The door flung open. Reluctantly, I put down my pen and turned around, annoyed.
“Now what?” I snapped and glared at my sister.
Elizabeth stepped back as if she had been slapped. “Jane, could we play together at the playground?” she asked as she ducked her head until her chin touched her chest. “Please?”
She looked up and blinked her eyes, pulling her best puppy-face. Her expression showed no other emotion but sincerity and plea.
I was about to shout at her, or perhaps chase her away and give her the most fearful face in my repertoire of scary looks, which was a cross between Count Dracula and Godzilla, just to make her cry. But then mother’s voice came in.
“Why are you always so horrid to your little sister? Why can’t you just go and play with her?”
I sat in silence, swallowing all my words of protest back to where they came from. Unwillingly, I rummaged through my desk, found a book and headed towards the front door with my sister in tow.
Hide and seek. That used to be my favourite game. Now it had become my sister’s. I sat on a bench in the park and heaved an exaggerated sigh.
“One… Two… Three… Four…”
Elizabeth ran off as fast as her little legs could carry her. From the corner of my eye I saw a little muddy head disappearing into the bushes not far away, quicker than a toothpaste cap down the sink.
“… Ninety nine… One hundred. Here I come!” But instead, I remained cross-legged on the bench, took the book out of my bag and started reading. It had already become a routine for me to wait for Elizabeth to get impatient from all the hiding and waiting and reappear from somewhere, and by then that would be the end of the game and it would be time for us to go home.
The next time I looked up was when I had finished my book. It was dusk by then and the sun was already setting. I walked towards the bushes.
“It’s not funny, Liz!”
But Elizabeth was no longer there. Alarmed, I snapped my head around. The park was already empty; its dead silence engulfed my whole being.
Where could she be?
Elizabeth loved the swings. I ran to them, but they were empty.
I tried the seesaws. Elizabeth had once said that she found a perfect place to hide near the seesaws. Yet there was no sign of her there either.
Then I tried the basketball field nearby. Elizabeth had some friends there – they might have seen her. The pitch lay still and quiet. Her friends had long gone.
I went to the pool where the ducks swam. I checked every single bench. I ran along every single path. Still, I found nothing. Where could Elizabeth be? The fountain? The slides? The bars? The roundabouts? The jungle gym! The sandpit! The merry-go-round! The rope bridge! The toilet! And… and… where else? My mind was racing and screaming now, leaving me in complete chaos.
I shouted, screaming Elizabeth’s name until my voice went hoarse and my throat became sore, but nothing came. Not a response, not a wave or a giggle – nothing, except for my own echo.
I stood with my mind completely lost. I squeezed my eyes hard and wondered what I should do next.
Ice cream! The idea struck me like a fire alarm. The ice cream shop just across the road! That had always been one of Elizabeth’s favourite places. I hurried to the shop but it was already closed.
The street was still, and the street lamps were already on. My stomach was all in knots now. A mixture of regret, anger and despair swirled inside me. I wanted to go home. But what could I tell my mother? How could I ever explain? I knew could never go home. I looked up at the waning moon and muttered a wordless prayer, hoping that Elizabeth would somehow miraculously reappear. Even the sky was overcome with a sense of sadness.
I returned to the very same bench where I had sat earlier that day. I could hear nothing but the howling wind, roaring in my ears as though it were blaming me, punishing me for losing my sister. The trees stood rank on rank under the starry sky. Ten million leaves hanging from a million boughs, breathing silently in the night, like monsters ready to strike and swallow at any time. Trembling, quivering, the coldness of the night stung my flesh, chilled my marrow. My teeth chattered as my knees became weak. I hid behind the bench and cried.
I wished I hadn’t brought the book with me. I wished I hadn’t sat there alone and completely ignored my sister. I wished I had played with her. I wished… I wished…
I wished I had never mentioned the words “hide and seek”.
* * *
Elizabeth rubbed her eyes and yawned. She stretched and massaged her legs. The pipe was stuffy and hot and she had lost track of the time after her sweet and sound afternoon nap in the tunnel. She climbed out of the pipe and smiled to herself. She knew her sister would never find her in the pipe. She doubted if her sister even knew of the existence of the pipe. Lazily, she walked back to the same old bench on which Jane had sat earlier that day. Seeing that Jane was no longer there, her jaw dropped. It was then when she realized the sky had already darkened. The leaves of the trees were only shadows in the dark. An owl in a tree hooted like a ghost; the sound haunted her. Cold and trembling, she weakly looked around. She pursed her lips and thought hard.
She wondered where her sister was.
The next thing she knew, she was panting and out of breath as a frosty fog of white air exited her lips every time she breathed out. Beads of sweat fell from the side of her face after all that aimless running to the places where she reckoned her sister might be: the cafe, the tennis court, the lawn, the fences, even the toilet. Yet she found nothing. She thought of the police station or perhaps home, but dismissed the thought almost immediately: Jane would never do that. She would not tell or even want her mum to know that her sister had run away and now disappeared.
Impatient, anxious, panicking, she felt as though her body were in flames. Slowly, she ran her hand through her hair and hit her forehead hard as if the action would show her the way through the labyrinth to her sister.
Feeling totally devastated, her eyes welled up and were soon stinging with tears. Things became blurry in front of her. Under the street lights, spots of colour flushed her cheeks. In a last attempt to find her sister, Elizabeth staggered back to the bench where she had last seen her sister.
* * *
I sat with my legs drawn up to my chest as I watched the trail of leaves that the wind left behind and waited. Every minute felt like an hour. It was then that I thought I heard the sound of footsteps crunching against the dead autumn leaves on the ground. I peeked through the bench and saw the vague outline of a little girl walking towards me. My fast-beating heart raced further, pounding loudly against my rib cage. I held my breath. Could it be…?
I looked closer. Yes: the muddy little head, the chubby little face though now pale and tired, those round little eyes, hollow and full of fright. When she saw me, her lips slowly turned upwards. I watched as the smile grew bigger and wider until it didn’t even look like a smile any more.
I wanted to laugh and giggle; I wanted to burst into tears; I wanted to shake my sister until her teeth chattered in the back of her head. Yet I remained speechless, my throat constricted in a spasm of love, and we simply hugged. I pressed my sister close to my bosom as she snaked her arms around my waist, and I felt the tension inside her ebb out of her body as a wave of emotions gushed like a waterfall through my entire being.
* * *
Mother joined us at the entrance of the park. She said she had been waiting for us at home and, upon seeing that we hadn’t returned, got so worried that she started to look everywhere for us.
My sister and I did not say a word but simply shrugged, claiming we were terribly sorry but we had lost track of the time. Mother didn’t believe us, of course, but didn’t further investigate the matter – though I’m sure that she guessed the truth.
Now feeling completely light-hearted, I looked at my sister and gave her a cheeky wink.
I have never loved my sister that much before.