Come Find Me – Megan Miranda

They say the universe is constantly heading toward disorder, and I believe it. Walls go up, and walls come down. Buildings crumble, governments fall, civilizations collapse. Stars explode. People live. People die. On and on it goes. Everything falls apart. Please don’t think I’m a pessimist. These are just the facts. — I am, truth be told, an optimist. Otherwise I would not set my alarm for after midnight, when I’m sure Joe is sleeping, and I would not sneak out the side door behind the kitchen, and I would not bike six miles in the dark to the farmland behind my old home to pull the data from my brother’s radio telescope. But I do. I do all of this, every few nights, because I am an optimist. — I leave my bike at the side of the house, hidden by the wide front porch, the swing creaking in the breeze.

There’s still a split-rail fence from when this place had horses, and a faint scent of hay remains—something I only really noticed once I was gone. There are lights in the distance, to my left, from the neighborhood jutting up against our property. But to my right, it’s all darkness—untouchable forest. There’s no light on the footpath to the old stable, now makeshift observatory, behind the house, and I don’t want to turn on the outside house lights in case someone sees. On the off chance one of the neighbors notices that something’s happening at the Jones House—and calls Joe. The night is hot and sticky, and I could really use the air conditioning, a drink of water from the faucet, and the bathroom, in that order. Joe may have cut the TV, the phone, and the Internet, but he can’t shut down the electricity yet—hard to show a house in the middle of Virginia during June without the air on. The Realtor must have had the locks changed last week, but she didn’t know about Elliot’s window around back. He’d reconfigured the mechanism when we first moved in so the window tilted in and out, instead of sliding up and down, and he’d sacrificed the locks for the design. So if I used the deck railing, I could reach up and push at the top, and then the bottom would swing open.

He was always tinkering with things, down to the smallest detail. Bedroom windows, before he got to radio telescopes. I feel my way through Elliot’s room, none of the furniture where I remember it. Someone—the Realtor, I guess—thought to turn this room into an office. Really, no amount of staging can change what people already know about this house. Our house has a quirky layout: it was probably designed as a sprawling ranch, with three bedrooms and the living areas on the main floor, but there’s a newer second-story loft that must’ve been added on after the fact, which now holds a storage area and an entertainment room. It’s where I used to bring my friends, to hang out. But I haven’t touched the second floor since the day I moved. Walking from Elliot’s room, I wait until I’m out in the hall to turn on the flashlight I’ve brought, keeping the beam away from the windows. The hall and the living room look much the same as when I last lived here, six months ago—except all the photos of us have been hidden away.

There must’ve been a showing recently, because someone has finally closed the kitchen cabinets. But I smile, picturing a family standing at the edge of the kitchen, seeing all the empty cabinets swung open in an eerie formation, imagining the chill making its way up their backs. I don’t believe in ghosts. But it helps that other people do. This time, I decide to mess with everything on the walls. I tip the paintings so they hang at odd angles, and I take a few off the walls, laying them haphazardly along the floor —so they look like they were knocked down in a rush. I stand back to assess the room. The whole effect is vaguely unsettling, which is kind of the point. The air feels cool against the sweat on my legs, and I drink the water from the kitchen sink, and use the bathroom attached to my room—which is nearly empty, as everything of value to me, including the furniture, has been relocated to Joe’s. In the distance, standing near the window of Elliot’s room, I hear a voice.

Even some laughter. I quickly turn off the flashlight and crouch below the window. I already know who it is: Marco, Lydia, and Sutton, probably. I should be annoyed that they still use the land beyond our house to meet up. I should probably feel some sense of propriety, or betrayal. I should want to know why they’re here, on a Friday night, without me. Mostly, though, I just want them to go. But it’s too late. I hear gravel kicking up as someone jogs toward the house. I peek out between the curtains, see a shadow near the detached garage behind the house.

I can tell it’s Marco from the way he stands with his hands in his pockets, and the way his hair, which I used to love to run my fingers through, sticks up at odd angles. “Kennedy?” he calls, his voice unsure. He takes a step closer. But not too close. When I don’t answer, he rocks back and forth on his heels and drags the side of his foot through the dirt. He takes a tentative step forward, and then back, before looking up at the sky as he turns around. He stops moving. “Come on,” he calls, turning back to the house. “I saw the light. I see your bike.

I know you’re in there.” I watch as he shifts from foot to foot. “I’ll just wait you out,” he adds. But he won’t. He also won’t try to come in. He hasn’t even crossed into the yard. Marco spends what feels like an eternity hovering around the garage. Standing beside it, sitting in the dirt, standing again. “Kennedy!” he finally shouts, drawing out each syllable and tilting his head back like he’s a wolf and I am the moon, and I wonder if maybe he’s drunk. The voices nearby stop.

