Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"The Faithful" (December 20, 2000)
"It's thirty-two degrees, officially freezing, and we're getting ready for a Christmas Eve swim. Harvey's idea. 'It'll put the fear of God in you better than church.'" By N. M. Kelby

"Presidential Election" (November 22, 2000)
"My dad wanted his last few years to be in the spotlight. He wanted to be center stage. He drew up his plan to crack the presidency." By Mary McCluskey

"Fat From Shame" (October 26, 2000)
"Enter pissed-modern history.... The struggle, strangle, poof, thuppernong, last gasp of religion, art, language, memory, and the electricity of the heart." By Clyde Edgerton

"Bluegrass Banjo" (September 27, 2000)
"The fat musician picked wildly. He wore a pained expression, as though the music were getting away from him, and gradually he looked up from the instrument and into the audience with a wide-eyed helplessness." By Allison Amend

"Travel Guide for Ameri-Students Touring Former Soviet Countries" (August 23, 2000)
"Now that you have successfully deserted your sixteen classmates, three fat teachers, and one pompous Belorussian tour guide in Minsk by skulking past their rooms at dawn and through the empty hotel lobby, take the first train to Lithuania." By Anthony Doerr

"Bienvenue à Dilbrith College, Marie-Claire Tremblay!!" (July 19, 2000)
"Marie-Claire is scheduled to arrive on the three o'clock train. And would Abélard himself not have relinquished his philosophical pursuits in order to accommodate his immaculate Héloïse?" By Simon Fanning

More Unbound Fiction

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Atlantic Unbound | January 24, 2001
 
Unbound Fiction
 
Daniel Wentworth
.....

Daniel Wentworth is missing, has been missing for years, though my sister and I look for him everywhere, even in our dreams. In these dreams he's always about nine years old, or maybe twelve or fifteen; in the real world we are looking for an adult nearing thirty, olive skin and dark brown eyes, black hair, braces gone. There aren't too many people who fool us anymore, though we know his average height could get him lost in a crowd. My sister Grace says she dreams of him often these days, which must be due in part to the seventh anniversary passing this summer—though no one knows just when he left, only when they noticed that he was gone, and some of us don't even remember that. I only found out when Grace mentioned it one day on the phone, and I realized that my mother had fibbed again. Our family has always liked to hide sad news. When Grace went to college, a friend of hers from eighth grade was killed in her own new college town and my mother took a year to tell Grace. "The time never seemed right," she said when I reprimanded her, "I didn't want to ruin her year." Now my sister dreams of Daniel Wentworth every few nights, more often than I do. This is probably because she lives in a different city and never sees his family.

Also, she had a crush on him once, at the height of his friendship with our brother, Richard. She explains her crush this way: "He was always around the house, and he was always nicer to me than Richard ever was. He had the nicest smile. He was sweet." I think that she dreams of him because this way she can make of him whatever she wants. I remember less from that time—standing in the schoolyard with him, face-to-face on my roller skates as he explained that his left was my right and my left was his right. He knew this when I did not, because he was older than I.

I was six years younger than he and Richard, four years younger than Grace; this memory stands out because I was alone with Daniel Wentworth, and I was rarely alone with any of them; though Grace was supposed to watch me, there was always some way to get rid of me, bribery or threats, though now she calls sometimes late at night with apologies, which I accept because I am older now and love her more. She apologizes to me; I apologize to my mother; and we would all like to apologize to Daniel Wentworth though we don't know why. But we can't anymore, he's taken himself out of the range of apology.

We have color pictures with white borders of Daniel and Richard playing street hockey on their roller skates. On our steps, my brother wears a goalie's mask and holds a hockey stick, alone because my mother always favored him as the only boy (she apologizes to us now, and we say we forgive her, but we don't), and so she took too many pictures of him. Because Daniel and Richard were the only boys on our street, all the sports pictures look a bit ridiculous: Daniel hitting a baseball with no catcher behind him, Richard wheeling around a puck, fending off no one.

In the real world, outside of the frame of the pictures, I sat on our steps watching the baseball sail over the rooftops, white against the blue sky. It was only because I was a small person looking up from the bottom step that made Daniel Wentworth seem to hit the ball so high. If I'm caught on film in these pictures, I'm usually in the corner, looking drunk and anachronistic, with blond hair that later darkened to brown. I don't remember my brother speaking to me in my awkward age, from eight to fifteen. Grace went to a separate high school just for girls. When she was sixteen she decided to befriend me. Sometimes I saw Daniel Wentworth on the street, looking quiet and a bit sad, without Richard now that they were in high school.

Daniel Wentworth had a sister, older than he and never anyone you'd notice—a quiet girl with very long hair, the same olive skin and dark brown eyes. When we first met them my mother asked her to babysit, but it didn't work out; we didn't listen to her and she refused payment. Then she went away to college and shut her door whenever she was home. Her bedroom was entirely pink and the Wentworths kept it just as they thought she liked it, though they left the door open when she wasn't there, which is how I know what it looked like. One day, sent over to get Richard, I stood on the second-floor landing and gaped into Jennifer Wentworth's room, wanting her room and all its calm pink things.

