Mari has always been a free spirit. When the unthinkable happens and she is kidnapped, she must uncover the clues to discover what truly happened to her.
The moon veils itself as if to say I have no part in this. The stars divide, some linger while others disappear. The girl stumbles down the dark street, dragging her feet through the low-lying fog. She pauses at a light pole that is buzzing with dysfunction and her fingers rise on their own accord. She brushes dirt from the photograph pinned to the wood that smells of tar and recognizes her own eyes staring back at her. She doesn’t bother to read the details beyond the word:Missing. She just rips the paper down, crumbles it into a tightly pressed ball, and tosses it into the gutter.
As she moves, she flinches from the pain that is haunting her hip and drawing rapid breaths from her lungs. She has no recollection of how she acquired the injury. For that matter, she has no memory beyond the one stuck in her dreams; she was somewhere she should have never been and she strayed too near the wrong people. The kinds of people who makeeverythinglook criminal with suspicious, side-long glances and hushed whispers. After that, her memory fades to static like the broken screen of an old television.
She comes to a stop at an empty intersection. Her eyes attempt to focus on the street signs but the white letters blur into puffy shapes, like down feathers clinging to bright blue felt. Frigid fingers touch her forehead and it takes her a moment to realize they are her own. She steps into the street only to be assaulted by bright lights and the squeal of tires. She regards the lights with little interest and doesn’t budge the slightest when the bumper softly contacts her shins.
The door opens and she turns to walk away. She hears a voice call, but the words are indiscernible. Suddenly, she’s face-to-face with a man wearing a blue uniform.
“Miss, are you okay?”
It takes her a moment to realize he speaks Portuguese like she does. She understands this time. She nods in the affirmative but it is clear he seems unconvinced.
“Are you sure you don’t want to have a medic examine your leg?”
This time she nods in the negative.
“Where are you going? It’s dangerous for you to be in this area at night by yourself.”
She slowly lifts her shoulders once and lets them fall.
“Hold on just a minute.”
She stands there while the officer gets on the radio and asks for Lima-128, whatever that is. She wipes dirt from her jeans and picks at invisible pieces of lint on her sweater while she awaits his return.
“Do you have any identification on you?” he asks.
She does a mental check; no purse hangs from her shoulder. She pats her back pocket and feels nothing. Slowly, she shakes her head no.
“All right, hold on a minute.”
“You already said that,” she says. She notes the unease in her own voice.
For a minute, it looks as though he might laugh. His lips tug into a rigid grin and he glances at her patiently, “I know. But I promise, just a minute.”
He returns to his vehicle and rummages around. She stands with her arms crossed and her hips cocked to the right. She switches her weight back and forth several times while she chews her lips. A female voice on the patrol car’s radio penetrates the deafening silence, but the accompanying static causes the transmission to slip in one of her chilled ears and out the other. She peers into the sky above and blows out a breath she had been holding, watching the miniature beads of condensation puff into a cloud and disappear into the still air.
When she looks back down there is a second patrol car pulling to the curb beside the original. A female officer steps out of the newly arrived car and greets the other, who had walked around to the front of his vehicle. They exchange whispers and soon, both are looking at her. She shifts uncomfortably and swings her arms at her sides.
The woman approaches, “Marianna Bettencourt?”
The girl tries out the name. It sounds vaguely familiar. She looks directly into caring brown eyes and nods.
The woman speaks into her radio and waits for the reply that comes seconds later. “Okay, Mari, let’s get you home.”
The word home makes the bile in Mari’s stomach rise. She begins to shake and the officer regards her curiously.
“Is that okay?”
Mari nods. She has no other choice and she cannot figure out why the word caused her to react. She goes silently with the officer and sits in the front seat of the cruiser. They navigate the dark streets of Lisbon, each block growing in familiarity as Mari watches out the window. When the officer stops in front of the two-story, terraced home painted in shades of coral, she looks over at the girl.
“I had dispatch call ahead and let your mother know I was bringing you.”
