOLVE THE POLICE AND SHE DIES.
“You have to do something, Amanda,” Erin said at last. She’d gone pale; her skin was the color of rotten milk.
“I know. That’s why I called you. I’m too scared to call the cops, even though that’s all I can think of. Here, there’s another one.”
When Clay began heckling me, she gave me this side-eyed glance that told me she felt sorry for me but didn’t know what to say. I’ve seen that look enough to know exactly what it means.
When the second one was over, Erin held up the DVD she’d brought from the mailbox.
“So that means…”
“Yeah.” I rubbed my hands over my face, not caring whether I smeared my winged eyeliner or not. “I’m scared to watch it, Erin.”
“Me too,” she said, but took it out of the case anyway. “We have to, though. You know that, right?”
“Yeah,” I said again.
“Here.” Erin handed me the disc that read SCHOOL PLAY 1998 and I slipped it into my MacBook. “You know what, you called me for help so I’m going to do whatever I can. Let’s play Nancy Drew this time and really watch it for clues.”
“Clues?” I asked, making the video player fullscreen. “Like what?”
“I don’t know, something. Anything. Maybe there’s some detail in here that will tell us where she is.” She paused, then snapped her fingers like a detective in an old noir movie who’s just realized his hunch. “The last one said figure it out! They WANT you to know… I don’t know, but there’s something they want you to ‘figure out.’ Right?”
“Okay, yeah, that makes sense.” As much sense as this could make, anyway. I smiled and knuckle-bumped her on the shoulder. “That’s why I called you, I knew you’d see this from a better angle than I could.”
“Not a better one, just a different one. Come on, play this bitch.”
I clicked play.
I already knew what to expect — I remembered what play I’d been in the year of 1998. That’s why I didn’t let out a shocked burst of laughter like Erin did.
Don’t think she’s mean or anything — I would’ve laughed, too, if I hadn’t known what was coming.
The opening footage showed a small stage set up in a middle school cafeteria. Beyond it, you could see the shuttered kitchen full of supplies, pots, pans. This did little to help the forced environment onstage; a sadly decorated Christmas tree flanked either side and between them were a motley crew of characters — tweens dressed up in bright colors, some wearing wings — but at stage center stood a short guy who’d clearly not hit puberty yet, covered from head to toe in black fur. He wore floppy dog ears and a bright red collar. At his left was a girl who looked like Dolly Parton carrying a magic wand.
And there I was: blue-checked dress, curled hair in pigtails, glittery red shoes, wide ingenue eyes. In a cheerily false, projected voice 12-year-old-me said,
“That’s right Toto, back to Kansas! Because there’s no place like home for the spirit of Christmas.”
No place like home. What a joke.
“It’s ‘Christmas In The Land of Oz’,” I told Erin, feeling my cheeks burn.
“It’s cute,” she offered.
“It’s fucking stupid is what it is.”
The cast gathered together in an awkward, messy excuse for a group hug, then straightened out again for curtain call. That was it — that was the big finale for the cheap, cheesy excuse of a play. A tacked-on line from the classic film mashed together with some drivel about Christmas spirit. Bullshit.
If you hadn’t seen this before, you would’ve missed the part where my real smile faltered and nearly disappeared when I spotted the camera in the audience. It was only a moment, a brief flicker across my face, but 12-year-old-me corrected quickly and went back to soaking up the applause with grace.
The footage cut to Gretchen like I knew it would. She was dressed up like Dorothy — like me. Her rust-red hair had been pathetically put into pigtails decorated with little blue ribbons. She was wearing a blue-checked dress, a cheap one that looked like it came from a Halloween shop. If I had to guess, she was probably wearing ruby slippers too, but I couldn’t see her feet.
Another strip of fresh duct tape. I wondered briefly where her glasses had gone; she hadn’t been wearing them in any of the videos. Did her kidnapper take them from her? Did she wear contacts now? Was this a clue, like Erin had said?
I began to panic, wondering if the footage had been corrupted, and saw that Erin had paused it.
“What are you doing?” I demanded frantically.
She held up one manicured hand. Erin was staring hard at the screen.
“Just look for a minute. Study everything. We can’t see much, but there might be something here.”
I had this crawly feeling, like I just wanted to watch the video and get it over with, but I leaned forward and looked too.
It was just a dark room, a stupid dark room with nothing in it, only the light and the chair and Gretchen. And, of course, the camera.
“I don’t see—” I began, then stopped.
Behind her, barely visible, was wallpaper. That was it, it had to be wallpaper — it was this dirty gold color with splotches of brown and pea-soup green.
