It was awkward those first few years. Martina had been Nathan’s best friend and Ella’s role model. Without her, their lives felt empty. Neither one of them seemed to be able to fill the chasm that was left in the wake of Martina’s disappearance. After a while they stopped trying, and from there they found their connection.
Nathan wondered about their April ritual as he trudged around another corner of the stairwell, cast in a dull yellow by a series of sconces on the walls. He knew why they spent time with each other the rest of the year, but he was never sure what Ella marked with these visits. He was marking his hope – hope held out that one day Martina might join them for dinner. It would definitely fit her dramatic sense of occasion to show up to celebrate the anniversary of her own death.
Five years is a pretty dramatic interval, Nathan mused as he reached the top of the stairs. Maybe this is her year.
Krisis, Book 1
Issue #1: Girl Disappearing
Chapter One: April Tenth (pt. 2)
Ahead of him, Ella pushed open the chipped wooden door of her apartment and walked directly to her bright green couch. Nathan suspected she chose it just for the contrast with her hair. He followed her through the door into a bright single room with weathered wooden floorboards. It was half living space and half efficiency kitchen. The two sides were divided by a long, low table to the right of the door, which bore Ella’s computer and piles of textbooks. A wall on their left framed the bathroom, weirdly shoehorned into the middle of what would otherwise be a studio apartment, likely due to the placement of old water pipes directly below it. On the other side of it was an alcove barely big enough for a bed.
Nathan swung the door closed behind him while Ella situated herself in the middle of the couch. Across its cushions she had strewn several textbooks, a sheath of sheet music, one large knitting needle with accompanying yarn, and Martina’s old guitar. The battered end table beside the couch held another pile of text books, plus a small stand of candles. He smelled familiar, savory scent waft across the room from the kitchen.
“I ordered pizza from that place you like and always ask me if I order from,” she said, as if it was Nathan’s offense for ever suggesting such a thing to begin with. “Then I got it in my head to make those potatoes. You know, bake them first and then mash them, and then bake them again?”
Nathan smiled in anticipation. “Like Martina’s from Thanksgiving? I love those.”
Ella’s face turned stony and he knew immediately had had erred by mentioning her name so early in the event. Their April ritual had evolved a set of rules to observe. Priorities. Awkward small talk, food, less-awkward catching up, then talk about Martina. No acknowledgment of the occasion at any time prior to the plates being cleared.
It’s Ella fault for making the potatoes, Nathan thought. They practically scream Martina’s name. Ella drew the first blood. Still, it was his job to steer them clear of these little entanglements.
“Anyway, potatoes don’t especially go with pizza, Ella, do they?”
She shrugged and let her stoic face slip, but he knew she was still silently accusing him of breaking their pact. She picked up the guitar, and began to idly sketch scales up and down its neck. She made no motion to clear any of her other debris from the couch cushions, so Nathan settled in the middle of the floor, legs crossed Indian style, his messenger bag beside him.
“The books are for school?”
“Mmm hmm,” she studied her fingers carefully as they walked up the neck of the guitar.
“Not terribly, no,” she said, not pausing from her E flat diminished seventh scale.
Clearly he would have to try a different tack.
“I was on the news. Playing a show. I emailed you about it, but I know you only read my emails if I call you and ask you to – which sort of defeats the point of email, yes? And I didn’t call, so you probably haven’t seen it yet.”
“Nope.” Ella put a heavy plosive on her “p” so it echoed out against the bare wooden floors of her apartment. She was now playing in the key of F.
“Well, I brought my laptop so you could see. Or, more accurately, so I could compel you to watch.”
Ella studiously ignored his proposition, in favor of her scales.
Nathan sometimes wondered if he was the only person who asked her questions anymore. Not the sort of perfunctory questions she’d hear from a cashier or a bus driver (not unreasonably, she refused to acquire a driver’s license), but the questions of a friend.
Ella had kept to herself ever since Martina’s accident. The friends she had at high school lost a war of attrition against her, and as far as he could tell she hadn’t found any new ones at college. It was like her social existence withered away from that day forward.
Another anniversary to celebrate on April tenth, he mused.
Nathan remembered that night and the days that followed with terrible clarity – Ella’s mother’s call to his phone the next day when Martina never showed up for their family dinner. Had he heard from her since the show? Did he have any idea of where she’d be other than her apartment?
He wound up riding shotgun with Lilly, their mother, first to Martina’s apartment, then tracing their way back to the club. He remembered all too clearly the broken side rail on the bridge, the police tape and the boat below. They hadn’t pulled up the car yet, so had no way of knowing its owner. Yet, Lilly had a deadly certainty about her from the moment she stopped her car along the side of the bridge.
Ella had nothing but silence for him (and everyone else) in the following days of police reports and interviews and the terrible waiting for divers to find a body.
No body was there to be found. Just one car window, wound down, and Martina’s purse, entangled in the gear shift. Martina wasn’t officially dead, but she was decidedly missing without a trace.
