The town was built in a hollow. A dip in the road held the shops and a fast food restaurant, an Italian restaurant and the pubs with their closed doors. The betting shop was on the upward incline. Slips of discarded hopes rose in the breeze and fell close to the convenience store where kids in uniforms loitered. Onward to the top of the street, the housing estate was visible. The house that had once been Gran's faced the main road and the bus stop. I didn't have to tell Cathal to turn left into the housing estate, but maybe I did, maybe I mumbled "in there" without realizing it. It had been four years since I'd been to the estate with the rows of identical brown houses and the small gardens. It felt like much longer than four years, though it had not shrunk in size, like some things from your childhood do. The place was still vast to me. Keep going, I said to Cathal when he stalled at the left turn that led to Gran's house. I didn't ask if Stace had ever talked about the house and the summers we stayed there, or the nights she returned alone, because I knew she hadn't. Besides, I couldn't bring myself to say anything more than "here" or "there." We drove down the length of houses that faced the green where kids played soccer in the evenings. The place was quiet. I saw a woman push her child in her buggy and a boy sitting on the wall outside a house. The front door was open behind him and I hated the sight of the boy alone. Cathal paused where the road veered right and followed the circumference of the green and I told him to keep going. Manny's house was straight ahead on the left. His was one of the last ones before the fields.
"That's his house," I said. Cathal parked in front of the low wall that surrounded the meager garden. The house needed a paint. It was still early, not yet 9 a.m. The curtains in the house were drawn. I sat back and felt a terrible wave of tiredness.
"Wake me when you see him," I said.
"Are you fucking crazy? What do you think we're going to do, sit here in the broad fucking daily light? We need to go in."
"You can go," I said, "I need to sleep."
His green eyes were wide, and the shock and surprise had softened him in a way I had never thought possible. I wanted to laugh, but I didn't know if the urge was from relief or the pure stress of being outside Manny's house, remembering his lank sweaty form, the fear that he'd brought to my gran's eyes, and the long shape of his head. For years it was hard to forget the long slope of it and the curving shoulders and how still and stiff my mother was when she looked at him in court.
I turned toward the window. I am small, like my father's family. The women who were my great aunts—he had no sisters—were small like me and dark haired. Though I often envied my sister's long legs and the way she seemed to move the air when she walked, times like this I was glad of my size, that I could curl up in a passenger seat of a Ford Fiesta and even feign comfort.
"Mona?" Cathal said.
I told him I was going to sleep for at least an hour. I told him I brought him there. He could go to the door alone or wait but I didn't really give a shit. I was tired, I needed to sleep.
The engine started again, and I had to fight the urge to right myself and look at him. He drove and I could tell he was going straight. I knew he was going to the space after the houses, a rubble area before the field, where broken down cars would often end up until their parts were scavenged. When the car stopped, I noticed the chill in the air and wished I'd brought a bigger coat. I must have shivered, because next minute there was a blanket over me. Cathal murmured something about keeping warm. For a moment I couldn't close my eyes. I stared at the rim of the window, at the gray stones and sky, and felt Cathal beside me. I knew he was leaning back and looking out his window, and I was sure there was something he wanted to say or ask. When he glanced in my direction, his gaze caught on my shoulder and my eyes closed because I couldn't tell him about Manny.
It had all started with the phone call. I was home when Gran called. Stace wasn't. We'd woken up days earlier and found her bed empty. My mother did not phone Gran as she promised she would whenever Stace ran away, but Gran phoned us late in the afternoon of the third day. "She's with me," Gran said, and that was all before she hung up.
I was the one who answered the phone. "Hello," I said, and I might have said "the Monaghon residence" because we were different people answering the phone then. Whenever Stace ran away and the phone started to ring, we'd stiffen and watch each other, and we'd take turns. It could not be expected that only one of us should be responsible as my mother had been when Stace started to disappear in the middle of the night. It was my turn. I'd argued that I needed to do something. I refused to just sit and take no part. I think my Gran thought I was her daughter.
"She's with me."
The harshness of her voice reminded me of Stace's friend Evelyn the day we looked for Stace at her house. "She's not here," Evelyn had said before closing the door. There was the same blame in their tone. After that, my mother stopped phoning Evelyn’s house to get Stace home for dinner, or going next door at Christmas with a pudding and a bottle of wine to share. "Come home at six for dinner," she'd tell Stace. Stace would come home. She never disobeyed or acted out. When she was with us, she was quiet, the perfect child, which made her running away even harder.
Gran was saying, "She's here." I didn't hang up straight away. I stood in the hall with the light from the living room. My parents rose behind me to walk to the kitchen door. "Okay, yes, that's alright," I said after Gran hung up the phone. While I talked, she would have been walking into the kitchen where my sister would be sitting at the kitchen table, tea in hand, her coat on the chair behind her and a half-eaten sandwich in front of her, because Gran would have taken care of her first. She would have fussed and fumbled around the place and sat for a moment while her granddaughter took her first bites and said, "Thanks Gran, this is great," and then Gran would have sighed and stood and phoned.