“I’m sorry,” he adds, and that’s how I know he must be drunk. The words come six months too late. He eventually walks back toward the voices, shaking his head. I check my watch. Seven minutes. A Herculean effort, for sure. I have to wait another hour for the voices to disappear. Unlike Marco, I’m practiced in the waiting. I’ve grown comfortable in it, though nothing quite like Elliot, who was patience personified. Everything takes time, Elliot told me, fidgeting with the tiny wires of the satellite dish, turning it into something that could listen to the vastness of space.

Anything worth something. After I’m sure I’m alone again, I slip out the window, heading back to the observatory. The dish sits in the middle of the abandoned farmland, a cable running to a shed that had once been a small stable, until Elliot converted it to this. Now it holds an old computer with several monitors set up—the base of his solo operation and his contribution to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)—and it still works as long as the electricity is kept on, even if I can’t access it through the Internet. I wouldn’t let the Realtor touch it. I take my flash drive and download the last few days’ worth of data, searching for radio signals that could’ve been sent out by intelligent life beyond our world. I’ll spend the weekend sorting through it, unspooling the data like a lie detector test, little blips in frequencies giving rise to more questions: Is it real or background noise? Is it the truth or something else, like a trick of light? I’ll map the coordinates, check the amateur SETI message boards, and tag and file every one, like Elliot taught me. Most searches have scanned just a fraction of the universe. They’re guessing, grasping, listening for a very specific signal. It’s no wonder they’ve come up empty so far.

Elliot said there had to be something more. We’re new, he told me. Humans, I mean. Earth is 4.5 billion years old; the universe, closer to 14 billion. Modern humans first came on the scene 300,000 years ago. That’s a lot of unaccounted-for time in the universe for intelligent life to develop elsewhere. That’s a lot of chance. This is boring, I told him the first time I sat beside him in this very room. We were the new family in town last summer, and I hadn’t met anyone yet.

Hanging out with my older brother was better than nothing, but it didn’t stop me from complaining, even then. This is everything, he said, his face glowing, his fingers mapping the frequency readouts, as if he could commit them to memory. Three hundred thousand. Fourteen billion. Do the math. Don’t tell me there’s nothing else. All I saw were tiny peaks and tiny valleys on a screen, meaning nothing. Elliot was like that, though, seeing something where the rest of us couldn’t. Excited by the possibilities of the things he imagined—the world he believed might exist one day. I should start back for Joe’s, but I’m tired, it’s the weekend, Joe sleeps late.

This is what I think as I climb back through Elliot’s window, feel my way to my mother’s room on the other side of the living room, sprawl out on top of her covers, and shut my eyes, listening to the sounds of the empty house. Elliot was right, of course. I can see that now. There must be something more than this. Marco in the night, the empty house, the endless sky. This cannot be everything. This cannot be all that exists. I could tell you at least ten different stories about the woods of Freedom Battleground State Park—mostly ghost stories, a couple of legends thrown in for good measure—but there’s only one that matters. Here it is: Seventeen-year-old Liam Chandler takes his dog for a run into the woods during a family picnic held between the tire swings and the park-owned grills. His younger brother gets a premonition—one of those all the hairs stand up on your arms moments—when he suddenly remembers the dream he dreamt the night before, the one he hasn’t remembered until that very moment when it’s already too late.

The dream was one of those running-in-molasses types, where no matter how fast you run, you never seem to get anywhere. And no matter how hard you try to scream, your voice won’t come. So the word he’d been trying to yell—Liam—remained lodged in his throat until morning, when his mother woke him for the picnic, and the light from the window made him groan, and he promptly forgot the dream entirely. Liam and the dog—this mutt of a thing they’d adopted years earlier that preferred Liam to all other life-forms, except maybe rabbits—had been gone for, what, ten minutes, maybe, by the time the dream came back to the brother? By the time the hairs on his arms all stood on end and the boredom turned to panic? Ten minutes, we’ll say. “Where’s Liam? Liam!” The brother starts running. He starts searching, tearing through the twigs and underbrush, following the unpaved paths deep into the woods and back out again. Eventually his parents, hearing the desperation in his yells—this time, not stuck in his throat—ask him what’s the matter. The brother tells them, with an air of inevitability, that Liam is gone. No, they say, he’s with Colby. He’s out for a jog.

He’ll be back soon. The premonition tingles like static electricity. The boy and the dog are never seen again. — That was two years ago. My brother is still gone. Missing. The police, the FBI, the volunteers who have devoted thousands of hours of labor, have found nothing. The newspaper headlines crackled for attention: The Unsolved Mystery of Promising Student Athlete; All-State soccer goalie, National Merit Scholar, golden child of Battleground High, disappears without a trace. Liam Chandler, stuff of legends. Liam Chandler, reduced to nothing more.