The word mother causes a similar negative reaction, but Mari pushes it down. As they step out of the vehicle, a woman comes to the porch in her ivory flannel nightgown.
“Oh, Mari!” she cries as she rushes down to the street.
Before Mari can react, she is wrapped in a hug that threatens to cut off her air supply. She inhales the scent of roses, cream, and cinnamon. Her mother. The combination makes her woozy.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” her mother says to break the silence. “Thank you, officer,” she adds.
As the officer leaves, Mari’s mother leads her inside. She stops after locking the door, takes Mari’s shoulders, and gives her a once over.
“You look so thin! You’ve had the entire family worried. Where on earth were you?”
Mari takes a deep breath and considers her words. “I was… in Almada, visiting Desi.”
Her mother gives a blank stare that says she doesn’t believe her own ears.
“He asked me to come,” Mari adds. She knows details can make a story more believable.
“Why didn’t you ask permission or tell us your plans, Mari? You’re only seventeen. You can’t just run off like that.”
Mari lets her face fall and she focuses on her mother’s slippers.
“You will have to endure a good grounding. No more activities this summer. You can study and stay with me or your father. Or your brother, for that matter. But no more Desi. I forbid you to speak to him.”
Mari pretends that this upsets her deeply and for effect, she lets tears well up in her eyes.
“I won’t hear another word,” her mother adds. As usual, a one-way conversation.
Mari nods and storms toward the opposite side of the room.
“Where are you going?” her mother asks.
Her mother scoffs and points, “It’s that way, Mari. What is wrong with you?”
Mari tries on a tired face and tells her mother she just needs to rest. She follows the woman’s pointed finger through the high arch of the hall entry and climbs the stair case she finds on the other side. She tries to recall which door is hers, but her mind is foggy and it takes an experiment to figure out which room to select. When she finally climbs into her bed, she slips off her shoes and falls into a dreamless sleep.
The sun is streaming through the gauzy drapes in full force when Mari is startled awake by a knock at the door. She lifts her head only to be rewarded with a dull throb of pain beneath her eyes. She buries her face in the pillows as the door opens.
“Mari?” Adao’s voice is warm and welcoming.
Mari springs up with a smile and greets her brother with outstretched arms. He gives her a big hug and pats the top of her head.
“Don’t disappear again, you had me worried,” he says.
With the word ‘disappear’ her smile turns into a frown. She vaguely remembers coming home last night and her mother’s orders, but she realizes that she has not accounted for the time she was reported missing. She sinks back into her bed and Adao sits knee-to-knee with her.
“Adao, can I tell you something? You have to promise not to tell mom or dad.”
“They know you were with Desi, if that’s what you’re asking,” Adao says as he holds Mari at arm’s length.
“That’s because I told mom I went to see him. I wasn’t in Almada. I have no idea where I was or how long I was gone.”
Adao regarded her with disbelief. “How could you not know?”
Mari looks down and fidgets with the down comforter, letting the silence linger between them. “I think I was drugged.”
“Mari, why didn’t you tell the officers who brought you home? Or mom?”
“Because I don’t know. I don’t know what happened and I don’t want to get into trouble for something I’m not even sure about. And you know how mom is. She’ll worry every time I leave the house. Or ground me until I’m 50.”
“Mari, you know she means well. She’s been hard on us because she loves us. And anyway, why would you have been drugged?”
“I don’t know. It’s just the only explanation for the fact that I’ve forgotten…”
“Two weeks,” Adao adds for her.
“Two weeks. That’s a lot of time to lose.”
“And you really don’t remember anything?”
Mari shakes her head, “No. I mean… nothing. Not even a picture here or there.”
Adao scrunches his nose, a sign he’s becoming vexed. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I went down to Jerónimos 8 because a group of my friends were going by to see some art show. Then two of us went down to the docks.”
Mari watches Adao’s face as it phases from being perplexed to displaying anger. “Why would you go by the docks at night? You know that’s dangerous! You’ve gotten in trouble how many times for that?”
