PROLOGUE

Lena's enigmatic face is painted across my mind's eye, tattooed on my memory with such painfully sharp detail that physical replication couldn't have competed. She's laughing, but I can hardly fathom the circumstances that would have caused such an expression on that flawless face. In reality, she had always been closed to me, my inscrutable older sister. Mysterious, expressionless, blank.

We'd lived like strangers even before she moved away, like intruders in each other's lives, sharing a mother and a home and nothing else. I suppose I had been lacking a baby sister's devotion, and she, an older sister's patience and charm. If, as a child, I had ever had notions of finding a kindred spirit and confidante in her, I would have been offered that slow, sly smile followed by a closed bedroom door instead. Since that early age, I could hardly have felt less devastation when she made her eventual disappearance.

I suppose a part of me always knew she would unceremoniously vanish, which is why I could barely summon a reaction when my mother, teary-eyed and hysterical, told me what had happened. That my sister, pale flame that she was, had flickered out of existence. That Lena was gone.

"No one has seen or heard from her in days," Mama had whimpered, her voice high and plaintive. "She could be dead somewhere, oh God, my baby girl."

That was two months ago, when I had come home from school to find her drowning in the over-sized robe she had flung across her shoulders, body heaving with the force of her sobs. I had sat beside her on our comfortably worn couch, attempting sympathy, faking shock, but feeling largely untouched.

"She probably just ran away, Mama. Chasing some guy or something."

The police had agreed, especially after interviewing her university room-mate and professors. She had told several of them that she was needed at home, to help take care of our sick Mama. They'd expressed surprise; she wasn't known for sharing even the trivialities of her personal life. Regardless, she'd packed the most pertinent of her belongings and vanished in the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.

"Was she dating anyone in particular? Did she mention anyone?" The officer, sitting opposite us in my mother's tired bungalow, had been striving for kind, coming up a little short, fringing on impatient.

"She never said anything."

"Was anyone giving her a hard time? Did she seem upset lately?"

"We didn't really speak; she didn't tell me anything."

"Well, if you think of anything…"

"I'll call you," I had promised, knowing even then that I wouldn't. I would never be able to think of anything pertinent that Lena had shared; Lena didn't share anything.

With the exceptions of Mama's tears and forlorn looks, my life has continued on with complete and utter regularity, since that day. In the eight weeks that Lena has been gone, I have not missed my sister at all, but somehow I have seen her every time I close my eyes.

Returning home from work in the late evening, I pause outside her bedroom door, almost forgetting that she went away to school at all, that she isn't tucked away in there, doing whatever it was she used to fill her hours with. From the outside, her room seems exactly the same.

Tonight, I barely notice my fingers reaching for the doorknob, barely feel the pressure as I push into the room. The air is very still and the light that filters through her curtains is soft, pale. Her belongings appear undisturbed but I know Mama comes in here to cry almost daily. Her grief is tangible; I can feel it like a cloud that hangs over me.

I wander over to her desk, drawn by the pictures tacked to her bulletin board. She'd never spoken to me of friends or boyfriends. I reach for the nearest dog-eared picture and can almost feel the photo texture before the shrill ringing of the phone slices through my nerves. I nearly run from the room, guilt washing over me, but contain myself enough to reach for the phone on her nightstand.

"Hello?"

"Jessie? Jezebel?"

That soft and oh-so-familiar voice sends shock searing through my body like a thousand ice bathes. My heart begins to pound erratically and I have to brace myself on the nightstand to stop from passing dead away. "Lena?"

"Can you hear me, Jessie? Are you there?" She sounds faintly distressed, but I can hardly form the words to respond to her urgency.

"I-I'm here, Lena. Where are you? Where have you been?"

"Listen to me, Jessie. I… something happened. I… I can't explain. Just tell Mama I'm okay. Can you do that for me? Can you tell her I love her and I'm okay?"

My sister's pleas are almost as shocking to me as the call itself. I've never heard her sound so concerned, so worried. Her voice is stored in my memory as sweetly toneless, gentle but without inflection.

"Where are you, Lena? I'll come get you. I'll come right now – just tell me where you are." I'm suddenly inexplicably frantic, clinging to her words, refusing to let her go.

"I can't, Jessie. I can't come home. Don't look for me."

"Let me help you, Lena. Tell me how I can help you." I'm almost shouting, my own desperate frustration surprising me.

I hear her breathe a heavy sigh and can picture her expressionless face. A second passes in silence. "Don't look for me, Jessie. Don't come here." Her voice sounds fainter, like she's moving away from the phone. "And if anyone, any of my friends tell you about…"

I can barely hear her, though the line is free of static. "Lena? I can't hear you! If they tell me what? What should I do?"

Her words are softer, still. "If they tell you about it, just stay away. Don't let them…"

"Lena!"

"Don't let them bring you to…"

"Bring me where? Lena!"

"Sun."

I hear the horrible click that signifies our broken connection and I know with heart aching certainty that I have lost my sister again.