It was a year later that Lilly proclaimed they had waited long enough, and preemptively scheduled a funeral. Or, whatever that was without a body or an official death or any kind of religion to steer the proceedings. That was Lilly’s way. If she was done hoping and ready to begin grieving, everyone else would simply have to follow suit as efficiently as possible.
The whole thing felt eerily like a graduation ceremony free of any graduates. Certainly not the raucous rock and roll wake Martina would sometimes describe to Nathan on long car treks to far-flung gigs. No, this was Lilly’s version of Martina’s funeral, and Lilly had always been private about the family. It had been years before she even acknowledged Nathan as one of Martina’s friends, let alone her best. The brief service was just Lilly and her husband, Edward, some of Lilly’s friends from work, Nathan, and Ella. None of Martina’s friends from high school or college. No other family – as far as Nathan ever knew, Martina had none.
True to form, Ella remained sullen and wordless through the event, a brief, joyless affair held around a wreath of flowers (lilies, of course) framing a smiling photo of Martina. Afterward Lilly asked if Nathan would drive Ella home while she said goodbye to her coworkers.
Alone together in his car, Ella finally spoke. It was the first time he had heard her say a word since Martina disappeared, other than curt replies to her parents.
“You were the last person to see her.”
It was not a question.
“I suppose I was,” he admitted, though they both already knew it to be true.
“What did she say?”
Nathan paused. It was not the first time he had recalled her words, nor would it be the last.
“We had just settled up with the club. We did okay, for a weeknight. I walked her out to the parking lot. Her car was a mess, like always. She couldn’t get the back seat all the way down, so she asked me if I’d hold on to her guitar until our next rehearsal. I remember, she said, ‘I won’t play it until I see you again, so you might as well take it with you.’ And then she gave me a hug. And then she was gone.”
Nathan looked over at Ella, expecting to see tears in her eyes. Instead, a tiny smile played across her previously stoic face.
“There’s no way she’d die knowing you were going to spend the rest of your life playing her guitar.” Ella giggled as she said it, and Nathan found himself laughing, too.
The two of them sat there laughing in his parked car, laughing, crying, and trading stories about Martina – laughing until they cried and laughed again.
That was their first April tenth. Their connection was born from their hope, unspoken but clearly shared, that Martina would eventually return. After that night, Nathan made an effort check in on Ella throughout the year. He never had trouble remembering to call her. Every time he thought of Martina, or listened to one of their songs, he sent Ella a text message. And, per their imagined scolding from Martina, he handed over her guitar to Ella.
Nathan snapped back to the reality of Ella’s apartment. A minute had passed without words. Ella continued to idly play Martina’s guitar, not acknowledging him at all. Her small fingers leapt nimbly across an A-flat scale.
“You’re better than I remember from last time I saw you play.”
“I’ve been practicing,” she said, nodding towards her hand as it walked like a spider up and down the neck of the guitar.
“Clearly. Writing any songs?” Nathan selfishly hoped that Ella would follow in her sister’s footsteps and write music.
“I don’t do that.”
Ella paused in the key of B-flat minor, puzzling over the fingering of the next note in the scale.
“Try it at the ninth fret,” he offered. “Can I play you my clip from the news? You can hear me singing for, like, nine whole seconds.”
“What did you sing?” she asked, in the middle of her corrected B flat minor scale.
“The song you really like. The new one.”
“I’ve heard it.”
“Yes. But not on the news. You have not heard it on the news.”
Nathan sometimes forgot how introverted Ella could be. Just because he could prod a reaction out of her didn’t mean she opened up to anyone else in the world. Had she even spoken to anyone today, other than him? Her grades assured that she must answer professors’ questions in class, but that was different. Ella was never and would never be shy about being the smartest kid in a class.
As a person – someone with feelings instead of a grade – she was different. Since the last of her high school friends faded into obscurity Nathan had never heard any evidence of casual acquaintances outside of the kids she rehearsed with for the choir, and music was not a social exercise for anyone in Ella’s family. Lilly, Martina, and now Ella all attacked it with abandon. It was part engrossing puzzle, part essential nutrient, and entirely necessary.
“Nathan,” she spoke in an even tone, “I hate television.” She emphasized each of the final trio of words more than the last.
“It’s not television. We’re not going to watch television. It’s the news. The news on my laptop.”
“I hate the news extra,” she countered, animating a bit to convey her exasperation.
“It’s not even the news! I mean, okay, it’s the news, but only a part of it. The community part. No murders, rapes, and robberies. News with a little ‘n.’ It’s not like you have to watch the whole show. It’s just a clip. It’s a minute long.”
“If I say ‘no’,” she paused mid scale and fixed him with her huge hazel eyes, “are you going to keep asking me anyway?”
“No. I’ll just be sad.” He made what he hoped to be a dejected puppy-dog face at her.
She laughed. “Alright. Just the one clip, and just because I don’t want you to cry into your pizza. Let’s get it over with.”
