My father searches at night. Once, he lets me go with him. I sit in the back, kneeling on the seat with my chin on the headrest, looking out the rear window. We drive for what feels like hours, up and down the same streets over and over, until finally we are outside of town on a long, two-lane road. Suddenly he pulls to the side, and when I turn my father is leaning back, his hands still on the wheel. “I don’t know where we are,” he says to himself. But I do, only now the fog is gone, the gray stalks are sprouting corn, and behind us is a row of palm trees, almost as tall as the ones back home.
Sooner or later, we stop searching. I don’t know when, I don’t know why, but my parents decide that we must learn to live this way, and one night at dinner, I find only four settings on the table. “If she wants us, she’ll call,” my father says, scooping rice onto his plate. And, just like that, things go back to normal: my father sleeps early again to rest for the next day’s work, my mother cooks and cleans, Darwin plays basketball and rides bikes with his friends. The busier we stay, the less my parents fight, the less Darwin bullies me, and soon, school begins again. I’m a third-grader now, learning things all the time: that our final states are Alaska and Hawaii, that anything times zero equals zero. One morning I wake up and my mother tells me, “You’re nine years old today.”
Days feel fuller than they ever were, and after dinner, when everyone is tired and almost ready for bed, we gather in the living room, in front of the new TV. It’s color but still secondhand, and one night half the picture comes in lines so wavy that they almost hurt my eyes. So I look away toward the window, remembering myself on the other side of the glass, the way I watched my family as they are now: non-moving and silent, their faces blank and glowing blue from the TV screen. We couldn’t be truly happy, but somehow everyone rests easy, as if the fact that we are four instead of five is simply a number, and not a tragedy. No one even cries, and I can’t understand why.
I put my head on my knees, close my eyes. Somewhere, Isa is fine without us; here, we are fine without Isa. And this is the truth I don’t want to know: that the ones who leave and the ones who get left keep living their lives, whatever the distance between. But not me. When I was outside in the night, I watched my family; I knew they were fine. When she thought she was alone, I watched Isa; I listened to her pray. For the rest of my life, I will be like this. It’s the difference, I think, between all of them and me; even when I was gone, I was here.
In the last hours of the school day, during filmstrips about good hygiene, our forefathers, and California history, I daydream of Isa: she zooms down a highway edged with cornfields that become skyscrapers, her face framed in the passenger window of Malcolm’s van. Wherever she goes, strangers bid her hello, and I think of her thinking of us: that we’re stuck here forever, that we will never know a bigger world.
After school, walking home, I daydream again, always of reunion: I’m at the end of our block when I see her, standing at the bottom of the driveway. At first she can’t see me in the fog, but then I emerge from it, and now I’m running to her and she’s running to me.
It never happens this way.
In December, on the last day of school before winter vacation, I’ve just walked in the door when my father calls out from the kitchen. “Come here,” he says, and before I can ask why he’s home so early, I see Isa sitting in her chair at the table. Her eyes are pink from crying, her lips are pressed together like she’s keeping a secret. “Hug your sister,” my mother says, so I move closer to Isa, who stares at her lap and whispers “Sorry,” over and over. Her face seems wider now, heavier, and one thick strand of hair crosses her forehead and trails down her shoulder to her elbow. I rub it between my fingers, wondering how long it took to grow, and I think I might understand the way time works: how its passing is impossible to see, but when it’s gone, you feel it. “You should cut this,” I say. Then I do as I’m told and embrace my sister, and that’s when I see it: the dome of her belly, bigger than it was the last time we held each other.
This is Isa’s story: Malcolm got her pregnant. He didn’t want the baby, and then he didn’t want her. He paid for a bus ticket from wherever they were to Lemoore, and sent Isa on her way. That’s all she told my parents; I never knew more than that. “But you shamed us,” my father tells her in a voice so soft he sounds like he’s speaking to the dead. “You shamed yourself. And if he shows up at my door—”