To my parents I said. "Stace is with Gran. She's fine, everything is okay. We can get her in the morning."
"Mona, are you okay?"
I shivered in my seat. I wanted to tell Cathal it was my fault, but to speak was impossible. It was as if the stones outside had become part of me. I couldn't remember why I'd told my parents to get Stace in the morning. It might have been from the fatigue that hit when I finally learned that Stace was okay. There was no resting until then. I didn't sleep. I drifted through one troubled dream after another and then woke feeling guilty that there'd been a half-arsed form or relief. I would have been tired; this is what I say to myself. I was so young too, and there were times I hated my sister. I hated her the most when I knew she was safe. I'd hung up and was so tired of it all. I'd hung up and seen my parent's exhausted faces and thought of the argument they'd had a few mornings earlier.
"They can't come," my mother had said. "Not again, I don't want them to visit. Stace takes advantage of it to act up and I'm not having her embarrass me again."
"She will not dictate what happens in this house," my father said.
So it would have been the first weeks of December. My parent's friends Ennis and Mira were due. Stace liked an audience when she ran. It wasn't enough to have us alone, but she ran before their arrival and it had been worse somehow to have only us in the house. The place was too empty. My father must have phoned Ennis and made his excuses. Ennis must have known too, and I imagine their strain as Ennis began to question why Stace ran, my father feeling defensive in his presence.
The morning after my parent's argument, Stace was gone. You may wonder how she ran so much. How did we not have a guard by her door? How did we not lock her in her room? My parents did lock her door and Stace stayed quiet behind it, but then she refused to get off her bed.
"If I am a prisoner, I won't pretend to be anything else," she said, though she was thirteen and fourteen so it was probably, "Prisoners don't go to school."
She didn't eat. She didn't go to school. My parents unlocked her door in the mornings and she didn't move. My parents were not ones to use force. My mother used silence, and my father shouted and banged doors, but they wouldn't grip her and pull her out of the room.
The third night they would inevitably keep her door unlocked, frightened because she refused to eat during the day, and the next morning she would be up and ready for school. We walked on eggshells, watching for signs, though we never saw them. The clues that she was about to run were lost to us.
It didn't get easier. Each time was a little bit worse. Everyone has only so much luck and Stace was using all hers up, though there were times I thought she was using ours too. She was taking all our luck, and when she'd taken all of ours, she used Gran's.
That night, Gran had woken to a noise. Was that it? Was it Gran who woke first, or Stace? Did Stace wake in her bed and lie prone? Had she expected Manny to follow her?
We didn't know that she stayed in his house. We'd assumed that she'd been in the fields. No, we didn't assume. She'd told us months before about taking the bus to Gran's estate. Sometimes she refused to speak about where she'd been. There would be a ragged look to her face and a withdrawal that suggested any questions would go unheard, and other times she'd volunteer information.
Once, Stace came home after 7 p.m. after being gone for two days. We were in the kitchen. She started up the stairs, and my mother ran to the kitchen door while my father sat still at the table. My mother shouted at Stace, asking where she had been, and what she thought she was doing disappearing like that again, scaring us so badly, and Stace didn't pause until my mother said, "You keep this up and we won't allow you back."
"Is that what you want?" she said, "To get rid of me?"
"It is not me doing this, it is you."
I'd gotten to the hall, squeezing by my mother and I saw Stace's face, the clear anger in it and something else that I couldn't understand though now I think it was vulnerability and hurt. Now I think Stace needed something from my mother.
"Where were you?" I asked.
She looked at me. "Gran's estate," she said, and I saw in her an urge to talk.
"Where?" I asked.
"I hid behind the wall to watch her house for a while, but I didn't go in."
She seemed so young when she spoke; a child delighting in an innocent game of hide and seek, and it annoyed me.
"It's not funny," I said, and her face fell, and she nodded. She started to move, and I ran to the bottom of the stairs. "Then where did you go?" I shouted. "Did you go to the warehouse? You shouldn't go there."
"Well I did," she said with an air of triumph that made me want to pull her hair. "I slept in there," she said, "Every night I went back before the others came to light the fire and I spied on them through the window. When they were gone and the fire was out, it was dark, but it was alright because I liked the stillness."
Such lies, I know now. She never stayed in the abandoned warehouse or watched the kids smoke and drink around their campfire in fields that separated the estate from town.
She went to Manny's house, and then she left him without a word, late in the evening. He'd gone out to get something, or he might have fallen asleep, and she'd packed her few possessions and left.
"She wouldn't go to him now," I said to Cathal.
I was staring at the door. My body hurt from being curled up and Cathal was annoying me by tapping on his knees. I could feel his gaze on my neck. "You don't know that. He emailed and she left. It's a start and the only thing we have."
Cathal started the car and I felt like crying. "Wait," I said, "Please, let me walk a bit first. I need to clear my head."
