The Disappearance Kit
by Abigail Oswald
A few days ago I received a box in the mail, filled with all the things Sadie owned that had to do with me. A collection of creased and faded photographs: adolescent mermaids, painted toes betraying our shimmering fishtails. A soft gray college sweater she’d stolen from me freshman year, left cuff unraveled in the intervening decade. The single waxy shard of a birthday candle.
Most of Sadie’s friends have gotten one as well. A few have even posted unboxing videos online, as if the physical remnants of a neglected friendship were something they ordered in the mail. False friends—view-hungry, desperate for their own following. They don’t really care where Sadie’s gone. Yet I can’t help but compare the things she sent us as I watch. Her oldest friend, I was the recipient of the most items, the most extensive kit. But it’s still strange to think an entire friendship—three decades—could be contained in a single cardboard box.
The first time Sadie disappeared she invited us all to an Oscar party at her apartment, told us to come dressed as our favorite movie character—all-time, not just from the last year. A who’s-who of knockoff blockbuster stars formed on the sidewalk that night: Skywalkers and Godfathers and two Batmen and an Ellen Ripley. Twenty minutes passed before word got around that she’d dropped out, canceled her lease, and moved without informing us. Someone else was already living in her apartment, an older guy with two parakeets who had no interest in hosting a party. Sadie was found in upstate New York a few days later.
And that’s the thing about Sadie: she always reappears. She can’t help herself; she likes to watch from afar, see who cares and who gives up on her. Disappearance is a test on all of us. In recent years, this frequency of departure coupled with her admittedly magnetic disposition and prominent social media presence has spawned something akin to fandom. An online community of devoted sleuths who never fail to discover her new accounts, always coming through to spearhead crowdfunds for a new loft in Barcelona, the Airbnb in Copenhagen. Meanwhile she has alienated all the people who knew her in real life but no longer possess the energy to keep up. Sadie embodies the aspiration of her eager followers—the traveler who wakes in the morning with a destination in mind and finds herself sleeping at the heart of it twenty-four hours later. Movement is Sadie’s brand of magic—buoyed, as one might guess, by the sizable inheritance her parents’ early deaths afforded her.
Over the years I’ve followed her explorations vicariously from afar—a constant drip of sunny beaches blending together into one endless stretch of sand; clubbing in Berlin and Amsterdam, her body shot up with neon and pulsing lights; the gorgeous hoard of photos in my feed after she went “off the grid” for ten days in New Zealand. And the commenters flocking always like bees, like vultures. I’ve wondered sometimes whether Sadie is beginning to tire, or if the money might one day run out, and even—morbidly—whether she’s careful enough: traveling alone, as a woman, and sharing it all. Every now and then I’ve considered reaching out beyond digital birthday greetings—I still prefer letters, mailing cards—but trying to pin down her address is a futile task. Send something one place and she’s already somewhere else. I think the reason I’ve remained in her contact list and on her mind for all these years has something to do with the fact that I’m one of the few who knows her and isn’t jealous of how she lives.
Sure, I could do with the money behind it, but I find her particular brand of jet-setting little more than an exercise in exhaustion. I live in an apartment in the city, just a half-hour away from the suburb where she and I grew up together. I have no desire to move through life as she does, everything fleeting. Maybe she has always viewed me as a challenge in that regard.
Of course, we can’t ask her now, you understand. She’s really gone this time.
There are a few differences between this disappearance and the ones from years past. For one thing, the police are involved. It’s been a long time since a cop took Sadie’s game seriously. After the first few vanishings, most came to understand she’d turn up on a new account in a new country in 36 hours, or 48. The intervening speculation was intended to be fun.
After that first party, though, her boyfriend went to the police. He called me a few days later. Couldn’t stop crying, said her phone number was disconnected, that she was supposed to attend his commencement ceremony, meet his parents in the spring. They’d had plans to move in together. Something about an apartment downtown. As the boyfriend sobbed and ranted in great bursts—never once asking me how I felt, whether I was doing okay, and did I miss her too—I found I couldn’t get the image of him on the night of the Oscar party out of my head. He’d been dressed as John Travolta, Pulp Fiction—the loose black suit, approximation of a ponytail. He called her on his cell phone over and over again, never saying a word to the rest of us, his face red as wine. He was the last left standing on the sidewalk outside her building, ponytail unraveling, looking up at Sadie’s window with the phone still pressed to his ear, as if expecting her to poke her head out and call down to him, laughing, saying it was all a joke—and it was a joke. He just didn’t see it that way.
After the boyfriend tired of calling her that night, as it turned out, he’d called the police instead. He’d invented an over-interested professor so her disappearance would sound more serious than it was—that was why they opened the investigation, how they found her in New York. In fact, the boyfriend hadn’t been that far off: Sadie was shacked up in a cabin outside of Saratoga Springs with the adjunct who’d devoted an unusual number of office hours to her during fall semester. But she was, of course, there of her own volition and things resolved rather quickly after that, though I don’t think the boyfriend ever really got over it. Sadie discovered that she hated a forced reveal—not having control over her own reappearance took all the fun out of it. So after the Oscar party she always came back before the police got involved.
