Authors: M. Elizabeth Lee
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For my parents
Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes.
Though seven years have passed since that night, my mind retains a perfect image of Cyn as she fell away from me into the churning black water. Only a moment before, we'd been together, her thin hand in mine as we raced into the dark ocean, fleeing the strange men who had charged out of the jungle and onto our beach. I didn't know them. I only knew that we were two young women alone in the night, messed up beyond reason on mushrooms and rum.
I pulled her to her feet, and we ran, her pink flip-flops tripping her up until she kicked them loose. We ran silently, breathing fast like foxes. If the full moon hadn't been there to illuminate our escape into the surf, we might have vanished unseen. But the men spotted us and began shouting. Geysers of water exploded up into our faces as we pounded through the shallows, but that was okay. We were together, and we were getting away. I looked back at Cyn. Her eyes were full of wild panic, one breast barely contained within her disheveled bikini top as I dragged her with me into deeper water.
“Glo, wait,” she'd pleaded, and I had, pausing for what felt like an eternity as the waves crashed against our naked thighs, knocking us off balance. Over her shoulder, I saw the men on the beach stooping to unlace their boots, and I knew they were coming in after us.
I took Cyn's wrist and pulled, and for a few steps, she followed. As the water reached my ribs, I felt Cyn's hand jerk free from my grip. I spun around, my feet barely touching the sand as a strong wave passed through us. Cyn faced me, near motionless. The panic had evaporated from her perfect features, and she was serene, otherworldly, resigned. I shrieked at her to give me her hand, to come with me, but it was like reasoning with a sleepwalker. Her expression didn't change as she withdrew from my reaching fingers, slipping backward into dark water. I saw the splashes of white foam as two men entered the water, and I screamed her name again and again.
“Go. Get help,” she said. And that was all. Her decision was made. I turned away, back out to sea, and kicked deep into the immense darkness, my mind reeling in shock at what my body was doing. I was leaving her alone, in that messed-up state, with those men. With each kick, I felt my heart rip itself to shreds, but I couldn't go back. It was too late now, and anyway, I had my orders.
I watched from the safety of deep water as they seized her and dragged her screaming off the beach and into the depths of the jungle. That was the last I saw of her.
By the time Cyn Williams was officially declared dead, her name had become a sick joke. By remaining alive, I had the privilege of remaining obscure, the shadowy, red-haired best friend, hurried in and out of police stations by Jonathan Grant, my United States attorney, or as I thought of him, Mr. Nocomment, Esq. Yet it was perfectly true that I had no comment for the reporters that assailed us first in Costa Rica and then tenfold in Miami. I had done my best to explain to the baffled local police, then the
, then the more important
with nicer suits, that
Cyn was lost, that I didn't know what had happened to her. I didn't deny the obviousâthat in the chaos, disoriented by narcotics and fear, I panicked and left her alone. I lost her on that island off the coast of Costa Rica, and unless someone found her soon, she wasn't coming back.
By the time the second night after my rescue had fallen, I knew she was dead. She was a lucky person, and so smart, and brave, too, but that wasn't enough to keep her from vanishing off the face of the planet. They were still out searching for her, but the instant I heard her whisper inside my head, I knew it was all pointless. She was gone.
The first time she spoke to me was in the municipal police station in San Jose. I was nursing my sixth cup of bitter coffee while I waited for another detective to arrive to take my statement. Grant was sitting across the table from me, exchanging peevish barbs with his ex-wife on the phone, while I examined the scores of deep red scrapes that crosshatched my legs. I was aching to scratch the insect bites that peppered my feet and ankles, but I didn't want to amplify my feral charm by openly bleeding in front of the next cop. In my efforts to resist, I must have sighed loudly, or groaned, because when I looked up, Grant was staring at my ravaged legs with a faraway look in his eye.
Another upstanding member for your fan club, Glo.
I began to laugh. Grant's eyes found my face, and he frowned. He had lost any real interest in me after the fifth or so interview, when it became clear that I was tapped out of salacious details re: crazy coed's last night in the jungle. No fresh leads meant fewer opportunities to address the cameras, which he'd already done a half-dozen times over the thirty-six hours or so we'd been acquainted, pausing to delicately blot the shine from his brow before stepping in front of the lights. His frown deepened, and I laughed harder.
, he must have thought.
God, yes, let me crack
, I wished.
Babe, you already have.
I gasped for breath, my laughter swinging toward the uncontrollable. My lawyer rose to his feet, his brow ropy with confusion. I could almost sense Cyn laughing with me, and it struck me like a huge wall of icy water that she who had been so real, so huge a presence in my life, was truly gone. The sobs swam up on me then, hijacking my laughter and transforming it into horrible convulsions that tore at my sides. I hadn't cried since they released me from the hospital the day before, and now there was no stopping it. My stomach lurched, and in between gasps, I vomited a shiny pool of coffee across the tabletop.
My lawyer narrowly rescued his briefcase from the table, disgust contorting his face. When it became clear that I would not be regaining my composure, he steered me through the police station hallways, pausing to stick his big, square finger in the face of an officer who objected to my abrupt departure.
