A storyteller first and foremost, Hannah Coffman has a bachelor's degree in English Creative Writing and a fascination with the written word. Over the past several years, she's gained experience as a writing tutor, a journalist, a technical writer, and a grant writer. From her home in Rolla, Missouri, Hannah spends her days writing, exploring the Ozarks, kayaking Missouri's rivers, hiking, and traveling, and she's counting down the days until her next adventure.
As Summer Vanished
“Is this yours, Dakota?”
A classmate held up a small, stuffed animal hanging from a keychain. It must have fallen off my backpack. I resisted the urge to wrinkle my nose and snatched it from her hand a little too forcefully.
If I had looked behind me as I walked away, I probably would have seen her expression change: mouth slightly open, eyes narrowed. But I didn’t look. I never looked back.
It was August the 15th.
On the first day of school, everyone tries to talk to you, even the people that you’ve known since kindergarten and never held a real conversation with. What’s the point? So on this day, I like to do the opposite of everyone else. I make it my goal to leave school with no new friends and no conversations of any consequence.
Most years, it’s fairly easy to do. Ignore people, and they’ll ignore you right back. It’s not that I don’t like people; it’s just that I don’t care for most of them. It’s not even that I have some deep-seated prejudice against the human race, or that my heart is deeply wounded, or that I have trust issues, or some shit like that. I just find my own company more interesting.
I can’t talk to girls because I am incapable of being dramatic. And I can’t talk to boys because I am incapable of being flirted with.
I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone like this: “Dakota, this guy was the one. My heart is absolutely shattered. And you’re telling me I should just get over it?” Sometimes it goes like this: “Hey, what’s your deal? Are you cool with hooking up?” I have this stare I give to guys who aren’t worth a word. I practice it in the mirror sometimes. It’s very effective.
But during my junior year of high school, a girl named Summer made it incredibly difficult to leave the building without having a real conversation.
Every year as the first day of school peeks its lazy head over the horizon, I make it my goal to sleep in as late as possible. August the 15th was no different. At 7:30 AM I tripped into jeans and a pair of sneakers, and threw my backpack over one shoulder. And I put on lipstick. I love lipstick, the delightful smeariness of it and even that waxy taste it has. I love it. I have a whole shoe box full of different lipstick colors sitting on my dresser.
I’m sixteen. Well, I’ll be seventeen in just a month. This is my story. I write because I don’t think I could stop if I tried: that’s one thing I forgot to mention. I write. Everywhere. On my walls, hands, jeans, on the inside of my shoes.
I was writing, sitting on the cold hallway floor scribbling in a notebook, when I first heard footsteps approach me on August the 15th. At that moment, I was jotting down a list of topics for my blog, which is basically a high schooler’s perspective of Saint Louis, Missouri, and the things that happen here. I think two people read it. Maybe two and a half.
“Hey, I’m new here, so I’m introducing myself to everyone. I’m Summer! What’s your name?”
Summer? Like, 500 days of Summer? I did a quick analysis: Weird name. Hair curled in long, thick strands and straight, choppy bangs that fell over her eyebrows. Scarf obscuring a bland t-shirt. Long, skinny limbs. Thin lips.
I must have stared a little too long, because she gave me a strange look. She wasn’t pretty, but I noticed her skin was, stretched and smooth like wax.
“Dakota.” I said, brushing my long, dark hair away from my face and mentally making a tally mark: one. That’s one new person I had to talk to today.
I tried to turn, but before I could, the girl called Summer caught my arm in a fragile, bony hand, and she caught a little bit of my hair, too.
“Ouch!” I exclaimed.
For the first time today, I was forced to turn around and face another person. Summer was looking at me intently, far too intently for my comfort.
“You’re different,” she said. “I just moved to Saint Louis from Michigan with my dad. I don’t have any friends or family here or know anybody. Are you free tonight?”
“If you let go of my arm, I’d feel more free,” I said.
She let go. Her delicate, bony grasp couldn’t have possibly hurt me, but her eyes were something else.
“I’ll meet you somewhere after school if you tell me your last name,” I said. I wanted leverage, and it was the only thing I could think of in the moment. I didn’t want her to have the upper hand.