Nathan slid his laptop out of his bag. “I knew they sent out a lot of press releases about the show since it was a benefit, but I couldn’t believe it when an actual television camera showed up. They didn’t stay very long, but I was playing when they interviewed the guy who organized the whole thing. Look!”
While he chattered, Nathan had connected to Ella’s network and launched the video. “Here, it starts about a minute after this. There’s just some of that local flavor stuff beforehand.”
Nathan stood up and walked to the cluttered couch, sliding in next to Ella behind the neck of the guitar.
“Watch! I’m right after this bit.”
“… celebrating her ninety-second birthday, isn’t that wonderful? Elsewhere in the community today, a marathon of music from local artists to raise funds for arts in our schools. Deena Hardaway brings us the story.”
“We’re here today at the School Yard Rock festival, where local musicians have taken over the yard of the Issac Sheppard grade school in North Philadelphia to raise money for instruments and art supplies for kids in local public schools. I’m here with Ken Greenwood, organizer…”
Nathan talked over the reporter’s first question, “Listen here, about halfway through his answer my voice kinda breaks through.”
He glanced to his right to make sure Ella was paying attention. Her eyes were on the screen, but they seemed weirdly unfocused.
“…and, you know, what’s important is instruments and paint brushes in the hands of these kids…”
Ella abruptly pushed Nathan’s laptop away. As he scrambled not to drop it on the floor she was up and off of the couch, setting the guitar down on the floor to pace to the front door.
“Ella? Ella, what’s wrong?”
Ella didn’t seem to hear him. She was running her hands through her thick red curls, fraying her hair further and further into a frizzy ring around her head. She completed her pace to the door, turned back to the couch, and began to speak.
“No, no no no I know, I see, I see now, she dies a day later but sleeping, sleeping, slipping, skipping a beat, skipping, scrimping, skimming money, ten percent, and then he’ll disappear once it’s clear…”
Ella continued rambling, but too low and quick for Nathan to make out her words. He caught only fragments.
“…her heart, hears, hears but melts…”
Now Nathan was up off the couch, his laptop abandoned behind him. What is wrong with her? Ella could be hard to communicate with at times, but he had never seen her as agitated as this.
Nathan could not hear what she was saying as she jerkily moved her arms in front of her, as if trying to fend off some invisible assailant. He stepped around Martina’s guitar and tried catch hold one of Ella’s hands as she flailed the air, but she snapped it away from him and paced back to the door.
“…and one is another, as well…”
“Ella, what are you talking about?” Nathan caught Ella’s elbow but she tugged it away from his touch, hurrying to huddle against the door. She reached her right hand out to lay it against the heavy wood beside the deadbolt and then pulled it back as if burnt, cradling it close to her chest with her left hand.
“You’ll be too late. Everything melted away. Mom knew, but it’s too late. All the women. Saints and ashes. All the women are hidden. Hidden.”
Nathan put his hand on Ella’s shoulder and spun her body around towards his. “Ella, you have to calm down. What’s wrong? Just tell me what’s…”
Their eyes met and now he realized what seemed so strange about them on the couch. Ella’s gaze was fixed on his face, but her pupils were completed dilated – huge black discs with just a tiny ring of hazel around the outside. Nathan recoiled slightly at the sight. Both her hands were clenched tightly into fists, pressed close to her chest, knuckles white.
“Mom knew, Nathan, and now you know and he’s going to come. But I see now that you find her. You find her, you find her, but I can’t see…” She paused, gasping for air, as if she had ran down and back up her twisting stairwell.
“Ella, your eyes…” Nathan faltered for words. “Please, I don’t understand. Did you…did you do some kind of drugs? Just slow down and talk to me.”
He awkwardly held her, not knowing how close he should be. It was their first hug.
“You finally find her,” she breathed into his chest. He looked down at her face to see her pupils begin to contract, the hazel of her eyes expanding until the black was just a pin point in the middle of a sea of gray and green. She looked down at her hands as if they didn’t belong to her, still clenched tightly against her chest between them, still heaving as if she had ran a mile.
Ella eyes began to tear up and she sunk down to the battered panels of the bare wood floor. Nathan sunk with her, tracking her down to the ground until they both sat there, legs splayed across the dusty wood.
“Nathan, I could see it all.”
“You probably couldn’t see anything with your eyes like that.” Nathan reached out a hand to smooth Ella’s frizzy hair. Her quiet tears had progressed to sobs wracking her small frame. He did not know what to say or do. He had never seen
Ella seem so vulnerable.
“Ella, are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I saw…” she could barely get the words out of her throat between sobs and gasps for air. “I saw you find her.”
“Find who, Ella?” he asked. “I don’t understa…”
“Martina! You finally find her.”
Nathan pulled away from Ella in shock, but before he could say a word Ella’s intercom buzzed.
Through her tears, she smiled at him.
Tune in next Friday for the next chapter, where we learn a bit more about Nathan’s life (and Lilly’s)! I am sharing this working draft of my novel for free. If you like what you’re reading, consider contributing to my Patreon campaign for as little as $1/month.