“This is a United States
,” he'd sneered, shaking my shoulder, as I was the citizen in question. “We will continue to cooperate with your investigation butâ” I tuned out. Whatever was happening didn't really concern me. In embarrassingly little time, I'd grown accustomed to everything being completely beyond my control. I was merely the body that sat and waited, followed people down hallways, and answered the same series of questions by rote. In the vacuum that opened up where my free will used to be, my thoughts circled endlessly on one topic: Where was she?
“Come on,” Grant said, and the next thing I knew, I was perp-walking through the reporters on the street and diving into a taxi that ferried us through the labyrinth of fading colonial streets to our hotel. In the elevator up to my room, he pressed a couple of pills into my palm and told me to take them. He
left me at my door, reminding me to lock it from the inside. I swallowed the mystery pills and collapsed across the bed.
Before sleep took me, I heard her whisper:
Lights out, lovely.
The next afternoon, three days after Cyn disappeared, the Costa Ricans released me without charge. Grant was very pleased. My questionable recall of the night of Cyn's disappearance hadn't made me seem particularly innocent, nor did the fact that I obviously, openly, blamed myself for everything. But there was no body. No clear motive. A dearth of hard evidence exonerated me but did nothing to clear up the mystery of where my best friend had gone.
On the flight back home, I experienced an entirely new level of emotional emptiness. Somewhere beneath my feet, Cyn's purple backpack was flying along with me, waiting to be “returned to her parents,” while on the television, twenty inches from my nose, she was alive again. I took one look at her face, that magnetic smile frozen forever in time, and I had to turn it off. But there was worse ahead.
At the airport in Miami, I experienced firsthand the “Cynty mania” that had taken over the nation. I hurried through the terminal, hidden behind dark sunglasses and my formerly lucky green ball cap, praying not to be recognized. Images of Cyn and me together had plowed across the television airwaves like an unstoppable freight train. If I had at times resented how she outshone me in life, it was a mercy that she continued to do so in death. Walking quickly across the glossy airport tile, I attracted no curious glances.
Heading down the escalator, I spotted a teenager ascending the opposite direction wearing a T-shirt that nearly made my mind implode.
the tee shouted in four-inch bubble letters. My eyes swept below the text to behold Cyn, smiling
up at me in cutoff jeans and a tight flannel shirt, her blond hair glowing. I had taken that picture of Cyn, posing cheekily in her thrift-store-sourced Daisy Dukes Halloween costume, and there it was, ripped from the Internet, silk-screened onto a novelty tee and purchased for $9.99 by some dipshit who knew nothing about Cyn. As he floated past, the kid sensed hostility radiating from behind my dark lenses and dashed a quick glance in my direction. Zero recognition. He looked away, untouched by my fury.
Don't be such a hater. It's a helluva photo.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it could have been worse. Many of the photos that had been released of Cyn were not nearly so innocent. What began as a shocking, college-girl-missing-abroad story became a tabloid gold mine as the press dug deeper into “Cynty's” background and discovered her sideline job as a lingerie model and dancer at a seedy adult store. As each passing hour unearthed some ripe scandal, Cyn's fame mushroomed. The news outlets breathlessly implied that her jobs were somehow connected to her disappearance, which they weren't, or that since she was so obviously a person of low moral character, she deserved what happened. That they never discovered the true scope of Cyn's secrets was a private joy to me.
Beside me, my lawyer cursed under his breath, and I glanced up to see a scrum of reporters and cameramen staking out the airport's exit. I felt my heart begin to pound. This was always the worst part.
“Hopefully this is the last run, champ,” he murmured, shrugging his shoulders like a prizefighter trying to get loose. I doubt my parents had considered it when hiring him, but Grant was tall and had an impressive wingspanâuseful qualities for clearing a path. I took a breath, pulled my hat lower, and followed him into the churning sea of flashbulbs and microphones. Immediately we stalled. A blinding flash exploded into my face,
and I felt someone claw at my elbow. Grant stiff-armed one photographer away, but we were already surrounded three-deep. I felt my throat close up as bodies pressed tight around us, questions hammering down upon me. Time slowed to a terrible blur as I struggled to breathe. Grant bellowed something, and a pair of cops appeared to muscle me out of the crush. I glimpsed the revolving doors and the sunlight beyond, and I willed myself to hold it together for just two more minutes. No reactions for the photos. Sure as hell no tears. If I was a walking wound of a human being, that was my secret. I'd be damned if I betrayed one hint of emotion to the people who had so thoroughly savaged my dead friend.
It helped to know that on the other side of that mess, my parents were waiting for me. They'd take me home and try to make things better. They wouldn't ask me to talk about it, but I'd catch the worried glances exchanged over my head and sense the anxious vibration of their unasked questions. I'd tell them I was okay, that I didn't need to talk to anyone. Then night after night, safe and loved in a warm bed, I'd lie awake. Cyn's voice faded to silence, but our last moments in the water remained, cycling through my mind in a never-ending loop. I perpetually reached the same useless conclusion: things had happened too quickly for thinking. I simply reacted, and so did Cyn. We both made our choices, and that was why I was sleepless, guilt-Âridden, and alive, and she was dead. I rechoreographed our last act, crafting ways in which we might have both made it back.
If only I had done X
If she had done Y and not Z.
At the end of every reimagination session, at first light, I would absolve myself.
It wasn't my fault. It was our fault