I expected him to say he'd waited long enough already. He'd never seemed the patient type, but he turned off the engine and said okay. It was cool out and the clouds were low. It had looked like it would rain all morning, but it was refreshing to get out of the car. I went straight for the fields. I wanted to get as far away from Manny's house as I could and I wanted to see if the warehouse was still as scary as I remembered it. Cathal followed and although his trainers must have been getting wet, he didn't complain to me. The grass was long and the ground muddy. I heard him shuffle behind me and I heard him curse, but he said nothing else. He might have known that there was something I needed to tell him before going to the house. I wrapped my arms around myself and I kept my gaze on the dilapidated warehouse that looked old and ragged and broken down but not scary like it used to. The roof on my side had fallen away. The stones were thick bricks and I thought it may have been beautiful at one time, with everything intact and the sunlight streaming through the window. I imagined how it would have been when the workers were there, walking the trail from town, because I didn't want to imagine my sister at fourteen inside. Bushes lined on area of the field. A blackbird burst into song from the trees along the edges, and then stopped so suddenly, I became aware of the shuffle of our feet and my breathing.
I saw no sign of a fire outside the warehouse and no crates that would have been used for seats. Stace told me that the kids stole some from outside pubs. She said she preferred to sit on the ground, that she felt she blended in more fully with the night there. She kept her face far enough from the fire. She said all this, but I don't know what was true and what was not, because she never mentioned Manny and she let me believe she was always alone. She let me believe that she had the ability to be invisible. She arrived and sat by the fire and people forgot she was there. There was smoke everywhere.
"Did she used to come here?" Cathal said. He was standing beside me, staring at the same spot on the grass that held nothing but my imaginings of what it had been like, and I realized he'd followed me not so much from patience but curiosity. He'd walked with the sense that Stace had done this so many times, and it was enough for him, this communion with the past that I wasn't even sure was right.
"Manny came to my Gran's house," I said, because I didn't know how to answer his question. Did Stace come here? Maybe, maybe not, but I knew Manny sat at my Gran's table.
Cathal stepped to face me head-on. He said, "Go on."
One of them woke with the sound of the chair sliding against the floor. Stace would have stared at the ceiling in her room, listening for something more. The hall light would have been on and her door slightly ajar. Now that I thought about it, she must have hated being locked in her bedroom. She must have slept with the light on, because she wouldn't have been able to sleep in the dark. What would she have heard? Would it have been possible to hear from upstairs the flick of his lighter? Maybe, if she'd been listening for it. She'd spent nights in his house watching the white powder burn and bubble. He coughed, and Gran woke. My sister would not have ventured downstairs if Gran hadn't gotten out of bed. My sister ran away, not towards; she would have waited and closed her eyes. This was what I believed as I stood in the field with the blackbird piercing the silence. I believed it so suddenly, I trembled.
"Manny came in the back door," I told Cathal. I couldn't look at his face when I spoke. I glanced around me, but I saw Gran's house and Manny, skinny and ragged, outside the back door, moving the plant. I saw him lift the key and unlock the door and step inside so easily. He turned on the light and got some water from the tap. He was not quiet or loud. He was indifferent to noise. Noise was not important.
"He sat at her kitchen table," I said.
Or maybe not, maybe he didn't sit until Gran came downstairs. He was in the hall when she reached the bottom of the stairs and she paled and nearly fell at the sight of him. She pulled her nightgown close to her. Maybe, she glanced at the phone, so he hit her before pulling the phone cord out of the wall. Not yet, no calls yet. Then he shouted for Stace, or he saw Stace at the top of the stairs and said, "You don't just disappear."
Gran looked at her granddaughter and Stace said. "It's okay Gran."
Manny said, "You leave and I start to wonder if you're real at all. One minute you're there and the next you're gone. It makes me crazy."
"It's late," Gran said.
Manny nodded. He said, "I can't sleep when she's not there."
"He broke into the house to sleep?" Cathal said.
And I said, "Yeah, he broke into the house to fucking sleep," because I decided then and there that that was the way it had happened. Manny didn't hit Gran or shoot up and make my Gran watch the needle pierce his skin or the way his head lolled back on a neck that looked soft enough to break. Manny just wanted to sleep. He asked my sister to stay in the room with him, and so Gran had to too. She was still and quiet, as if Manny was a fully grown baby she didn't want to disturb. I imagined them in my Gran's kitchen, the night fading and Manny snoring with his head resting on his arms on the table, my Gran and my sister at the table and holding hands, before my sister rose to call the police. Her movements would have held no urgency, and her voice would have been calm.
After a while, we started walking towards Manny's house where my sister may or may not have been, and where my sister may or may not have stayed years before, because who really knew what she did or what really happened to the girl who drifted soundlessly out of doors, who we tried to keep hold of but never could. At twenty-six, she'd decided to run again, from Cathal and me and everyone else, but she would come back when she was ready because she always did. A dog was barking from inside the house. The blackbird had been quiet for ages and it was going to rain soon, I was sure of it.