“What—” Erin said, but I waved a hand at her to shush. I leaned closer to the screen.
When I squinted, the splotches turned into flowers. Flowers being choked by winding leafy plants that were probably vines but… but…
“They looked like weeds,” I whispered, and all at once my breakfast was in my throat.
I knocked over my office chair getting to the bathroom. I barely made it to the sink before the contents of my stomach burst out of me in a hot vile rush.
I could hear Erin in the other room, calling my name and coming after me, but she sounded a million miles away. I had forgotten. I had forgotten about the wallpaper and now I remembered, but only pieces, jagged little shards of memories that didn’t fit together quite right.
Clay drove me home after the play. Mom was working but she saw the first half and that was okay because the play was pretty dumb anyway.
“You did a good job up there, Mandy,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. It was the first nice thing he’d said to me since… since I couldn’t remember when.
“Thanks,” I said, staring out the window glumly. I was back in my school clothes and parka but I’d kept the curled pigtails because they made me feel pretty, like Judy Garland in the real movie about Oz. I traced mindless patterns in the frost on the car window.
“I… I know I give you a hard time.” Clay still wouldn’t look at me but his voice got softer somehow so I chanced a glance at him out of the corner of my eye. “I was mad when you quit baseball because I knew you could do better, that’s all.”
I didn’t say anything. Waited for him to go on.
“But tonight, up there…” He let out a low whistle between his teeth. “You were great, Mandy, you really were. You…” Clay drifted off again, then looked at me and favored me with a rare smile. “You shone.”
“Thanks, Clay,” I said shyly. His good nature was so unfamiliar to me I wasn’t quite sure what to do; I sort of expected it to be like when a cat rolls on its back, offering you its tummy to pet, then scratches the shit out of you.
But he didn’t say anything else. Just went through the Dairy Queen drive-thru and ordered me a cherry slushie, my favorite. I hadn’t even known he knew it was my favorite.
When we got home, Clay stayed silent. He took the video camera in its bulky carrying case inside and I followed, wondering if it would be out of line to ask if I could watch the footage of the play tonight. I decided against it. Christmas vacation was almost here and I could watch it when Mom and Clay were at work.
He was settled in his armchair watching “Married With Children” reruns, a freshly opened beer in his hand, when I poked my head into the living room.
“I’m gonna take a shower and go to bed,” I said quietly, trying not to drown out Al Bundy. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Clay grunted, noncommittal.
I paused, then added,
“Thanks for coming to my play, Clay. It was nice of you.”
He didn’t respond. I took that as a win and padded my way to the bathroom, locking the door behind me.
The girl in the mirror stared back like she wasn’t sure who I was. I suppose I wasn’t sure who she was, either. Our director Mrs. Derst had applied all of our makeup before the show and, me being the lead, taken the most time on mine. I hadn’t worn makeup before, not for real, just when Gretchen and I were playing around with those fake sets we got for our birthdays. This was how makeup was supposed to look — how ladies looked on the covers of Mom’s Cosmopolitans.
I turned my head to the side, admiring how mascara lengthened my lashes. I pursed my lips together. Red, like Dorothy wore in the movie. It looked nice but also kind of dirty, like mouths weren’t supposed to look this vibrant, this showy. It was suddenly evident how much baby fat I’d lost in the last year or so.
As I tugged off my school clothes I thought about how I hoped I’d be pretty when I grew up. I knew Gretchen probably wouldn’t be, as much as I loved her — she just had all those freckles and frizzy red hair and glasses that made her eyes look tiny in her head. I wished that Gretchen would turn out pretty too but little girls are selfish and most of all I wished it for me.
If I hadn’t been so deep in thought, maybe I would’ve heard the click at the doorknob. The sound of the lock being disengaged. The quiet woosh of the door opening.
“I told you that you shine,” Clay said softly.
I turned, covering my private areas with my hands, trying to shield my budding breasts from his view.
“You… you can’t be in here!” I yelped.
He took another step towards me. Closed the door behind him.
I backed against the wall next to the toilet. I had nowhere else to go.
“You can’t be in here,” I said again, weakly, but he was moving towards me and all I could do was turn away, press my face against the vine-and-flower wallpaper, and in the last moments of my innocence I realized that the vines entwined around the flowers weren’t vines at all… they just looked like weeds.
Erin was holding my hair back as I bent over the sink, retching. Saying soothing words into my ear. I was sweating.
I didn’t speak for a long time. But when I did, I said through a mouth that tasted like vomit,
“I know where she is.”