Marian walked out during dinner. We’d been eating quietly, a rare thing in our house, when she’d asked to borrow the car to go to a party later in the week. Mom said no. Marian was already grounded for sneaking out and coming home smelling like booze. The quiet was gone. Marian was shouting, so was Mom, Dad was trying to play peacemaker. I just sat with my head down and pushed my peas around my plate. It was always better to stay invisible when Marian was having a meltdown.
The argument was the same as it always does.
“You never let me do what I want!” Marian liked to shriek.
“Of course not, you’re sixteen!” Mom would remind her.
“Let’s all calm down,” Dad said in the breaks between their rising voices.
Marian went too far that night, though. After Mom had snapped at her for being a spoiled brat, she’d reached over and slapped our mother across the face. Dad went from passive to apoplectic faster than I’d thought possible. He had Marian by the wrist and yanked her out of her chair. She was as shocked as I was, I think, and stayed sprawled across the dining room floor for long, tense moments. When she found her voice again and tried to turn her anger on Dad, he drowned her out with furious shouting.
It was Mom’s turn to try and cool things down. Marian wasn’t backing off, though. Her pride was at stake. Finally, Dad bellowed for her to go to her room. I was surprised she listened. We sat in silence around the table while she stomped up every step and slammed her bedroom door.
“You ok?” Dad asked Mom.
She nodded and looked at me. “Stay ten, Lexi,” she said with a rueful smile. “Don’t become a teenager.”
It was hard to smile back.
Just as we were finishing up, Marian reappeared long enough to tell our parents to go fuck themselves and then stormed out of the house. Dad moved to follow, but Mom stopped him. We all assumed she’d go to Kristi’s or Lanette’s to cool off and come home at some late hour after the rest of us had gone to bed. It was her usual, dramatic M.O. and Mom thought it was especially good to give her some space just then.
I agreed. The less Marian was home, the more peaceful it was. Sometimes, I wished she’d stay gone.
The next morning, I woke up to find Mom pacing the living room. She had the cordless phone clutched in one hand.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” I asked.
She stopped abruptly and tried to make her expression reassuring. It just made the newly formed knot in my stomach tighten.
“No, sweetheart, everything’s fine.”
“He…he went out,” she said. Her voice was reedy and worried. “Marian didn’t come home. I’m sure she’s fine. Daddy’s just looking for her. I’m waiting for them.”
I sat on the couch and waited with her. She made calls to all of Marian’s friends that she knew of. Dad returned about an hour later. Marian wasn’t with him.
The police were called. A couple of them came to our house to get a description, a photo, and any information we might have had about where she usually spent time when she wasn’t at home. Mom started to cry when she handed over Marian’s most recent school picture. Dad quietly wiped his eyes when he thought no one was looking. I clung to his waist, scared that my sister was going to be in trouble with the cops and upset that she was causing even more trouble than ever.
Marian was labeled a runaway. I heard terms like “at-risk youth” and “rebellious teen”, but I didn’t know what they meant. I also didn’t know why my parents were taking turns blaming themselves and then each other for her leaving, only to hug and cry immediately after. I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone or go out to play. I was told to stay in my room and play quietly. Dad took the van and disappeared for hours. When I found the courage to ask where he’d gone, Mom said he was looking for Marian.
That first day was a blur of confusion and worry, of anger and fear.
The next morning, after we’d received no news from Marian or the police, my parents organized a search party. It started out as just us, my grandparents, and the Zolwinskis from next door, but by that afternoon, half the neighborhood had joined us. We went down every street, up to every door, asked everyone we came across, but there was no sign of Marian.
It went on like that for days.
Hot and humid summer mornings gave way to stormy afternoons. We continued to look for her even in the downpours. The police helped a little, but since she was a runaway, their interest in her case dwindled quickly. Still, our personal search widened more and more. Schoolyards, parks, downtown. A volunteer dive team combed the lake. Dad and Mom had never clung so tightly to each other as they did on that water’s edge.
My annoyance with Marian had turned to concern and then to fear. She’d never been gone so long. She’d never just vanished. I didn’t want her to stay gone anymore.
I started to sleep on the floor of my parents room. I knew something bad had happened to Marian and a part of me thought that maybe it would happen to me, too. Maybe a monster had gotten her, or one of those kidnappers that we were always warned about. I was afraid for her and for myself and for my parents, who were starting to crumble bit by bit.
A week after she’d disappeared, a group of hunters that Mom and Dad had reached out to met us on the edge of some woodlands. We’d searched some of it already, but it was dense and covered a large area. It was the last place in town we hadn’t thoroughly searched, but we needed help. The hunters had driven hours and hours to get to us. They’d brought their bloodhounds with them.
“With all the rainfall, I don’t know what kind of trail they’ll pick up,” one of them told us. “But we’ll help how we can.”