“I know, Adao, I’m sorry. Just… Elise! What happened to her?”
“Is that who went to the docks with you?”
“Yes, we left the rest of the girls at the hotel and we went down to…”
Adao interrupts her elongated pause, “To what, Mari?”
“To meet a boy.”
“A boy? And who is thisboy?”
Adao’s mocking tone inches beneath Mari’s skin, but she doesn’t react. “I think someone Elise met online.”
Adao’s hands go skyward in frustration. “Mari, are you insane?”
Mari looks down at her fingernails and picks out specks of dirt.
“So you go to meet thisboy,” Adao continues, “and then what?”
“Well, that’s just it. I remember walking with Elise through the area where all those shipping containers sit. Is she okay?”
“She’s been missing, too, Mari. So you’d better tell me what happened next.”
“Well, I don’t know. One minute we were walking there, and the next I’m walking down Rua dos Jerónimos like I never left the hotel. And somehow, two weeks went by.”
Adao huffs and massages the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “I have to go to work, Mari. We’ll have to talk about this later. And only if you decide to tell me what really went on at the docks. I think you’re lying about where you’ve been and this whole ‘drugging’ is a ploy to cover the truth.”
“But Adao,” she grabs his arm as she pleads, “I am not lying to you. I’m telling you everything I can remember.”
He looks at her with impatience, “Sure.” Without further comment, he stands walks away.
As Adao leaves, he slams the door with a finality that upsets her. Mari digs her fingernails into her palms until petite crescents form in her porcelain skin and offers a strangled sound of frustration to the ceiling. “No one ever believes me,” she whispers.
As if to add insult to injury, her door opens again and this time her father’s face appears in the opening. “Mari?” His voice makes her nervous and she pulls the comforter up over her legs.
“Yes, father,” she replies flatly. He takes her response as an invitation and enters her room. She takes in the expensive suit and the ostentatious tie. “More speeches today?” she asks with more attitude than she intends to display.
“What did you do to Adao?”
She finds her father’s eyes and sees the ice in them as he ignores her question. As a front-runner for mayor this year, her father is out debating and brown-nosing more than he is home. She has always been a daddy’s girl, furious with her mother, but she debates the logic of this in her mind as he stands there waiting for an answer. He hasn’t even expressed concern for her whereabouts or joy for her homecoming. She watches him grow impatient by the second and she has to look away.
“I didn’t do anything,” she finally decides to answer.
“He seemed angry.”
“Well, I didn’t do anything,” she repeats.
She loves Adao, but since he has taken the role of her father’s campaign manager, she has watched greed and power seep into his veins. He is becoming someone she does not recognize. The silence stretches and her room begins to feel claustrophobic. She is about to speak when her father interrupts her at her first breath.
“You know, Mari, you need to work on that attitude of yours. You’re a very special girl, you’ll see.”
Mari hears the sound of a camera. She looks up to see the maniacal grin on her father’s lips as he tucks away his cell phone and her stomach churns. Her gut tells her the remark is not meant to feed her self-esteem, but she cannot seem to call up its true meaning. She presses the tips of her fingers against the curve of her temples as her father leaves her to consider his words.
She knows she has to figure out what has happened to her, but she’s curious about her father’s hidden message. She makes an impulsive decision and moves quickly from her bed. She regrets her hasty movement as the room spins beneath her feet. She touches her forehead and sighs as she waits for the dizziness to pass, but it doesn’t. Instead, she clips her shoulder on the doorjamb leading into the bathroom.
She grabs the cold marble of her vanity with one hand and turns the faucet on with the other. She splashes cold water over her cheeks and finds her reflection in the mirror. What she sees gives her a shock and she reacts with a gasp. She reaches out to touch the glass in front of her and realizes her hands are shaking violently. Her cheeks, normally rosy against her alabaster complexion, are abnormally pale and the black bags beneath her eyes defraud her age. Her bones are prominent beneath her ashen skin. She examines her right hip curiously and sees a new scar; a minute pinprick covered in shiny pink tissue. She wonders how she got the mark or if she’s eaten much of anything in the past two weeks. She appears a decade older than the last time she saw herself.
