Chapter 1: Harper James
Where is she? I thought as I sat on the steps of my front porch, a safe distance from the noise of my family. Inside my house a PlayStation controller pounded amid video game gunfire, heavy feet ran up and down the stairs, and above all that, my dad screamed at my mom about something I did or left on or forgot to put away or whatever. I didn’t pay much attention to it, lost in my own head.
Harper was almost an hour late. The plan was to go to Queens Quay to board a ferry to the Islands. There, we’d spend a night huddled around a bonfire on Ward’s Island. I’d been looking forward to this night all week, the first that Harper didn’t have family stuff or cheerleading practice or a model UN meeting.
I leaned back, my elbows pressed against the wood, trying to see around the house on the corner, hoping Harper would pop into view.
I hadn’t seen her since Justin Breslow’s party the Friday before. His parents were in Las Vegas, so he’d announced to the cafeteria that there would be a party at his house. Since I was at the back of the room, I was officially invited, even if I was eating alone. So I went — and by went, I mean I stood in a corner, talking to Harper as she fended off guys trying to press up against her. I walked her home, and before we parted I asked her if we could hang out on the Islands next week, one of her last before she was going to leave for Paris on an academic exchange. I had applied for the same program, but was told that my application didn’t meet their standards. She happily agreed to my proposal before kissing my cheek.
I checked my phone for the hundredth time. No texts, but a couple dozen Snapchat notifications, which I was sure were about some party I wasn’t invited to. I made a mental note to check later.
That annoying voice in my head started yapping, conjuring scenarios where something bad had happened. Harper lived only a block away and had walked the short distance to my house thousands of times without a problem. Both of our streets touched what was once Toronto’s boardwalk, The Esplanade. It’s a ribbon of road that runs east to west along shimmering Lake Ontario, and it once buzzed with the noise of distilleries, refineries, twirling carousels, and transport trains rushing into stations. Eventually, the trains were moved above and below ground, the carousels were dismantled — the sad painted horses packed into kitschy restaurants to amuse kids as their parents ate — and the distilleries and refineries were shut down to make way for new industries. Toronto expanded south. Like prison bars, condo buildings cut the city off from the water, though I still liked to tell people that I lived by the lake. It was more interesting than saying I lived near the new forty-five-storey condo on top of a Whole Foods.
Whatever action was happening on The Esplanade was not spilling onto my street, where the only things going on were a dog peeing on a flowerbed, some discarded flyers cartwheeling across the pavement, and Jake Springer, a kid from my school, helping his dad change the oil in their car. His dad wiped the dipstick with a grey cloth, plunged it into the oil tank, and pulled it out, teaching Jake to read the level.
The shouting from inside my house grew harsher. I walked to the window and snuck a look through a gap in the curtains. My sister Amy marched down the stairs and passed like a ship through choppy waters between my parents arguing in the hallway. She was the oldest of the kids and the most immune to the stress of our home. I couldn’t make out what my parents were saying, but I heard my name. I’d done something wrong.
I retreated to the steps of the porch, but this time I chose the bottom one to give myself a little more distance. I tapped my feet to the beat of the song I was humming, trying to think happy thoughts: bunny rabbits, baseball, Harper — that kind of stuff.
Finally, Harper appeared from around the corner, her face blocked by a bubble of pink gum. The sight of her quieted the noise from my family as if a steel door had hermetically sealed them off. Her hands were shoved into the pockets of her ripped jeans, and her brown hair was pulled into a ponytail except for two strands that bracketed her face. She threw me a half-hearted wave and a practised smile, which wilted in seconds. Harper was as subtle as a marching band, and even from a distance, her mood was evident. Something was wrong.
We met at the bottom of the steps for a hug — a big warm one without any restraint, her arms squeezing around my neck. How many more hugs did we have before she left?
“Ready to go?” I said.
She tilted her head down and stared at her shoes, kicking the toe of one against the ground. Her nose crinkled as if she smelled something pungent.
“I don’t wanna go anymore,” she said, her voice barbed.
“Why not? We’ve been planning this all week.” I was annoyed.
“I’m just not in the mood anymore,” she said. She breathed in and her eyes looked upwards at the clouds to avoid contact with mine. I was starting to think her hug had been a pity hug, a sorry-your-aunt-didn’t-make-it hug. She crossed her arms.
“Have you looked at your snaps in the last hour?” she said, not quite managing to sound casual.
I shook my head. “No, but my phone’s been blowing up. Why?”
She adjusted her ponytail even though it was fine. She crossed her arms again and then uncrossed them.
“What is it?” I said. “You’re being weird.”
“Maybe we should go inside,” Harper said.
She took my hand and pulled me up the porch steps. I tensed, wondering what she was going to show me. Did someone post something about her? A pic no one was supposed to see? That had happened to a girl we knew, Priya. She was a quiet girl who’d met a guy online. After some pleading and manipulating on his part, she sent him a topless selfie. The next day it was on the screen of every phone and tablet at school, a cruel prank by a popular girl, who told the principal she did it out of boredom.