Mom gave them one of Marian’s shirts out she’d taken out of her hamper. The dogs took turns giving it a good sniff and then were tugging at their leashes. We followed them for ages. They circled a lot, a signal they’d lost the scent, and we slowly inched our way into the woods. Southern scrubland is thick and difficult to traverse. Thorny bushes and stinging nettles scratched at our legs. The sun beat down on us even through the treetops.
We pushed our way in, deeper and deeper. Insects surrounded us in a deafening buzz. I swatted endlessly at flies and mosquitos. Twigs snapped all around and the bushes and palm fronds rustled with wildlife that watched us pass from the shadows.
I held tight to my dad’s hand despite how hot and sweaty it was. I was scared of those woods.
As the morning started to give way to afternoon and dark clouds started to build predictably overhead, one of the dogs stopped and lifted its head, its nose pointed up. Its nostrils flared.
We all froze and held our breath.
The hound bayed once.
It was followed by a tiny, pathetic mewl from somewhere up ahead.
It sounded almost like someone crying for help.
Mom tore past the hunters and their dogs, Dad immediately on her heels. I don’t think he realized he was still dragging me along. I could barely keep up.
“Stop, stop!” Mom shouted.
Dad and I came skidding to a halt immediately behind her. We were standing at the top of a steep embankment that cut sharply downward. The hunters and their dogs weren’t far behind. All of the hounds were howling.
A weak, rasping sob drifted up from somewhere below.
As quickly as we could, we picked our way down the embankment towards the sound. I was the one who spotted the black book sticking out from behind a tree.
“Over there!” I yelled. It was my turn to drag Dad.
The smell hit us before we saw her. Human waste, vomit, iron. There was something else, something sickly sweet and more nauseating than the other odors. I didn’t know what it was, but it made me gag. Mom sprinted past me and rounded the tree first.
“Don’t bring Lexi!” She started to say, but it was too late.
I almost didn’t recognize the girl propped up against the tree trunk as Marian. She was red and swollen from sunburn and insect bites. Deep gouges lined her face where she’d raked her nails into her skin. Fat brown lumps, like oversized moles, dotted her chin and cheeks and forehead. There was even one blocking her left nostril. When she parted her cracked lips in attempt to speak, I saw more on her tongue.
Ticks, dozens of them, all over her, gorging on her blood.
Her front was streaked with throw up and her clothing had torn, revealing torn flesh. She was sitting in a puddle of her own feces. Flies circled her, landed, circled again. Her flesh was bulbous, stretched tight. Infected puss and blood oozed from the many cuts and scrapes she’d received. Masses of white wriggled in some of the wounds. Fly eggs had hatched into maggots that now feasted on her wounds.
Fire ants from a nearby mound had found her most recently. They’d started to creep up her lower half, biting and biting and biting as they crawled over her. The fishnets she was wearing strained against her puffy, distended legs. She was too weak to even slap at them.
They swarmed especially around the jagged edge of broken bone that poked through her calf.
She attempted to lift a hand towards us, tears streaming down her face. She made a dry, gargled sound and her eyes rolled back in her head as she slumped against the tree and I started to scream.
Marian almost died from her wounds. The doctors said if she’d been out there another day, she most certainly wouldn’t have survived. Her recovery was a slow and painful one and it wasn’t until towards the end that she was able to tell us what had happened to her.
After leaving the house, she’d hitched a ride to the woods, where she’d planned to spend the night at a shack she and her friends had erected to get drunk in. She’d gotten lost, however, and ended up wandering into an unfamiliar area. She hadn’t even seen the embankment until she was falling down it. Her leg had snapped when she landed on top of it.
Unable to walk, she’d screamed for help for hours. No one came except the bugs. She could feel them skittering across her body, the sting of their bites. They crawled into her ears and mouth and nose. They covered her. At first, she’d tried to get them off, but they kept coming. Mosquitos, flies, ants, spiders.
They crawled and they bit and they burrowed into her flesh.
At night, she could hear them surrounding her. In the dark, all she felt was pain and thousands of tiny legs. They never stopped moving. The maggots were the worst. The longer she was out there and the more cuts she got as she dragged herself across the ground, the more they came.
She’d survived on rainwater and the same insects that were feeding on her until we found her. By then, she hadn’t had the strength to move for almost three days.
My sister was never really “ok” again. She developed a phobia of woods and bugs. She was obsessed with them. Haunted by them. At night, she’d thrash around, claiming that she could feel ants crawling over her. She drank water constantly to try and wash away the tickle of spider legs in the back of her throat. Any time she cut herself enough to bleed, she’d wrap it in half a dozen bandages, no matter how small it was.
“Have to keep the maggots out,” she told me.
My parents put her in therapy and got her medication and did everything they could to try and help her. None of it was enough, though.
We’d found Marian in time to save her body, but the insects never stopped eating away at her mind.