Visiting for the first time? You can start with day one here.
I follow Jasper down the trail, or I guess I should say up — it leads to the cliffs nearby, winding up and down along the coast. The sun creates a warmth that counters the wind that brushes cool against my skin. I take a deep inhale, noticing the difference of how the Atlantic caresses the shore. I’m used to the break and tumble of the Pacific, a different kind of grace that crashes against cliffs and creates new landscapes from its existence. I can see why Juniper chose this place. A small grin escapes the weariness of my expression and I let the muscles in my shoulders relax.
Right here — right now — I am okay. I am doing what I know to do, what Juniper would be doing for me if roles were reversed. She always lectures me about not taking breaks. I run too hard, she tells me — that I can’t run from my ghosts forever. The hard part? I’m really good at doing it. And she was really good at seeing.
“Come see me,” she would say. “You have vacation stored up. I know you do.”
I always said no. I was too busy, too focused, too distracted by filling my schedule to run from the hurt.
I don’t want to admit it, but I really needed to get out and breathe the fresh air.
“I need to ask you something,” I say. “It might be awkward.”
Jasper reaches for a stone in front of him and throws it off the side of the cliff, watching it bounce until it disappears.
“I’m a native in the country of Awkward. Give it your best shot.”
A laugh escapes from my lips and my hands reach up to gather the hair on my neck in a pile on the top of my head. With one finger, I grip the rubber band around my wrist, pull it off, and wrap it around my untamed hair.
I’m delaying the inevitable. I sigh and close my eyes, really not looking forward to this conversation but also really needing to know.
“I’m trying to figure out why you’re invested here.”
Jasper falters and widens his eyes for a brief moment before creating a rhythm with his steps all over again. His lips curve down briefly before nodding.
“I guess that makes sense.”
I keep walking, avoiding his gaze.
“It’s just, Juniper never mentioned you.” I put my hand up and brush against his sleeve in embarrassment. “I mean, no offense. I’m not saying you don’t mean anything to her. She doesn’t tell me everything — clearly — because I didn’t know she was getting notes or being harassed? stalked? by a student. Or I guess we don’t know if it’s a student, huh? Anyways…”
Jasper wipes his cheek with the back of his hand and smiles. “Lavender. It’s fine.” He places his hand around mine and squeezes it before letting go. I try to ignore the heat he leaves behind.
“Juniper and I were close. She helped me through a really tough break up right around the time her and Simon were beginning to have difficulties.”
“I guess you can say we were each other’s lifeboat.” He squints and looks ahead, continuing to walk. His pauses more to accommodate for the steeper incline. “We weren’t romantically involved, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I blush again and suck in a lip, unsure of how to respond. I settle for “oh,” suddenly wanting to disappear from the awkwardness I’m feeling.
“But,” Jasper raises his hand and separates his fingers in a frustrated push against the air around him. “She really is one of my closest friends here.” He shrugs. “She’s family to me.”
I look up at him then, studying his profile and how the words fall off his lips. He looks me in the eye and runs his fingers through his hair, trying to find the words. We’ve both stopped on the trail and we’re facing each other, the sun beginning to make its descent on the horizon. I can see the gold around us taking over.
“If you’re family,” Jasper says, his voice dropping an octave. I pretend I don’t hear the emotion behind the shift. “I’m going to do whatever I need. If you’re family, I’m going to fight for you until I find a reason not to — so….”
He leaves his thought hanging and I turn away from him, fighting my own thoughts creating a thunderstorm of emotions. My phone vibrates and I pull it out of my pocket, my heart shaking again.
Will I ever stop wondering if it’s you?
My throat tightens and I choke out a hello.
It’s Detective Dan.
“What’s wrong?” He immediately launches into the third degree. He must hear the tone of my voice.
“I-I’m fine.” I shake my head quickly and dig one of my fingernails into the meaty part of my flesh. I should probably stop lying about how I’m doing, but I also can’t find it in me to care.
Dan makes a noncommittal grunt and says something under his breath that I can’t hear. It’s probably for the best.
“Okay. Well. The forensics team is on their way, and they’ll need you there in case they have any questions,” he waits a beat. “Are you still home?”
I look at Jasper and motion for us to walk back toward the house and he nods in understanding.
“Yeah. Yeah we’re here. We’ll be here.”
And I hang up, not knowing what else to say. For the second time in a week, strangers will comb through my sister’s things. Will they find anything? I tap my phone against the palm of my hand, a tattoo of emotional angst and nervous energy.
We’re silent the rest of the way home, the sounds of the ocean becoming the soundtrack to each of our thoughts, lost in the never-ending question of how someone could just cease to exist, and how her disappearance continually pushes us together, whether we’re ready for it or not.