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I used to play a game where I imagined that someone had abandoned me in a strange, unknown place and I had to find my way back home. There were various scenarios, but I was always incapacitated in some way—tied up, mute, missing a limb. I thought that I could do it blind, the same way a lost dog might trek a thousand miles to return to its owner, relying on some mysterious instinct that drew the heart back to where it belonged. Sometimes, in the towns where I’d lived after Keokuk, in a bedroom or classroom or while walking alone down a gravel road, I’d pause and orient myself to Arrowood, the Mississippi River, home. It’s there, I’d think, knowing, turning toward it like a needle on a compass.
Now, as I crossed the flat farmland of Kansas and northern Missouri, endless acres of wheat and corn blurring in the dense heat, I felt the road pulling me toward Iowa, as though I would end up there no matter which way I turned the wheel. I squinted into the bright afternoon sky, my sunglasses lost somewhere among the hastily packed bags and boxes I’d crammed into the back of my elderly Nissan. It was late September, the Midwestern air still stifling, unlike the cool sunshine I’d left behind in Colorado, where the aspens had just begun to turn.
Back in February, when I was still on track to finish my master’s degree, my recently remarried mother had called to let me know that my dad, Eddie, had keeled over dead on a blackjack table at the Mark Twain Casino in LaGrange. I hadn’t heard from my dad in the months leading up to his death, and hadn’t seen him in more than a year, so I had a hard time placing my feelings when I learned that he was gone. I had already lost him, in a way, long ago, in the wake of my sisters’ disappearance, and while I’d spent years mourning that first loss of him, the second loss left me oddly numb.
Still, I’d wept like a paid mourner at his funeral. The service was held in Illinois, where he’d been living, and most of the people in attendance, members of the Catholic parish he’d recently joined, barely knew him. I hated how funerals dredged up every shred of grief I’d ever felt, for the deceased or otherwise, each verse of “Amazing Grace” cutting into me and tearing out tiny bits of my insides. The priest wore a black cape over his cassock, and when he raised his arms to pray, it spread out dramatically, revealing a blood-red lining. He droned on at length, reminding us how much we had in common with the dead: We all had dreams, regrets, accomplishments, people we’d loved and disappointed, and at some point, for each of us, those earthly concerns would fall away, our lives replaced in an instant by darkness or—if you believed—light. Sometimes death came too soon, sometimes not soon enough, and only for certain sinners did it come at a time of one’s choosing.
When he spoke of those who had preceded my father in death, he didn’t mention Violet and Tabitha. Nor did he name them as survivors. My little sisters were neither alive nor dead, hovering somewhere in between, in the hazy purgatory of the missing. I had been the sole witness to their kidnapping when I was eight years old, and I had spent my childhood wondering if the man who took them might come back for me. He was never arrested, and no bodies were ever found.
Dad was buried in Keokuk, at the Catholic cemetery—despite the rift between them, Granddad hadn’t gone so far as to kick him out of the Arrowood family plot—but I didn’t attend the interment. No graveside service had been included in his prepaid burial plan, and my father was lowered into the earth without any last words.
Months later, a lawyer for the family trust called to inform me that Arrowood, the namesake house my great-great-grandfather had built on the Mississippi River bluff, the house we had left not long after my sisters’ abduction, was mine. It had sat empty for seventeen years, maintained by the trust, purposely kept out of my father’s reach to prevent him from selling it. Now I was finally going home.
It hadn’t been a difficult choice to make. Even before I had given up on what was supposed to be my last semester of school,