Perhaps the World Ends Here
The last time Noah left was last Christmas. As soon as he walked in the front door for the holidays, Amelie flung herself around him like she always did, and he’d spun her around as fast as always. He had hugged Mum tight and helped Pup with kindling for the fireplace, chatting vividly about his roommate’s behaviors with alcohol and women (as if he was any better) and playing cards with Elias and me.
We’d all sat at the table, even Elias, and said the Lord’s prayer together over dishes of apple stuffing, potatoes, gravy, and ham. I remember Pup laughing, bellowing, at Noah’s impressions of professors, each new voice with thicker accents and eyebrows than the last. Christmas Eve, we all lay on the living room floor, a colorful array of blankets, sleeping bags, and camping mats, and all I could think about was how very far away all the yelling now seemed.
December 26, we woke up slow, stomachs packed with Grosi’s goose and christstollen. Just like always. We’d set the table for our final Christmas hurrah and played cards over coffee, Handel’s Messiah cushioning the competition. We didn’t notice until after the smattering of leftover brunch, which is I think why Mum blames herself so much.
It was Amelie who’d checked to see if he was awake. My twin’s worst nightmare found itself repeated: the bed made military style, desk cleared, bin full of shredded paper, the carpet recently vacuumed. And that damn note. Mum left again in the same flurry of adrenaline and those same pajama pants, grabbing the car keys, a water bottle, twenty dollars cash from my wallet because she had none.
We had all come back to the kitchen table then. No one cleaned up the cards, no one did the dishes. Elias, Amelie, and I had sat, staring at our hands, the snow outside, the bread going stale in front of us. Pup paced.
When she came back, two days later, Noah was not in the front seat.
I wake to Mum pounding hefezopf dough in the kitchen. It’s Sunday. Though it’s a bread people normally make for Easter, Mum’s habit is to make it every Sunday morning. She says kneading gets her heart right before the Lord.
I roll over, staring at Amelie across the room. She sleeps chaotically: limbs twisted, curly blonde hair ratted, duvet fallen off the bed. We used to share a bed, which used to mean that when we woke in the morning, she had the bed and I had the floor. She snores in her sleep too, wonderfully, and loud enough to wake the house at times. Most of all, though, in her sleep, her eyebrows aren’t furrowed. Her forehead is crisply unaltered, vacant of the deep lines that have carved themselves over the past year, and I can’t tell that her shoulders hunch deeply when she walks. She had begged Mum to go out again well into January. She spoke only two word sentences for months after February, when Mum went out for the sixth time and returned with an empty passenger seat.
A car pulls into the driveway, engine sputtering, and a rap at the front door replaces the sound of Mum’s kneading. I slip out of bed, don a sweatshirt, and avoid the floorboards that have snitched on me in the past on my way to the top of the stairs. Elias’ doorknob clicks behind me, and I glance at him in acknowledgement as I sit. The front door creaks and up floats Mum’s whispered shock, “Oh my.” The door shuts.
I glance at Elias, wide-eyed, and he shrugs. Amelie, hair battle-worn, appears from the room I left minutes ago and we creep down the stairs.
“It’s the cops,” says Elias.
“I can see that, stupid.”
“Do you think they found Noah?”
Elias and I make eye contact and his expression pleads with me not to answer her. He knows what I think. I pour the last of the coffee as Elias sits and Amelie braids Mum’s bread, ever the helper. The maplewood table is sprinkled in flour, a traditional Sunday morning sight, and it welcomes us as it always has. Amelie places the bread in the oven, and then we wait, staring at our hands, into our coffee mugs, out the window at the snow that’s falling now in swollen flakes.
The front door opens again. The car parked in our driveway sputters to life and the sound fades away. Our parents appear in the doorway to the kitchen. Mum is holding herself with flour covered hands, chocolate eyes red and wet. Pup is still.
“They’re declaring Noah a cold case.”
Amelie’s chair falls backwards to the ground and the table lifts with her legs, the clattering sound causing Elias and I to flinch.
“No, they can’t do that. I looked it up. They can only call things ‘cold cases’ after at least a year. It’s only been eleven months. They can’t-”
“Honey. They just have too many other things going on.”
Mum collapses in the chair next to me. She’s crying now, tears silently rolling down her soft face. Pup silently picks up Amelie’s chair. From the other side of the table, Elias softly asks the question that’s been eating us both alive for eleven months.
“What did the note say?”
Mum sobs loudly, tears falling freer by the moment, and gestures to Pup. He stares at her incredulously, even protests for a moment as Elias and I erupt, protecting our position. His eyes shift to us, commanding silence, and out from his wallet he produces two worn post-it notes. The words tumble out now in his thick immigrant accent, more than I’ve heard Pup speak in months, more than I think he’s ever spoken in his life.
“It’s called The Church 242. He met some of their people his freshman year, at church we think, and got sucked in. When he ran away a few years ago, they’d been having meetings late every night and finally convinced him to leave. Someone from that group picked him up and they drove to Chicago to ‘evangelize’ apparently. That’s where Mum found him, out on the street talking to young women in the redlight district. When we brought him back, he wouldn’t tell us anything other than the name of the group and that they’re church friends.”
The snow outside is falling harder now, and Amelie’s collapsed back into her chair, head in her arms on the table.
The last time we all sat here was that card game after Christmas.
“Last year, when he ran away again, Mum went to the same spot. We don’t even know if he went there, maybe they’re just better at hiding him this time, maybe he’s somewhere else. The police collected all they could on the cult, but as far as they know, no one ever really gets out. Or no one wants to. They call each other ‘the True Family’, which is bullshit-”
“-because he has a family. Marie, I will use any damn language I want. They took my son.”
Amelie is crying now too. Elias is stony-faced, staring out the window at the flakes sliding down the glass. I pick at the table, loosening a splinter.
“We’re going to be late for church,” Mum whispers.
An olive branch.
“He’s never coming back.”
The whole family stares at me.
“What? We all know it. He would’ve if he was going to by now. It’s just like you said, he has a ‘True Family’ now.”
“So where does that leave us?” Elias mutters.
The oven timer carols behind us. Pup stands slowly and pulls the bread from the heat, gingerly placing it in the center of the table. The smell is soft, filling the room with warmth and the scents of flour and yeast, and the snow is thickening outside. Elias rests his head on my shoulder and we watch the steam curl toward the ceiling.
Kate Beetham is a student at Calvin University and a proud TCK (if you know, you know). She loves Pop Smoke, her engagement ring, doing stairs until her legs give out, and being a snob about coffee. Her current niche obsession is Raisin Bran Crunch.