I did want to know what made her so vicious about making friends that she would grab a stranger’s arm.
“Stephens,” she said.
Summer Stephens. Of course, I thought. She had a name that rolled off the tongue, and a nose that protruded too far out of her face, and she was sticking it in my business. But never mind. I hadn’t had a friend, a real friend, since my cousin Carly moved to New York when I was in fifth grade. But like I said, I preferred it that way.
I asked, “Dewey’s?” Everyone I’ve ever met has been obsessed with Dewey’s pizza, a local chain.
She just gave me a blank stare… right. I forgot that she mentioned she wasn’t from Saint Louis.
“You like pizza in Michigan?” I asked.
“I think that’s pretty universal,” she said with a smile.
“Okay, Dewey’s, then. I’ll see you there at four.”
I walked into my next class, twirling the sterling silver ring on my left pinky. The tiny engraved eagle on the ring spun around and around with my thoughts.
On August the 15th, the conversation we had at Dewey’s was one part bizarre and two parts comfortable. When I talk to my cousin Carly on the phone (I only answer when I’m forced to and I can’t avoid her because my mom heard my phone ring) it’s so stiff. Swapping words, that’s all our conversations are.
When Carly and I were little we used to play Mario Kart, and play in this creek behind my house that I now realize is filled with sewage and old tires. When we were little that didn’t matter, but now we have nothing to say to each other. She lives in New York in a loft and goes to a different café every day for lunch. I eat pizza weekly.
“So, what’s there to do around here?” Summer asked.
“Not much,” I said.
“I don’t believe you,” said Summer. “I saw you writing, and saw a camera sticking out of your backpack. There’s no way you just sit around after school.”
“I don’t,” I said, “but most people will tell you Saint Louis is boring as hell.”
“I don’t care what other people would tell me,” she said, her voice becoming so high it was almost squeaky. “There’s a reason I wanted to talk to you. I’m asking Dakota, not everyone else.”
I twirled my ring around my pinky: once, twice, three times. At the time, I remember thinking Summer was just odd. Delightfully so. After that, our conversation spiraled and we discussed the merits of eating banana peppers straight from the jar and that maybe crop circles were caused by aliens after all. I think Carly would have rather died than discuss those things. But that’s why we talk twice a year, on a good year.
When I got home that night, my mom asked, “Were you at Dewey’s?” and I said, “Yeah.” But I didn’t tell her I had been chatting with Summer. Mom probably imagined me alone at my usual table, legs crossed, working on one of my stories, sipping a coke.
“Were you writing a story?” Mom asked, on cue.
My mom is a worrying sort of mom. I guess most moms are, but mine worries and asks a lot of questions, but never really gets to the bottom of things.
“Yeah,” I said, still choosing not to tell her about Summer. “I’ve got a couple of things going up on the blog this week. There’s a girl from Chesterfield that just straight up disappeared. And a cat that rides the bus downtown.”
Mom smiled like she hadn’t heard a word I said. “Good, sweetie. Dinner at seven tonight!” And she turned her capable hands to cut broccoli, or something. I heard her humming a popular song from the radio.
I walked upstairs to my room, my cat weaving around my legs, leaving white patches of fur on my black leggings. I abhor doing laundry, so I pushed her off. “Out, Princess!” Then I felt bad for yelling at her and called her back in while I pulled out my laptop and sat down on my navy-blue comforter, arranging soft pillows behind me. As penance for yelling at Princess, I decided to start working on my story about the large calico cat, Brady, who had memorized the bus routes in downtown St. Louis.
But as I composed my piece, something overtook me. I sat in place, twirling my ring once, twice, three times, while I listened to Princess purr. I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl who had disappeared out of Chesterfield. Chesterfield was like, twenty minutes from where I lived. It was the kind of place that had tulips planted next to all its roads and where people shopped at grass-fed grocery stores and basically, where nothing bad ever happened.