— Allow me to set today’s scene: It’s Saturday morning, barely dawn. I’ve got a loaded backpack, schoolwork dumped out on my floor. The phone rings. My dad paces downstairs while he talks. My mom works at the computer station in what was once our living room with earbuds in, her head nodding in agreement to some statistic or statement on one of her podcasts. Eventually, the doorbell will ring, and the hum of activity and the scent of coffee will overtake the house. It’s the same every weekend. Worse, now, with the influx of kids back from college, partnering with my parents’ foundation for volunteer credit. Even worse because I recognize a few of the names—kids who were at my high school a few years ago. This is the best time to leave, before the phone lines become congested, before their voices start to carry up the steps, before they decide they could really use another set of eyes, or hands, or ears, and somebody inevitably calls, “Nolan?” I head down the back steps, out the back door, walking around the outside of the house to the driveway, partly to avoid my parents, who will ask why I’m heading to work so early, but mostly to avoid the pictures.

I should explain the pictures. They started in the living room—just a few taped sporadically to the walls—but they’ve slowly and steadily seeped into the dining room, down the hall, and have recently begun encroaching on the kitchen. They’re like wallpaper, their edges overlapping, eyes of the missing following as you pass. Their names and measurements, birth dates, and last reported seen statistics written in Sharpie underneath. A girl, age twelve, from Florida, over my seat in the dining room. Next to a boy, age fourteen, from West Virginia. Round and round they go. It was a rapid progression from a seemingly normal house to this: First, the police, the FBI, the psychic my parents consulted—clinging to her every word even while looking embarrassed for themselves—failed to provide any answers. Next, the volunteer-run center migrated from the generosity of the coffee shop meeting space to our living room, and my parents redoubled their efforts. Then, getting nowhere, they tripled them, spinning faster and faster until they finally landed in some exponential realm so that instead of just finding Liam, they’d inadvertently taken on the case of every missing child on the East Coast.

Or so it seemed to me. Okay, the truth: They run a nonprofit foundation for missing children throughout the Southeast. They’ve channeled their grief into action (so said the local paper). But if you ask me, they just feel at home in it now. And so they’ve willingly inherited the cause of every grief-stricken parent. Meanwhile, I’ve inherited Liam’s old sedan, which was my father’s before that. It’s kind of a toss-up each day whether it will start, and beyond that, whether the air will kick in. Please start, I beg the car. Especially because Abby’s apparently home from college now, currently in running gear, tying her sneakers in front of her parents’ front door, doing her best to look like she hasn’t noticed me—and I’d really prefer to do the same. Nothing’s quite as awkward as casually waving to your brother’s old girlfriend, who accidentally— and only once—in a moment of weakness, or grief, or whatever, ended up in the back of this car, with me.

Not something either of us would really like to relive. Betting it’s worse for her. The engine stutters and then catches, and even the air kicks in, the scent of Freon bordering on intoxicating. I don’t look at Abby as I drive past. Today will be a good day. — The ranger at Freedom Battleground State Park thinks he’s got me all figured out. EMF meter? he once asked when I pulled the gear from my backpack. You got one of those infrared cameras, too? Apparently if there are enough ghost stories in your area, you’re bound to get some amateur ghost hunters. I guess I wasn’t the only one roaming the woods, looking for signs of the unexplained. I don’t have one of those infrared camera things, though—or a temperature gauge—because I’m not looking for cold spots or orbs or anything.

I’m not even looking for ghosts, exactly. But I let the ranger think that’s what I’m up to, because he mostly leaves me alone. I must seem harmless enough. But, like he assumes, I am measuring, and mapping, high-electromagnetic spots, and I also have a Geiger counter to detect radiation pockets, and an extra-low-frequency meter, all of which are typically associated with the other side. With signs of ghosts. Or spirits. Honestly, I’m not exactly clear on the proper terminology. That psychic my parents hired came out here with us, and she said she could feel some energy, that something happened here—well, of course it had, we’d told her as much. And she gave us some hard sell about her colleague who was an expert and could help pinpoint spirits, or energies or something, and this was the point where she lost my parents. She preys on the desperate, my father said when we got back home, and my mother, with her silence, agreed.

But I looked it up after, which is how I stumbled onto all this stuff, but also how I stumbled onto the Quest for Proof: a group of people devoted to proving the existence of anything paranormal. Not just showing on some questionable video, or explaining with a persuasive paper, but proving. I know there’s something here. There’s a reason for all the stories. There’s a reason for the ghost hunters. My brother and his dog disappeared with no earthly explanation. And if I can prove it, I’ll have the backing of people who will admit, finally, Yes, this is what happened to your brother. Because what the police kept stressing when Liam first disappeared was that the only way to find a missing person was to first understand what had happened to them. So, step one. I guess at the end, I do want the same thing as my parents: answers.

