Searching for Sarah

By Siarra Riehl

Paul, Jess, Isla, Drupe, and Sarah had lived in The House for as many years as you can imagine. The House stood tall on the top of an underwhelmingly short hill. A squat triangle atop a narrow rectangle. Several things were going wrong with it. The shutters needed a fresh coat of paint. The lock on the front door worked only if the knob was pulled tightly while turning the key. And, for some time, one of the windows had been cracked, letting a piercing blast of cool air into the kitchen when Jess cooked scrambled eggs for her children. The water damage in the basement was invisible from the outside of The House. It had flooded recently, and no one had bothered to do anything about it. The laundry would never dry. The wall’s stains would far outlive Jess and her children. The wood would mould and turn green and black and musty. All of this was true, and still, The House was not notable. It wasn’t forgettable, per se, but it wasn’t particular in any way either. It was a house. But to its five inhabitants, it was glorious and splendid. It was all they would ever need. 

“I can’t find Sarah,” a young Drupe said one day to his mother. 

“What do you mean?” Jess replied. “She was here this morning. I spoke with her moments ago.” 

Jess didn’t remember that that morning was not near enough to now for that to be true. 

“No, mother,” Drupe insisted. “She’s vanished.” 

And so, Drupe and his mother descended the staircase. This was the day the basement flooded. You might think Sarah’s disappearance was in some way connected to the flood. You wouldn’t be wrong. Nor would you be right. These things happened, but not necessarily in relation to one another.

“Oh, Sarah! Sarah!” Drupe called again and again. “Come out now. Quit your hiding.” 

But Sarah never came. 

Jess spoke clearly and only said this once: “Drupe, darling, I fear Sarah might be dead.” 

Why a mother would say such a thing to her son is quite unimaginable. But you needn’t worry, for just then, Drupe’s sister Isla came down the stairs and dove straight into the water. When she emerged, even standing on her tippy toes, her chin sat only millimetres above the water’s surface.

“I’m here!” she said. “Now, what’s all the fuss?” 

“No one cares about where you’ve been,” blurted Drupe, and he scrunched up his nose, and he stuck out his tongue, and he made the face that Isla could hardly stand—the face that said you don’t matter as much as you think you do. 

“Stop that! Stop that right now!” she screamed. She plunged beneath the water again, sending bubbles to the surface. “You scared me,” she whispered as she re-emerged, water spilling from her mouth and ears.

“Stop it, both of you.” Jess said. “Sarah is dead, and the two of you must go upstairs to sleep.” 

Jess wasn’t very good at telling the time, you see, as it was neither the time of day for sleep nor the time of day that holds hands with the sun. It was somewhere deep in the middle of those. The two children, Drupe and Isla, didn’t know any better than to listen to their mother, so off they went to sleep. 

The House stood tall. 

The House took a breath. 

The House went pitter-patter. 

The next morning, Jess sat with Paul and Isla at the table. Paul didn’t so much sit at the table as much as on it. He was a cat, after all, and cats have different rules about where they can sit. 

As Paul preened and picked at his fur, Jess sat and wondered when on earth her daughter had grown so old. Jess felt it had been maybe yesterday that Isla was born, but now she was sure almost nine or ten years had passed. 

“Can Paul have his breakfast on a porcelain plate with a spoon?” Isla asked her mother. 

Jess stared out the window and wished she’d never had any children at all. 

“Please, mother. I think it would be oh so cute.”

“There are different rules for cats,” Jess said to her daughter. “Paul is not allowed a spoon and a plate. He must eat his food out of a small metal dish, and I will hear no contrary remarks from you, or, for that matter, from any of you.” She added the last bit to emphasize the point, though no one else was in the kitchen to hear it. 

“It isn’t fair that you love Drupe more than you love me,” Isla said. 

Jess drank her coffee and kept her back to her daughter. She stared out the window, wondering when it might be time to go back to sleep. 

“Good morning, mother,” Drupe said as he walked into the kitchen. He glanced at Isla but decided against greeting her. 

“Mother won’t let Paul eat with a spoon,” Isla started. 

Paul walked out of the room as if to disregard Isla’s complaints entirely. 

“It doesn’t look like Paul cares very much,” Drupe said, pouring dry cereal into a periwinkle bowl. “Did you want some, mother? Or is it just hot sips for you this morning?” 

Drupe always asked questions that made Isla pull at her hair. 

“Coffee is all for me this morning, Drupe.” Jess smiled, but it hardly reached past the corners of her lips. 

As the three of them ate breakfast together, Paul lounged on a soft green blanket at the bay window. He was a cat, so this was quite appropriate behaviour. 

