The following is from Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You about a daughter’s death in a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Ng’s fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
The police tell them lots of teenagers leave home with no warning. Lots of times, they say, the girls are mad at their parents and the parents don’t even know. Nath watches them circulate in his sister’s room. He expects talcum powder and feather dusters, sniffing dogs, magnifying glasses. Instead the policemen just look: at the posters thumbtacked above her desk, the shoes on the floor, the half-opened bookbag. Then the younger one places his palm on the rounded pink lid of Lydia’s perfume bottle, as if cupping a child’s head in his hand.
Most missing-girl cases, the older policeman tells them, resolve themselves within twenty-four hours. The girls come home by themselves.
“What does that mean?” Nath says. “Most? What does that mean?”
The policeman peers over the top of his bifocals. “In the vast majority of cases,” he says.
“Eighty percent?” Nath says. “Ninety? Ninety-five?”
“Nathan,” James says. “That’s enough. Let Officer Fiske do his work.”
The younger officer jots down the particulars in his notebook: Lydia Elizabeth Lee, sixteen, last seen Monday May 2, flowered halter-neck dress, parents James and Marilyn Lee. At this Officer Fiske studies James closely, a memory surfacing in his mind.
“Now, your wife also went missing once?” he says. “I remember the case. In ’sixty-six, wasn’t it?”
Warmth spreads along the back of James’s neck, like sweat dripping behind his ears. He is glad, now, that Marilyn is waiting by the phone downstairs. “That was a misunderstanding,” he says stiffly. “A miscommunication between my wife and myself. A family matter.”
“I see.” The older officer pulls out his own pad and makes a note, and James raps his knuckle against the corner of Lydia’s desk.
In the kitchen, the policemen flip through the family albums looking for a clear head shot. “This one,” Hannah says, pointing. It’s a snapshot from last Christmas. Lydia had been sullen, and Nath had tried to cheer her up, to blackmail a smile out of her through the camera. It hadn’t worked. She sits next to the tree, back against the wall, alone in the shot. Her face is a dare. The directness of her stare, straight out of the page with not even a hint of profile, says What are you looking at? In the picture, Nath can’t distinguish the blue of her irises from the black of her pupils, her eyes like dark holes in the shiny paper. When he’d picked up the photos at the drugstore, he had regretted capturing this moment, the hard look on his sister’s face. But now, he admits, looking at the photograph in Hannah’s hand, this looks like her—at least, the way she looked when he had seen her last.
“Not that one,” James says. “Not with Lydia making a face like that. People will think she looks like that all the time. Pick a nice one.” He flips a few pages and pries out the last snapshot. “This one’s better.”
At her sixteenth birthday, the week before, Lydia sits at the table with a lipsticked smile. Though her face is turned toward the camera, her eyes are looking at something outside the photo’s white border. What’s so funny? Nath wonders. He can’t remember if it was him, or something their father said, or if Lydia was laughing to herself about something none of the rest of them knew. She looks like a model in a magazine ad, lips dark and sharp, a plate of perfectly frosted cake poised on a delicate hand, having an improbably good time. James pushes the birthday photo across the table toward the policemen, and the younger one slides it into a manila folder and stands up.
“This will be just fine,” he says. “We’ll make up a flyer in case she doesn’t turn up by tomorrow. Don’t worry. I’m sure she will.” He leaves a fleck of spit on the photo album page and Hannah wipes it away with her finger.
“She wouldn’t just leave,” Marilyn says. “What if it’s some crazy? Some psycho kidnapping girls?” Her hand drifts to that morning’s newspaper, still lying in the center of the table.
“Try not to worry, ma’am,” Officer Fiske says. “Things like that, they hardly ever happen. In the vast majority of cases—” He glances at Nath, then clears his throat. “The girls almost always come home.”
When the policemen have gone, Marilyn and James sit down with a piece of scratch paper. The police have suggested they call all of Lydia’s friends, anyone who might know where she’s gone. Together they construct a list: Pam Saunders. Jenn Pittman. Shelley Brierley. Nath doesn’t correct them, but these girls have never been Lydia’s friends. Lydia has been in school with them since kindergarten, and now and then they call, giggly and shrill, and Lydia shouts through the line, “I got it.” Some evenings she sits for hours on the window seat on the landing, the phone base cradled in her lap, receiver wedged between ear and shoulder. When their parents walk by, she lowers her voice to a confidential murmur, twirling the cord around her little finger until they go away. This, Nath knows, is why his parents write their names on the list with such confidence.
But Nath’s seen Lydia at school, how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence. Once, he had stayed on the phone line after Lydia picked up and heard not gossip, but his sister’s voice duly rattling off assignments—read Act I of Othello, do the odd-numbered problems in Section 5—then quiet after the hang-up click. The next day, while Lydia was curled on the window seat, phone pressed to her ear, he’d picked up the extension in the kitchen and heard only the low drone of the dial tone. Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known. If their father says, “Lydia, how’s Pam doing?” Lydia says, “Oh, she’s great, she just made the pep squad,” and Nath doesn’t contradict her. He’s amazed at the stillness in her face, the way she can lie without even a raised eyebrow to give her away.
Except he can’t tell his parents that now. He watches his mother scribble names on the back of an old receipt, and when she says to him and Hannah, “Anyone else you can think of?” he thinks of Jack and says no.
From EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2014.