The second unusual characteristic of this disappearance is her friends’ reactions. There are tiers of them, after all. There’s a way to identify the people who think they know her, and those who don’t, and the difference is usually whether or not you show concern when she leaves. God forbid publically worrying, the risk of looking stupid. That’s the trick with Sadie’s disappearances—if you fall for it, her departure becomes a little bit about you. Like the distraught boyfriend lamenting the future he thought he had with her, or all of us looking down at our impractical shoes on a frigid night in February and realizing we have nowhere to go. Suddenly it isn’t about her at all. You admit you’re worried, you rack up miles on the old Volvo driving around looking for her, you call a disconnected number ad infinitum, you go to the cops, you print fliers, you finally find a therapist who takes your insurance. And then—after all that—she turns up on a beach in a new place with a new friend and you look the fool, having expended so much energy for nothing, and realize you don’t know her at all, and did you ever? This was always the greatest thrill for her, I think—being unknowable.
In this instance Sadie’s absence has stretched a few days longer than the usual pattern, and people are annoyed. A photographer posts about a shoot she flaked on; a wedding party carries on one bridesmaid short. Then one week becomes two—the longest she’s ever been gone—and the frustration morphs into fear. Her girlfriend—a low-tier influencer, celebrity by association—posts a ten-second tearstained video of her bare face, wailing indiscriminately, with no context or explanation other than tagging Sadie. All of her accounts are still up. Usually she deletes them all and let people hunt down the new one: a digital scavenger hunt where the only prize, as far as I can tell, is the continued ability to follow her travels. Envy.
When we hit the three-week mark, the girlfriend gives me a call.
I made the police open an investigation, she hiccups in lieu of greeting. You probably already heard.
I’m reminded, uncomfortably, of the phone call with the boyfriend years ago.
You’ve known her longer than anyone. She always mentioned you. Her voice is a taut blend of suspicion and desperation. If you know anything—
Haven’t heard from her in months, I respond. She just sends a message on my birthday. That’s all.
But you knew her, the girlfriend persists. Before any of this bullshit. I don’t know what she wants me… do you think… would she go home maybe?
Home, I repeat, because what else can I say?
Home was the father in Armani, pockets full of pills, who shot the mother in her forehead and upper arm as she was coming out of the Jacuzzi because he mistook her for an intruder, having forgotten she was in the tub, the bathroom, the house, and where he was to begin with. And then, having passed out and woken up moderately more sober, upon realizing what he’d done, shot himself in the head.
This is the story Sadie told me years ago, anyway, though I don’t see how she could conclusively know that he’d killed her by accident. Sadie was wearing earplugs, as she had every night since childhood, because of the fighting. She’d slept through the whole thing. She told me once that she never knew whether to feel lucky or sad that he’d forgotten about her. She said it made her feel lonely. Left out. She’d never inspired much emotion in her father at all.
The girlfriend is waiting.
No, I finally say. Sadie sold the house after her parents died. She doesn’t have anywhere to go around here unless she reaches out to me.
She’s quiet for a moment. Then angry, accusatory. I thought you would help, she says. Why the fuck are you messing with me? What the fuck is your problem? Her dad’s in the Bahamas, you asshole, I know that, he’s been there for years—I’m just trying to find him, but he doesn’t have a cell phone, he doesn’t believe in technology or some shit, and Sadie didn’t write his address down anywhere…
She goes on. I’m remembering. The murder-suicide happened the summer before college, and Sadie took to making up stories. Having been her wing-woman at enough parties I can only imagine the tales she was telling now. Back then it was a doctor-dad retired in Florida, an executive-mom making magic behind the scenes in Hollywood. A perfectly respectable pair of fabricated parents. Only ever Mother this and Father that—no names to check up on or Google out of curiosity. And a new set for every reinvented self.
The girlfriend sniffs with finality and says, Well. Seems like you didn’t know her at all.
When she hangs up I laugh at the idea that anyone could ever know her better. That anyone else could see through the escapist veneer so completely, could think back all the way to her seventh birthday party—sea-themed—where no one came even though the whole class had received the iridescent stickered invitations she’d handwritten and delivered with my help to each individual cubby at school. A party of two where I painted her toenails the color of the ocean, where I burned my finger lighting the candles on her frosted birthday cake as her mother slept and we waited for her father to come home. She refused to blow them out without him. The waxy nub in the box she’s sent me, bright blue. The first self she ever tried to leave behind.
The story blows up, spreading nationally. Disappearing girl goes for good. The media has a gallery of gorgeous photos to choose from. Her follower account swells despite the absence of recent posts, exceeding her previous record. Podcasts do episodes. Forums teem with armchair speculation. And in the Instagram comments, a full spectrum of mourning interspersed with occasional demands for Sadie to reveal herself. As if any of them has a right to her. Somehow everyone feels they have a claim to her presence. Her story. Knowing how it ends.
A year passes. For the first time I don’t send a birthday message, because I know her phone’s been disconnected. There’s a photo I could post from that day, if I wanted the attention—little Sadie of the nut-brown hair; the crooked teeth; the small, sad smile luminescent in the spark of my camera’s flash. She was giving her permission when she sent the photograph, the kit, I know that now. But I don’t share it, of course; I never do. Long ago I resolved to keep her secrets for her, and I’ve made that decision over and over again. I make it every day.
There’s safety in being forgotten, Sadie told me once. I think it saved my life.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Wigleaf, Matchbook, Cheap Pop, Hobart, and Split Lip, and her short fiction was selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and currently resides in Connecticut. Find her online at abigailwashere.com.
Photo source: Kelli McClintock/Unsplash