“I wonder if Sarah is awake,” Drupe mumbled with too much cereal in his mouth. 

Jess got up, rinsed her coffee cup, and ignored her son. She walked toward Paul and sat beside him, grateful for his quiet company. 

“She never wakes up with us!” Isla exclaimed loud enough to assault Jess’s ears. “I wonder why it is that Sarah doesn’t like us.”  

When Jess was a young girl, she lived in The House with her parents. Jess had been a happy person once, but she often struggled to remember when. The difficult-to-describe feelings may have started when The House was left to her in her parents’ will. She’d had bigger dreams for herself, you see, so this was an obvious disappointment. 

The last thing Jess’s mother ever said to her was this: “Your eyes used to smile so. What happened, dear?” 

This lonely remark replayed in Jess’s mind each morning when she awoke and each evening when she fell asleep. Maybe, she thought, maybe I wasn’t ever a happy person at all. 

“Mother! Mother! Mother!”

The words reached Jess’s ear almost inaudibly, but the incessant tug at her sleeve finally pulled her attention away from her thoughts.

“What is it, Isla?” 

“I’ve just seen Sarah in the garden!” 

Jess’s mind turned with the possibilities of how to explain how little she cared. 

“That can’t be so,” Jess replied. 

“It is true, mother. I’ve seen her too,” chimed Drupe. 

Jess sighed. She wished to be back in the basement, where the possibility of losing her breath to the water outweighed the concerns of her children. Instead, she rose from her seat next to Paul and took to the front closet to get her children’s coats. She knew Sarah wasn’t outside, but she played along, just as she had for what felt like so many days now. 

“Applejack, applejack, oo-la-la,” Isla sang as she pranced out of The House in her impossibly small waistcoat. 

“Oo-la, oo-la, jack-ha-ha,” Drupe responded, running after his sister with such eager steps that, if seen out of the context of their everyday lives, might appear to be steps of love. Jess followed, arms crossed, allowing the breeze to stiffen her spine and worry her knees. 

The garden was overgrown and wasn’t really a garden at all. The weeds were much higher than the vegetables. And, overtaken by long grass, the lemon tree bore only fruits sucked of their juice. It was peculiar to see the little lemon bodies filled with nothing but dust and failed intentions. 

Drupe and Isla ran to the weeds and disappeared. The greens and browns and yellows enveloped their tiny coats and little hands. Jess felt a twinge of happiness, thinking that maybe, just maybe, they would never return, and she could turn back, walk into The House, lay on her bed, and sleep with Paul at her feet, bathing himself and snuggling up to her ankle bones. 

Of course, Drupe and Isla did not disappear forever. Jess’s wishes hardly ever came true. 

“Mother! Mother! Mother!” cried Isla. 

“We’ve found a large, gaping hole,” said Drupe. 

“I see,” said Jess, considering that maybe the children really didn’t remember just a few days ago (or was it hours ago?) when they ran out into the garden and said the same thing. “And what do you imagine might be in the hole?” she probed. 

The children’s faces changed. 

“We know what’s in the hole, mother,” said Drupe, “but wouldn’t you please play along just one more time?” 

Jess’s frown deepened; she nodded. 

“Mother, might we go into the hole?” Isla asked. 

“Why yes, Isla, what a splendid idea!” said Drupe. 

“Go on, then,” Jess said, “quickly now, before the sun sets.” 

Though Jess knew the sun had neither set nor risen in some time now. 

The short hill underneath The House had not always been so short. When Jess was small, and her parents were tall, The House stood on a much more substantial hill. Jess wasn’t sure when the hill had gotten so short, but she was sure it had to do with those feelings that took the smile out of her eyes and the skip out of her step. She was sure it had to do with Sarah. 

When Jess met Sarah, they were nine years old. Sarah was unusual, to say the least, but that was why Jess so desperately wanted to be her friend. Sarah’s hair was a deep crimson, her cheeks permanently blushed. She had Capri blue eyes and the most darling shoes. Shoes that Jess wished would fit on her own feet. But Sarah’s feet were so small. And Jess’s were so big. 

One day, when Jess and Sarah were playing on the swing set in Jess’s backyard, Jess lost Sarah. She was there, and then suddenly she wasn’t. Jess didn’t understand then the infinitude of what Sarah could do. Jess didn’t like how it felt when Sarah disappeared. 

Isla and Drupe made their way down into the hole in the garden. Dirt marking their cheeks and hands.

“Why didn’t we think of this sooner, Drupe? Sarah ought to be down here! This is exactly where she would go,” Isla said. 