A way to understand. It’s just that I’m pretty sure they’re looking in all the wrong places. A dream. A premonition. An unexplained disappearance. A forest of ghost stories and legends, and my brother vanishing into thin air. There are things that have happened since that make it clear there is no rational explanation. But I’m not here to chase ghosts. There are enough people who’ve taken that angle, coming up empty. I’ve got a different plan: drop a rock, and the same thing happens over and over again, predictable.

But what if it doesn’t? What if there’s something unexpected, some failure to predict? The unpredictable, the unexplained—that’s the proof. That’s my plan. I know I’ll find it here. I’m the one who felt it, after all. — What I don’t like to admit to myself too frequently is this, the second half of what the police were implying. Step two, if you will: if we understand how my brother disappeared, then it follows that maybe we can get him back. — I’m in the northwest corner of the park, a section I’ve never scanned before, when it’s finally time to call it quits. I stop taking readings when the visitors begin arriving. Their cell phones might interfere. The walkie-talkies of the other rangers.

I leave my own phone in the car, every time. I know I should really be doing this at night, when nobody’s around, when it’s just me and the stories, and the dark. But then it’s just me and the stories, and the dark. So, I’m a coward. I pull out the map to mark off my progress, jot down the readings, before heading back for my car. The park spans three townships, a four-mile area, drawing the line between counties and school districts. Where I stand, the woods stop abruptly, giving way to open field, a split-rail fence, a barn. A house. The Jones House. A shudder rolls through me.

I know about the Jones House because everyone knows about the Jones House. Because Sutton went to school with the girl who survived it, because he made himself a part of the story, told pieces at a baseball clinic this winter to anyone who would listen. And because it was splashed across the headlines for weeks, just like Liam’s disappearance two years ago. It was the train wreck from which people could not look away. And apparently, I’m no different. There’s nothing paranormal about what happened in that house. But I remember what the psychic told my parents, about energies. I think about what could be left behind in a place like that. It could be useful for some sort of comparison or something. But mostly, I think—What can it hurt? I’m across the field and over the fence before I can talk myself out of it.

The house is abandoned, though there’s a FOR SALE sign in the front yard. I take out the EMF device when I’m far from the house, just for some baseline readings. Then I step closer, walk up onto the front porch, and press my forehead to the closest window, peering inside. The curtains are pulled open, and I can see the outline of a couch, a lamp, pictures. But something registers as off in my mind, and I look again. The pictures hang crooked, and some have been knocked to the floor. The house is not right, and goose bumps rise on the back of my neck. I steel my nerve and hold the device up against the stone-covered front wall, and then I hear it— Footsteps. Lightning fast, but barely there. My heart’s in my throat when a blur emerges from the side of the house, and it takes me a second to realize this is not a ghost but a girl.

Long, pale legs and a dark tangle of hair and her back hunched over the handlebars of a bike. A girl, the articles said, Sutton said. I watch her go. She doesn’t even notice me standing there. — The pizza delivery car is pulling out just as I’m pulling in, and suddenly I’m faced with a weekly dilemma: have pizza and get sucked into the world of missing children, or sneak up the back steps to the comfort of my room and let the hunger eat away at my stomach lining. I’d love option three: go to the drive-through. But I’ve spent most of my savings on this equipment, and my job is a figment of my parents’ imagination, after all. As I walk to the house, I imagine I’m a gazelle in the savannah. The hunger wins out. The lion pounces.

“They let you out early?” my dad says as my hand reaches into the box of pizza. “Uh-huh,” I lie. I said I was tutoring. I said it was a job at the library. I said I needed the money for college, since I knew my parents were running on fumes by now. They’d sunk so much into the search for Liam, and then into this foundation. How can I be thinking about who would pay for college when these children are missing? Priorities, Nolan. “Well, I’m glad you’re here,” he says, handing me a plate. “We could use your help sorting through the tip line….” I make some excuse about studying for finals and pile a few slices onto the plate.

The finals part isn’t a lie. The studying part, on the other hand, will have to wait. I need to get upstairs and transfer the data points. Plot it out on one of the park maps on my computer. See if there’s any overlap, any pattern, any failure to predict within. I grab a soda, and there’s a new face taped to the wall, just beside the fridge in my peripheral vision. I don’t look. Those pictures, man. They’ll gut you, or they’ll numb you, and either way, you die a little. I have to get out of here.

I’m surrounded by ghosts.

.

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