When people disappear and their posters go up in post-offices with the word MISSING posted over them, that’s when I’ve always felt the search was hopeless. How often do people’s eyes stray to those posters and actually commit them to memory? Who thinks to themselves, “I’ll remember this face”? Once, I even thought I saw someone who was on one of the posters—a boy, about 12, riding his bike in front of my house. But I never told anyone. I never did anything. And sometimes I still feel guilty, but only when I’m awake before 7 A.M.
I adjusted my laptop on my legs. I had to write about the girl who disappeared: Sydney Merchant. I Googled her name. She was an average high school student, apparently. The few pictures of her in the articles I read revealed grainy selfies of a blonde teenager. A picture of her in a coral colored homecoming dress, laughing. A family photo with a sheepdog.
I researched Sydney’s life until I fell asleep with my laptop still open and my cat, Princess, curled up against me, leaving her tell-tale white hairs all over me.
By August the 19th Summer and I had gotten pizza together twice and drank Coke at a café on a Tuesday afternoon. While we ate and sipped from glass bottles (the best kind, we agreed), we talked about everything, and it was nicer than I could have imagined. Once, Summer suddenly asked my opinion on book jackets.
“Do you think it’s nice to imagine your books wearing little clothes?” she asked.
I had never thought of that before. “Yes,” I said, “but only if they’re crisp and clean. I don’t like the waxy kind that are on library books.”
“Mmm,” she agreed over a mouthful of pepperoni.
“Have you ever been in love?” Summer asked me next. She was a rapid-fire geyser of questions.
“I can’t pretend that anything has ever happened to me,” I said. “I’ve never dated anyone or broken up with anyone or even fought with anyone, not really. The worst fight I ever had was with my sister Lindsay, and it ended in a pillow fight.”
“That’s not what I asked,” she said after I paused for a breath and twirled my ring on my finger under the table. Once, twice, three times.
“Sure, I’ve been in love. Hasn’t everyone?” I tried to change the subject because I wasn’t comfortable talking about being in love when I felt I had no right to be in love. I’ve never had a boyfriend.
But she nodded and smiled. “Me, too. His name is Jefferson.”
My laptop came to life with a whirr. Ever since she had grabbed my arm and coaxed me into friendship, I had inklings that Summer Stephens wasn’t who she said she was. But on the night of August the 19th, as I typed “Sydney Merchant” into Google, a new article came up that I hadn’t read before.
“Merchant’s boyfriend at the time of disappearance, Jefferson Moray, has stated that he has started a Facebook group for support of Merchant’s family and friends during this time. If anyone has information or sentiments to share, we direct them to the page labeled ‘Find Sydney Merchant.’”
I just stared at the screen until it blinked off. Jefferson. That couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? She’d never told me his last name.
On August the 23rd I decided I wanted answers. “Where do you live?” I asked Summer, throwing decorum to the wind.
“I live a little on the outside of St. Charles,” she told me, referencing a calm suburb of Saint Louis.
"My parents live in St. Charles, too,” I said. “You’ll have to drop by sometime,” hoping she would extend her own invitation.
She just smiled with her thin lips and said, “I’d love to. I’m glad to have friends, and my dad will be glad, too. He was so worried that the move from Michigan would make me lose all interest in being social.”
That wasn’t the response I had expected. I stumbled a little over my next words.
“Well, next week then. You’ll have to come over for dinner. My mom’s not much of a cook, but she does make a mean Pasta Helper dish.”
Summer laughed. “You’re lucky to have your mom. I’ve lived with my dad for as long as I can remember, and that means eating out most meals and pretending to cook the rest.”
“What happened to your mom?” I asked, bluntly, immediately regretting it.
“I’m sorry.” I apologized, “I didn’t mean to ask that.”
“No, don’t apologize. I don’t mind. My mom still lives in Michigan, so I saw her occasionally before we moved here, but not often. She was never married to my dad, and she left before I ever remember them living together.”
“What’s she like?”
“Like a bald eagle. You know how bald eagles are symbols of freedom? But when you look at one up close, especially the ones in cages, they don’t seem very free at all. My mom is like a symbol of motherhood, unless you look too closely.”
I just nodded. Even though my mother has always been around, humming in the kitchen, I knew exactly what Summer meant.
