“I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir, because I'm not myself you see.”
-Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
“HAAAPPPYY BIRTHDAY TO YOOOOUUU!”
“You're a really bad singer, Megan.”
“Jordan, you meanie! Isn't Jordan mean, Dori?”
It was my ninth birthday, and we were sitting around my kitchen table, having a party... well, it wasn't a very large party, because I'd only invited two people: Megan and Jordan. Before, Dad had said, “Why don't you invite more people, Dori? You'll get more presents.” But the only people I liked at school were Megan and Jordan. And I didn't care much about presents.
“Open mine first! Open mine first!” Megan squealed excitedly. She had her blonde hair tied up in two sparkly-pink bunchies, and she was wearing her favourite flowery dress.
Megan's present had wrapping paper with little, yellow ducks on it. The card was a cat in a party hat saying, “Happy Birthday!”, with her swirly handwriting in golden marker written inside. I opened the wrapping carefully, not wanting to rip it too much.
“Hurry up!” Megan whined.
I hurried up a little, and inside, there was a copy of Alice in Wonderland; a beautifully illustrated edition. I had my own copy of Alice in Wonderland, but it got ripped and battered when I left it out in the rain; the ink all ran. So for Megan to remember that, and get me a new copy, made me feel so happy.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Here's mine,” Jordan said, handing his present to me. It was wrapped in a deep, shiny blue; my favourite colour. He hadn't written a card. Again, I opened it very slowly, not wanting to rip it. The gift was a cuddly toy cat
“He looks like your cat Cheshire!” Megan says.
“He does,” I say.
“Hmm... I wish he was smiling.”
“I could stitch him a smile.”
“Good idea! You're so clever, Dori!”
“No, she's not,” Jordan said. “She got five out of ten on last week's spelling test.”
“Jooooordaaaaan! You're so mean!” Megan mewed.
After that, we played some games, and Jordan left, then Megan.
“See you tomorrow!” she said as she waved goodbye.
But I didn't see her the next day.
Or the day after.
Or the week after.
Or even years after.
Because, that night, Megan went missing.
I didn't find out until a week after, when I went to her doorstep and her mother answered. As soon as she saw me, her face fell.
“Hello, Mrs Stevens,” I say. “Can I see Megan? She's been absent for ages and I was wondering if she was okay.”
Mrs Stevens stared at me for a few seconds, and then started crying. I was stunned, unsure how to react. Then, Megan's father came to the door. Possibly guessing what had happened, he gave me a weak smile.
“Hello, Dori,” he said. “Come in.”
He sat me down, made a hot chocolate, and then told me what had happened. They had gone to wake Megan the morning after my birthday and she wasn't in her room, or anywhere else in the house. They didn't know what happened to her, and the police were investigating. He said he was very sorry. He said he thought Megan would be okay, and the police were 'good people' who would try their best to find her.
I didn't cry until I got home, and I told my parents what had happened.
I told Jordan too, but he didn't cry. But he kept grumbling and moaning and hiding his head for the rest of the day.
After six months, the police gave up, assuming that she was dead. Her parents gave up too. But Jordan and I were convinced that she would come back. We kept saying that, someday, she would come prancing through the school gate, laughing and smiling like she always did. And so, every day, we would stare at the gate.
She never came.
We went on to secondary school without her. We never spoke of her from them on, but I know that both of us, deep down, were thinking about her. Sometimes, when we were walking together, and there was something that reminded me of Megan, I would stare at it, and he would too, with this sad but hopeful glint in his eyes.
Even after so long, we still prayed that she might come back.
Now, I don't know why I wished it.
Because here she is.
In our school corridor.
Glancing at me.
She looks so different. She's older, obviously, but I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for her short, black hair, or the large amount of eyeliner on her eyes, or the decreased size of her smile. The only thing that hasn't really changed is her irises: they are still a beautiful mist-blue.
It's really her.
It must be.
She looks just like her.
Should I feel happy about this? I don't feel happy. I just feel shocked, awkward and angry. Shocked because... well, it's all so sudden. Awkward, because I haven't seen her in six years. Angry, because she's turned up without warning, and made herself look so different.
“Dori!” she cries. “It's me! Megan!”