“Mari?” she hears her mother call from the hall. She shuts off the faucet and blots her face with a plush towel. Her mother calls again, this time slightly harsher than the last. The iron rule of her mother had only waned recently. She was too busy doting on her husband to bother with her daughter.
“Yes, mother?” she replies as she leaves the bathroom and heads for her door. It swings open as she reaches for the handle.
“Oh, you’re up!” her mother chirps. “What are your plans today, summer studies?”
“Actually, mother, I wanted to ask you if I could go and see dad’s speech. I know you said I was grounded, but I want to see.”
“Oh, honey. Your father wanted us to wait here until he arrives home. He wants to watch it with us and celebrate.”
“Why must we wait?” Mari grumbles.
Her mother inhales deeply and glances at the ceiling. Her next words slip through a sly smile. “Well, I suppose we could record itaswe watch. We’ll watch it together over some brunch. You could use some food,” she says as she pinches Mari’s abdomen affectionately.
Mari’s throat feels as though it might close in and she regrets her tone immediately. But she has a plan in mind that cannot wait. “Mom, I want to see it inperson,” she begs. Her mother sighs, but she looks to be caving.One more push. “Please, he’s such an important man. I want to see what it will be like at this sort of event so I can get ready for the real thing when he’s elected.”
Her mother considers this with a fingertip to her chin. “Okay, Mari, but you go straight there and straight home. And don’t let him see you.”
“I will make sure,” she promises with her fingers crossed behind her back.
After a quick shower and a hearty breakfast, Mari searches the kitchen for her keys.
“Here, Mar,” her mother says. She is dangling the keys like a carrot in front of a horse.
“Thank you,” she says with a plastic smile. She snatches the keys and heads for the garage. Her modest Volkswagen sits in the center stall and she feels elation as she climbs behind the wheel.
As she makes her way down to the Discoveries Monument, the location her mother specified over breakfast, she tries to remember details from the last two weeks. Drugs seemed the only explanation for the lapses in her memory and the fog she encountered the previous night. She briefly considers a trip to a toxicologist, but decides against it. The thought reminds her of the scar on her hip. She considers what would be injected into such a strange location.
She turns onto Rua dos Jerónimos and is struck by alarming images. She sees Elise’s energizing expression as she practically skips down Rua dos Jerónimos toward the docks. She hears Elise’s ghostly laugh as she watches the two of them walking arm-in-arm. She hears the sound of a horn ripping through the fabric of her memories and she narrowly avoids a head-on collision as she snaps back into reality.
Mari curses and grips the wheel tighter to fight the sweat that has formed beneath her palms. She passes the drive for Jerónimos 8 and she focuses on the immaculate white walls of the structure. On a whim, she pulls into the drive and allows the valet to take her car. After the near-accident, she decides walking is a better idea.
She follows the path she saw in her memories and as she walks, she finds more images. She sees the excitement on Elise’s face as they neared the Tagus River. She watches the two of them as they turn onto Avenida de Basilia and move closer to the docks. Elise is chattering about the website she used to find this boy. The name hits Mari like a freight train. Adi. An affectionate pet name her father often used when speaking to her brother. She recalls thinking it strange that someone else would go by the name.
A man in a brown tweed suit brushes her shoulder as she makes her way onto Avenida de Basilia and excuses himself, but she hardly notices. She stops just short of the main intersection and fervently hits the pedestrian button to cross. As she waits for the light to turn, she hears the echo of a speech. She tilts her head in the direction of the Discoveries Monument and sees the mass of people gathered directly in front of the old stone memorial.