“Sarah’s funny that way,” Drupe replied. “Isn’t she, mother?” 

Jess’s back was turned to the children, and she chose not to respond. She stared instead at a small crack in the basement window that was beginning to spread. She wondered, briefly, if the water would rise to such a height that it would spill forth from the window and cause The House to collapse. Silly, Jess thought. What a silly, silly thing to think. 

“We’ve gotten quite low into the soil this time, mother!” Drupe called. His voice was so far away that Jess could barely hear him. 

“Apples and oranges and figs and plums. Bananas, persimmons, and cantaloupes,” Isla sang. 

“Stop that!” Drupe commanded. “How will we ever find Sarah with all that singing?” 

“I don’t like to be told what to do,” pouted Isla. “I don’t like it one bit. And besides, how will any of our vegetables grow if I don’t sing to them?” 

“I can’t be around you,” Drupe said then. “I sometimes wish you’d just disa…” 

But before he could finish the word, Jess jumped into the hole, scooped up her children, and began walking them back to The House. 

“That’s enough playtime for today,” she said. 

“We weren’t playing,” Isla said. “We were searching for Sarah.” 

“Sarah is dead, and I will no longer play along with your games,” Jess said. 

The hill grew smaller. 

The water rose higher. 

The House took a long, deep breath. 

When Jess and Sarah were twelve, they made a pact. No matter what happened to either of them as they grew, they would remain in each other’s lives forever. Jess didn’t realize what this would mean for her future: perpetually thirty-one, raising two children (and a cat named Paul) in The House. They made the pact in the living room, then called the parlour by Jess’s expensive parents. It was midday, midweek, and midyear, the only time, Sarah assured Jess, appropriate for such a pact. 

Nothing noticeable changed for a long time after that.

They remained friends. They enjoyed each other’s company. And they stayed by one another’s side through twelve and thirteen and fourteen and fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and eighteen and nineteen.  

It was when Jess went to college that Sarah began to change. She told Jess she was uncertain if she wanted to join her. Her cheeks grew less rosy, her eyes less blue, her heart less sweet, less gentle. Jess told Sarah that it didn’t matter what she thought, She would go with or without her. And so, to stay true to their pact, they went together. 

The evening Jess’s mother told her that her eyes had lost their smile was the same evening that Jess slept with Derek from anthropology class. The same night that Drupe and Isla were conceived. As Jess shut her eyes to the world and opened herself to an ecstasy she felt but one time in her long life, her parents died, and Sarah watched from the chair in the corner of her dorm room. Eyes unfeeling. Cheeks alight. Unseen and unheard by Jess. 

The next morning, when Sarah told Jess she knew what she’d done, Jess received the news of her parents’ deaths. Jess was to go back to The House, go through each and every item, and decide what would stay or leave. Sarah, to stay true to their pact, went with her and moved in. 

The morning the basement flooded, Jess had spoken to Sarah. They sat together on the front porch, Jess with her coffee, Sarah with her small shoes and bright cheeks. 

“You know,” said Jess, “sometimes the children feel like a burden. The House feels like a burden. Sometimes I feel life would be better if it were just you, me, and Paul. No children or House at all.” 

Sarah didn’t say anything. She sat in her usual, unusual way, as she’d always done since Jess met her. 

“It wouldn’t hurt to say something, Sarah,” Jess went on. “I feel like I’m at my wit’s end.”

Just then, she heard Drupe and Isla stir in The House and knew the quiet of the morning was about to pass. She rushed to get up, dropping her coffee cup, glass and hot liquid marking the spot where she had just been sitting. 

“Goddamn it!” she’d said, and when she looked to her left, where Sarah had been sitting, Sarah was gone, just as she had been when they were children. She had been there one minute, and the next, she had disappeared. Jess felt an emptiness like she had the other times Sarah had disappeared. An emptiness as deep and hollow as the pit beginning to form in the weeds of the garden behind The House. When she looked down, the coffee had been sucked into the slats of the porch, the start of a series of unfortunate spills.

Jess went into The House empty-handed and was greeted by Paul brushing against her shins, Isla and Drupe playing pretend at the top of the staircase. 

For as many years as you can imagine, Paul, Jess, Isla, Drupe, and Sarah continued to live in The House. The laundry never dried. The stains on the walls deepened with each passing day. And the mould and must grew to such extremes that the air became misty with delusions. All of this was true, and still, The House stood. And to its five inhabitants it remained glorious and splendid. The weeds grew to impossible heights. The water spilled forth from the windows. And, in one muddy puddle, inches from the front steps, a shock of crimson hair and unshut blue eyes held fast, waiting to be found.