“Umm... hi...” I say. What are you doing here?
“How have you been?”
Only crying and fretting about you for the past few years, wishing you'd never disappeared, that you would come back, and would be laughing and smiling with me and Jordan like you always did, and you're here, but your smile looks fake now, and you look different, and you didn't warn me about this, and now I'm annoyed at you. “Fine.”
“It's been so long!”
You don't say, bitch? “I suppose...”
“It's so nice to see you!”
Stop using the same old generic phases that everyone uses! This isn't you! “It's... it's nice to see you too.”
“I missed you.”
Not as much as I missed you. Don't you realise how distressing it was, not knowing where you were, or how you were, or what was happening to you? You missed me, eh? Then why didn't you come sooner? You better have a damn good reason! “...I missed you too.”
The bell rings, and she suddenly looks more relaxed.
“See you at lunch? In the library?” she says.
“Umm... okay.” Will you explain anything there?
“Bye,” she says. She gives one more weak smile, then walks off.
As soon as she's gone, I stand there and cry. For me, crying is as simple is breathing.
I turn round. It's Jordan. He awkwardly adjusts his glasses, and nervously strokes his neatly-combed hair. Jordan never knows what to do when I'm upset.
“Umm... what's wrong?” he asks.
“Megan...” I sob.
His face suddenly pales. We haven't talked about Megan since we were eleven, so hearing her name must be a shock.
“I miss her too,” he says.
“It's not that,” I say.
“What is it?”
He shakes his head. “No... you're joking.”
“I'm not,” I say. “I'm meeting her in the library at lunch.”
“Why are you so upset about her?”
“Because... she looks... different.”
“You'd expect that.”
“I know, but... it's...it's hard to explain.”
“Let's go to class, or we'll be late.”
I haven't been caring about school lately, but I follow Jordan anyway, because at the moment, he's my only friend, and I don't want to upset him.
“Maybe I can see Megan too?” he says when we reach his classroom.
“Yes,” I say, relieved.
When he goes inside, I suddenly feel lonely, but I'm used to that.
At lunchtime, Jordan and I go to the library. The only person is a girl with black hair reading in the Classics section. The girl looks up, and I realise it's Megan. I glance at Jordan. His face hasn't changed.
“That's her,” I whisper, pointing.
His eyes widen. “It is?”
Megan flashes her new, generic, fake smile. “Hey, Jordan!”
“You look different,” he says.
I wait for her to say, Jooorrdaaan! Meanie!, but- surprise, surprise- she doesn't. Instead, she says, “Come and sit here.”
We slowly sit down in front of her. I see- with a stab in my stomach- that she's been reading Alice in Wonderland.
She glances at the book, then at me. “Your favourite book, right?”
“...Yes.” Saying that so we can be friends again, eh?
“I got you a nice illustrated version for your ninth birthday.”
The day before you left us. “Yes. I still have it.” It's the most precious and depressing thing I own.
“How have you been, Jordan?” she says.
Jordan opens his mouth to say something, then closes it. Then he says, “Fine.”
“Any news?” she asks.
Well, the news is that you're back.
“I have a sister now,” Jordan says.
“No. She's six.”
As old as your disappearance, Megan.
“What's her name?”
“Lovely name!” She looks at me. “You, Dori? Any news?”
I would prefer some from you. “Umm... Cheshire died.”
Megan suddenly looks serious, and actually rather sad. I've never seen her like that before. “I'm sorry. He was a lovely cat.”
“It was... three years ago,” I say. “He was hit by a car.”
I cried when it happened, but not as much as I did about Megan.
“That's awful!” she says. “Stupid drivers!”
“He was quite nice, actually. He gave us some money to pay for a new one.”
“Did you buy a new one?”
“No. I didn't want to.”
We sit in silence for a while. Megan opens her Alice in Wonderland and keeps reading. Jordan takes out a copy of Great Expectations. I don't do anything. I just sit there, thinking about how terrible life can be, like I always do.
And when lunch ends, we all leave in silence.
When we're outside the library, and Megan has walked off, Jordan whispers, “Are you sure that was Megan?”
No, I'm not sure, Jordan. I'm not sure at all.