It was the 25th of August when I trusted the girl called Summer enough to take her to the railroad tracks by the Mississippi river, the spot I like to go to think and create theories about life.
When I told her that, she laughed, but not the kind of laugh that hurts.
“Have you ever dyed your hair, Dakota?” she asked me quite abruptly. (I was used to her abrupt questions.)
“No,” I said, “I like color, but not in my hair.”
“Huh. I dyed mine before I came here, and it’s washing out so fast. I was wondering if there was any way to make it stay dark.”
I looked more closely at her hair. It was a dark mahogany, but I could see corn-like color at her roots, and a gradient that didn’t look salon-achieved.
“Did you use box color?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, “I guess that was a mistake. My dad doesn’t like to give me money for anything involving hair or makeup or beauty products, mostly because he’s afraid I’ll become like my mom.”
“Like your mom?” I prodded, aware that I was prodding.
“Yeah. I think every time he sees her in me, it hurts him, you know? It reminds him.”
That weekend, my older sister Lindsay came to visit. I still hadn’t mentioned Summer to Mom or Dad. When I was gone, they assumed that I was in the places I normally frequented: getting pizza, wandering by the railroad tracks, reading somewhere or studying for a test in this little coffee shop called Marge’s. I think the last time they actually asked where I was going, I was either 12 or 13. They knew early on they didn’t have to worry about me getting into trouble. And if I wasn’t getting into trouble, what else did they have to worry about?
Lindsay had recently dyed her brown hair to black, which reminded me of Summer’s question. “Hey, did you use box dye?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she retorted, obviously offended.
“Sorry,” I muttered, “I wasn’t saying it looked bad. My friend just told me that box dye always fades really fast and she doesn’t know how to keep her hair dark.”
Instead of answering my question, Lindsay just asked, “Your friend?”
“Yeah, my friend. Her name’s Summer.”
“Huh,” Lindsay said. “Glad you made a friend.” I don’t think she meant it sarcastically. I twirled my silver ring.
On August the 30th, Summer and I sat at a two-person table in Marge’s coffee house. The door was wide open, and sun and sky spilled in among the dark scent of coffee beans.
“Do you like tattoos? Would you ever get one?” Summer asked me while she bit into an apple. Sometimes she got really excited about our conversation and would talk with her mouth still a little bit full. It was childlike. Endearing, maybe.
“I like to write on myself with pen, but I also like to wash it away. I don’t think I could ever settle on something permanently,” I replied. I tapped my fingers on the table in a comforting rhythm.
“I have a tattoo,” Summer told me in a confessional tone. She flipped her brown hair, and the red tints of the dye glowed madly in the sunlight that shone through the doorway. She was wearing this yellow sundress that clashed with her hair.
“Yeah… I got it last year, with my dad’s permission. I wish I hadn’t gotten it, though, because it was for my mom, and I don’t feel like she deserves it, now. When I told her about it, she barely smiled…I don’t know.”
Her voice trailed off and she sat there silently for a moment, apple hanging listlessly from her hand.
“What is it of?” I asked.
“It’s a bird, because she reminds me of an eagle, like I told you. A bird, and it has her initials in it.”
When we left the coffee shop, we spilled a tip on the table of quarters, dimes and nickels.
I was chewing on the end of my pencil when Summer walked into the school library. Her hair was curled like usual and she smiled in my direction. I looked at her and sized her up, twirling my ring. She could have dyed her blond hair, creating its dark mahogany color. She could have cut the bangs that fell across her forehead, the bangs that Sydney didn’t have. But there was one thing that was bothering me: Sydney had blue eyes. Summer’s eyes were brown.
“Have your eyes always been brown?” I blurted in a hushed whisper as she pulled out a chair and sat at my table. From across the room, I saw a librarian glare at me.
Summer looked startled, touching her face rapidly in a self-conscious gesture. Actually, for a moment, she looked scared.
I felt so bad I immediately recanted: “I mean, you know, how people’s eyes are sometimes a different color when they are born? Like, mine were blue when I was born, and now they’re green.” This wasn’t true. It was also the first lie I’d told in a good while, making it slip uncomfortably off of my tongue.