The light turns and a woman pushes past her anxiously. Mari crosses the avenue and glances toward the docks, then back to the monument. Like a moth to a flame, she draws nearer the crowd collecting around what she assumes is her father’s speech. As she closes in on the police officers stationed near the start of the assembly, she is able to hear the words carrying the loud speaker. The announcer introduces her father and tells those gathered about a special announcement he has before the start of the debate. Mari stands on her tip-toes in an attempt to see over the heads in front of her. She catches sight of her father and watches as he gives a haunting glance to his son.
“—and it is with great disappointment that I must announce this scandal. Your ‘front-running’ candidate, Mr. Alençoão, has deceived us all and he has caused my family harm. My daughter Mari is a naïve little girl, and thissnakehas taken advantage of that. As you all know, Mari has been missing for two weeks. Last night she was brought home by two of Lisbon’s finest police officers. I do not want this to be a negative reflection on our family as her mother and I have tried in vain to parent our daughter. She is a free spirit, but she did not run away as some in the media assumed. She was kidnapped by none other than Mr. Alençoão.” Her father pauses here for effect and an outburst rips through the crowd.
Mari stays focused, trying to picture Martin Alençoão’s face. She calls up an image, but something fails to sit properly in her mind.
Her father hushes the crowd and continues, “He is in custody now based upon this text I received just one night prior to Mari’s return.”
An image appears on a large screen television that has been carted onto the makeshift stage. Mari and every other person in the crowd vie for a better look. Mari finally finds a hole in the crowd and is disturbed by what she sees. On the screen she is wearing precisely what she wore this morning. She looks ill and impossibly thin. She is sitting on what appears to be a mattress in a damp, dark room. But she can see the comforter partially covering her legs. It is the exact same pattern as the one on her bed at home.
“Beneath the photo, there is a message. ‘If you want her back, drop out.’ It doesn’t take much to see Mr. Alençoão is referring to the mayoral elections. Somehow, Mari escaped her captors and was found wandering down the street very early this morning. Her companion, Elise Cabeleira, is still missing at present.”
There are more whispers of surprise throughout the crowd. Mari watches as people take in what has been announced. She can see that they believe the story. But she has difficulty with what her father is proposing. She knows her own comforter. Beside her, a man snaps a photo with his cell phone and the soft click of the shutter catches her attention. She thinks back to her father’s comments this morning. She replays the sound and remembers him shoving his cell back into his pocket.
As her father continues to speak, she drowns out the noise. She tries to put the pieces together when someone grabs hold of her arm and pulls her away.
“What are you doing here?” Adao’s harsh whisper cuts through her ear.
Mari reacts to the surprise with a soft squeak. A few people glance toward the disturbance and Adao gives them a polite nod before roughly escorting Mari away from the crowd.
“I came to watch dad. Obviously you knew what had happened, but you didn’t feel like sharing. And you accused me of lying!”
Adao walks with a brisk pace toward the docks. She struggles to keep up as his grip tightens around her bicep.
“You’re hurting me,” she says as his nails dig into her skin.
“Well, you’re about to hurt this campaign. I can’t let that happen.”
Something in Adao’s voice frightens Mari. He continues to drag her down Avenida de Basilia until he reaches the entry to the docks.
“Why can’t I know what happened?” she asks. But as she questions Adao, she realizes the answer immediately. She knows the photo isn’t from Alençoão and she knows it was taken this morning in her bedroom. She searches Adao’s face as he stops just short of the river on an abandoned dock.
“Look, you need to stay out of this. Please.”
She shakes her head stubbornly. “Adao, where is Elise?”
Adao glances at the water briefly, but long enough that Mari’s imagination begins to spin a web of ideas. She is rewarded with another flash of memory and this time, she sees her brother and another young man as she and Elise approach the river. She sees the surprise register on Elise’s pristine features. She also sees the gun in Adao’s hand.
“Mari, I’m warning you,” he says. The words cut through her reverie.
“What did you do?”
Adao looks genuinely surprised when his eyes find her face. She searches his waist and finds the suspicious shape perched on his hip beneath his tailored sport coat.