Grace doesn't like Jennifer Wentworth. She says, "She was always so cold, not just older but cold, to everyone. She didn't seem to have any friends." One February afternoon, returning from school, I saw Jennifer Wentworth sitting on her parents' steps with her head in her hands, not minding the cold. She was still there when I turned the key and went inside. She was twenty-one or twenty-two then, about the age Daniel was when he left. Now she is in her mid-thirties, lives quite near us, and sometimes visits her parents, who are only now beginning to be as old as I always thought they were.

She stopped my mother on the street recently and said, "It's been seven years this summer." My mother, still thinking of the embarrassment of having a babysitter refuse payment, didn't know what she meant at first and said only, "Yes, yes, it is seven years," and walked on, only later realizing what Jennifer meant. She will not mention this to Richard; she doesn't want to remind him of vanished friends. But she told me, because I should show the proper sympathy if I see Jennifer Wentworth. I should know what words to say.

Grace remembers too much, which is fine with me, since I remember certain years less than anyone and other years more than I would like to. Still, I tend to take her word for too many things. She says, "He would come over to our house, and the three of us would do a jigsaw puzzle. He would always hide a piece so he could finish it. We always knew he was going to do this, and he always did it, he put it in his back pocket or between two couch pillows or under the carpet." When she says this I know the past is more real to her than the present, and that this is bad, but still, I see him there too, with a wide smile, pulling the piece out from its hiding place.

When Richard was married, he didn't invite any of the Wentworths to the wedding, and we heard later that Jennifer Wentworth had been offended. She had said, according to a mutual friend, "Someone should have been invited, as a gesture for Daniel." Grace thinks she remembers Jennifer Wentworth stopping up her bedroom-door keyhole with wadded-up pieces of toilet paper to prevent my brother and Daniel from looking in. She remembers Jennifer Wentworth's room clearly, because she and Daniel and Richard would explore it on the sly. Jennifer Wentworth had stuffed animals all over her bed and a chain of gum wrappers that went across all four walls. Her closet was full of board games she never played.

The house where Daniel Wentworth grew up has been rented out to people who never knew him; his sister takes care of the rental arrangements and his parents have moved into an apartment nearby. The renters have three small boys, all redheaded, clever in the games they've devised for the confines of the street—since the Wentworth house is on the corner, they have to watch for turning cars. Like we did, these boys have made the cars themselves into a game. Their parents come home in the evenings to pay the babysitter and rest their feet. They met the Wentworths through a friend who may or may not have told them about Daniel. They forward the Wentworths's mail about once a month; there is less and less of it to forward. If he were to call home, they would answer the phone, and if he didn't hang up they could explain where he could find his family. They like to sit on the steps and make friends with their neighbors, especially those with children. These new children do not remind me too much of Daniel or his sister or even us—they seem much happier than I remember us being, though that could just be my memory.

Daniel Wentworth was quite clever himself. He wanted to skip a grade in elementary school and his parents also wanted this, but the school said that it wouldn't be good for him socially. They said he was already young for his grade and if he skipped a grade he would be even younger, smaller, less equipped to deal with free time. He had a problem with recess already; he liked to walk around the perimeter of the playground instead of climbing over the jungle gym. So instead of accelerating he finished his schoolwork early and sat at his desk reading the bulletin boards over and over again. This I know from Grace, who said Richard mentioned it once, years before Daniel left, as proof of his strangeness.

Last January, when Grace was home, she went out to the store for some milk and saw Mr. Wentworth. "Happy New Year," she said, and he said the same to her, then paused, and said, as if she had asked, "Yes, Jennifer's home, and then there's Daniel, wherever he is," and Grace stood there with the milk, not knowing what to say to that. She thinks Daniel Wentworth is dead. Mr. Wentworth walked on then, so Grace was not embarrassed for long. "He's aged," she told me when she returned to our parents' house, "But he was always older than everyone else's parents."

When he walked Mr. Wentworth didn't stoop like an old man; he walked slowly and carefully and looked around as if he hadn't known these streets for forty years. If Grace had married Daniel, the way some people do marry people they knew as a child, Mr. Wentworth would be her father-in-law, and his quiet wife would be her mother-in-law, and I too would be related to them in some way.

One day, shortly before Daniel went away to college, a woman who had lived on our street longer than even the Wentworths called out to him on the street, "Why hello, Daniel Wentworth, how are you these days? You certainly have grown!" She remembered him rolling happily down the sidewalk in a stroller pushed by his mother, who later rarely left her house. And she waved at him, and he waved back, and said that he was fine, that his mother was fine, and his sister, and his father; and everyone who walked past couldn't help but notice how fine everything was, and what a nice young man he must be to talk for so long to an old woman he seemed barely to know, and who seemed barely to know him.

There are these things to remember, when we want to remember, on rainy Saturdays on which we have to stay inside, with the windows closed and the radio and television off because they distract us from what we need to remember. The things we should have said to Daniel Wentworth but did not say; the things we should not have said but chose to say, knowing as we did so (from his eyes: that's how we recall it) that we should not be speaking at all; the way he walked down the street with his head slouched down and his hands in his pockets, and the way he would abruptly look up and smile if you called out his name in a friendly way. He did this when he was as young as I remember him being, and he did this when he grew older. Also, I must tell you that his shoes were always coming unlaced. I must tell you everything.


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Rachel Carpenter's short stories have appeared in several literary magazines, including The Quarterly and
Alaska Quarterly Review, and have been read on the BBC. She lives in New York and Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.