“Oh,” she laughed. “No, I think mine have always been brown. My dad’s and my mom’s eyes are both brown, so it makes sense.”
I mentally made a note: look at Sydney’s parent’s eye color. I jotted letters on the back of my hand with a pen: L A S P E C. The first letter of each word, so I would remember.
“What’s that?” Summer asked, swinging her legs up into a crisscross position. She forgot to hush her voice and I noticed the librarian looking at us again.
“Just a note to myself,” I explained, softly.
Then Summer asked: “Where would you like to be buried? Do you think it would be nice to be in a family plot, or somewhere new?”
For a moment I forgot about Sydney and Sydney didn’t matter anymore. I was just having a conversation with Summer, this girl who had become one of my very best friends.
“Somewhere new,” I said.
As it turned out, both of Sydney’s parents had brown eyes. I found pictures of both of them after twenty minutes of social-media stalking. I had thought of the next question I was going to ask Summer: “Do you ever think about leaving, running away, and going wherever you’d like?” I had decided that Sydney was Summer, Summer was Sydney. And she had trusted me enough to tell me about her mom, and to sit with me for hours and ask and answer questions. I felt she could trust me with this final secret.
I looked through pictures of Sydney, as many as I could find. There weren’t a lot, because she didn’t have a Facebook page or other social media. There were pictures in news articles, and on the Facebook page that her boyfriend, Jefferson, had created. I couldn’t spot a tattoo in any of the pictures.
I wrote out the questions I meant to ask Summer in one of my notebooks. I wrote the questions so many times that they crisscrossed each other, and some were written horizontally, and some vertically. Some were etched into the page so many times they bled over onto the page behind it.
“Are you Sydney Merchant? Are you running away? Are you trying to hide your identity? Who are you? Are you really named Summer Stephens? What about your dyed hair, and your boyfriend Jefferson, and both your parents’ brown eyes? Why did you want to leave them? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”
But that day, she didn’t show up to school. I thought maybe she had a stomachache, or needed a mental health day, or maybe she came in for a half day and I just missed her in last period. I twirled my ring, but I lost count of how many times. I drove home in silence, without even the radio to keep me company.
It was September the 12th.
On September the 19th, I asked my sociology teacher. I’m not intimidated by anyone, but if I were, I would be intimidated by him. He’s taller than anyone—His name’s Mr. Richard, I don’t know his first name. I don’t know if his first name was ever relevant, not even when he was very small.
“I haven’t seen Summer Stephens in a week. She hasn’t answered her phone, and I can’t find out from anyone what happened,” I told him. He just gave me a grave look from behind glasses that masked the color of his eyes.
“I… I guess what I’m asking is, do you have any idea if she transferred schools, or moved back to Michigan, or is she okay?”
Mr. Roberts shuffled a few papers around on his desk, and pulled out a roster. He handed it to me. “Summer Stephens?” He asked.
I quickly glanced over the roster. Then more slowly. Then slower still. In between the last names, I could not seem to find hers. I squinted. Turned the paper sideways. Then realized how silly I looked.
I walked away without asking him again. Or anyone, for that matter.
It’s August 15th again, meaning I haven’t been to Dewey’s in nearly a year. Last time I was there, a few weeks after Summer, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I jumped so quickly I felt my nerves stretch.
“I’m so sorry,” an unfamiliar voice said, “I just thought you were someone else.” I thought it was someone else, too. I had a wild hope that Summer had returned from wherever she had gone: that she had questions to ask me and pepperoni pizza to order.
Summer passed into fall and fall passed into winter. In the spring, I’ll graduate high school, and I wonder if she will too, or where she is, or if Sydney Merchant is lost forever to the world. I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering.
I know that I’m different from other people. I chew on the end of all my pencils, and I listen to jazz music from the forties, and I hate hipsters and love gum, and ripped bell-bottom jeans from Goodwill or the nineties, and all different shades of lipstick, and I just don’t particularly care for people.
And now there is something else: now I’ve lost someone I never really knew.