“I’m doing what I have to, Mari. Alençoão will destroy this place and it will destroy Dad to lose.”
Mari shakes her head in disbelief. Suddenly, her father’s voice carries from behind her. “What’s going on here?”
Mari finds herself between her father and Adao as they face off. Her father’s display of confusion clashes with her brother’s hardened resolve.
“Just trying to keep Mari out of the way. She decided to come to your speech.”
Her father’s tone slips into anger, “I thought you were told to stay home?”
“Is that another part of yourplan?” Mari blurts, instantly wishing she could take the words back.
“I thought the doctor swore by the serum,” her father speaks over her as if she were invisible.
“He did. He said she’d have no memory of the last two weeks.”
Mari’s jaw falls slack as she listened to this conversation from another planet. In what world do fathers and brothers stage kidnappings and drug their own flesh and blood to get ahead? She wants to sink to her knees and cover her ears. She wants to forget all of this.
“Well, clearly he was wrong,” her father points out.
Adao offers a laugh that sends chills down her spine. “Clearly.”
“Mari, listen to me,” her father says as he sweeps her hands into his. “You cannot breathe a word of this to anyone. This is a family matter and it stays inourhome. As I left, the reporters were commenting that this election is basically ablackoutnow. None of the other candidates can defeat me and with Alençoão out of the way, it’s perfect. We planned to show you and your mother the brilliance of this plan when we all watched the speech… but asusual, your meddling is proving destructive. You should have stayed home.”
Mari feels utterly sick and her breakfast nearly decorates her father’s shoes, but she holds herself together. “This is not a family matter. Elise wasn’t family; she had nothing to do with this.”
“Elise was a casualty, Mari, it happens. We had no idea she would fight so hard. We had planned on releasing her with you.”
Mari looks back to the river and watches the current. She knows without a doubt that her friend’s body will wash up on the shore somewhere down the line. And it will only add to her father’s scheme. He will be the only candidate left in the race and an innocent man will go to prison for murder and kidnapping. She wonders what else her father has planted as evidence.
“This is too much,” she says so quietly she can’t decide if the words even came out. “I can’t…” Tears begin to fall without her permission as she searches her father’s eyes for any sign of the man she knew as a child. She is rewarded with stone so cold she shivers.
“Mari, for God’s sake,” her brother starts to say. She whirls around and slaps him straight across the cheek with so much force she loses balance. Her father instinctively catches her and sets her upright, but his hands grip tightly around her wrists as he holds them behind her back.
Adao appears besides himself as the red rage on his freshly slapped cheek seeps into his eyes. He reaches for the gun on his hip quickly and points it directly at her. The next minute feels an eternity long. Her father is yelling mindlessly at Adao to drop his weapon. Mari stares down the .45 and the emotion drains from her. She hears a scream, though it sounds miles away. She feels something heavy barrel into her seconds before she feels the icy sting of water.
As she sinks deeper beneath the surface, she hears a crack that brings her back to reality. She panics and swims upward until she crests the water. She sucks down a hasty breath and inhales liquid as well. Her lungs burn as she coughs and fights for air, but something grabs hold of her and hoists her onto the docks. She is left there on the wooden planks as the blue figure helps another person out of the water. She stares at this woman while she struggles to comprehend what has just occurred. It hits her then; she knows this woman pushed her out of her father’s grip and into the river. As the scent of cream, roses, and cinnamon drifts on the damp air, Mari realizes the eyes she is looking into are her mother’s.
“Oh, Mari. I came looking for you the minute I heard what yourfatherwas saying. How could he be so…” Her mother comes up empty. There are no words to describe what her father is.
She holds onto her mom as she turns to face the ghastly scene. Her brother is being led away from the docks in handcuffs while paramedics work on her father’s still body. Shock takes a hold of her and she buries her face in her mother’s chest, wishing she could erase this day. She wishes in vain for another drug-induced blackout, anything to save her from the horror. But she knows that she will live with the memories for the rest of her life.