A Short Story by Kate Kelsen
Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved
My name is Jane Atkinson. See, there. You made the association, didn’t you? It wasn’t my face that came to mind when you heard the name. You thought of Ashley Atkinson, my sister, and that little girl that disappeared all those years ago. Through your mind flashed that innocent face that they show on the news every time they run a story on her. You see that one picture they always use, an image that has consumed my family name.
Once upon a time, my name did identify me as an individual. In fact, for five years I was the only Atkinson girl. And then along came Ashley.
Ashley was nine when she was abducted one afternoon after school. It was like she disappeared off the face of the earth- one minute she was there and the next she was gone without a trace.
We checked the homes of each of Ashley’s friends. The afternoon grew late, and panic set in. The police were called. I had never seen either of my parents cry until that day. They had always been so strong for Ashley and I, and now everything was falling apart. In the space of one afternoon, our family had come undone. Whoever had taken Ashley had pulled a thread, which had unraveled the fabric of our lives as we knew them.
That first night without Ashley was the worst night of my life. My parents and I were suspended in a state of limbo; we couldn’t eat, and we barely slept. While I was safe and sound at home, she was out there somewhere, afraid and alone, or worse. We were distraught, terrified, impatient and angry. There was no telling what news the next moment would bring. Nothing could bring us comfort, but we surrendered blindly to hope.
The sun rose the next morning without Ashley. And the next morning, and the next.
Days became weeks, and I wondered why she had not been found yet. A police investigation was under way. Whatever had happened to her was worse than I had first imagined.
My family was trapped between two places; the nightmare we faced, and the unavoidable reality of ongoing everyday life. Time mercilessly pushed on, not waiting for us, and not waiting for Ashley.
Initially my parents had kept me home from school, but the time came for me to go back. My attention easily lapsed; how could I possibly focus on anything else? Everybody was very kind and supportive, but I wished there was no need for sympathy in the first place. I just wanted Ashley home.
The world continued to carry on as it always had, and the normality of it felt surreal. Doing the most regular things was so incredibly strange. We just wanted everything to pause until she was back. It was too hard to get on with living without her; even the smallest of tasks were painful in their ordinariness.
Weeks turned into months, and with each passing day Ashley seemed to be getting further and further away. The possibility of how long she could be gone for was beginning to dawn on us. A reward was offered for information resulting in the resolve of Ashley’s case. Hundreds of tip-offs flooded in, and persons of interest came to the attention of police. I was a teenager, and my world of family and school was small. In my young mind, I could not imagine that such deplorable people could possibly exist in the world. Life had all of a sudden become very real for me.
It was the lack of closure that was utterly unbearable. Ashley could have been anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world. I was afraid to mourn for her. That was a reality that I shut out of my mind as quickly as the thought was made. But there came a time when I would have preferred that closure to the mystery of her disappearance. Of course I did not want it, but the more time that passed the less likely it seemed that she would be found alive. At least we would have known what had happened to her. We could have laid her to rest, and found a way to somehow move on from the tragedy.
The months pushed on, and it was clear that Ashley wasn’t coming home anytime soon. I knew that if she were found alive, she would be a very different person to who we remembered her as. She would be damaged, and she would never be the same again. This event would define her forever. What kind of life awaited her, I wondered, after having endured such a traumatic experience?
And all the while, the person that took her was out there somewhere too, smugly content in their ability to fly under the radar. I was angry with a faceless stranger, not just because of what they’d done to Ashley, but what they’d done to me.
Before Ashley was taken, I was just Jane Atkinson. Then suddenly, I was not Jane anymore. I was ‘Ashley Atkinson’s sister’. The people in our immediate community knew that I existed, but for many years after she disappeared, most people didn’t even know that Ashley Atkinson had a sister.
Not only had Ashley’s abductor taken her away, but they had also stolen my chance to live a normal life. Their actions had imprisoned me within my own name. They had permanently changed my identity; they had taken away my ability to be recognized for who I was as an individual, and condemned me to be known only for my missing sister.
How could they live with themselves, so detached from their guilt? How could such an injustice be allowed?
Over the years Ashley grew up through age progression photos. My parents continued to search exhaustively for her whilst trying to make life as normal as possible for me, to ensure that I didn’t feel overlooked or over-protected. Yet still I yearned for the regularity that we could have had if only Ashley were with us. I did not begrudge my parents; after all, what else were they to do? They could not forego the search for Ashley in favour of being fully present for me. That was not an option, and I wanted my sister back just as much.
During those times I often wondered about my own significance; what did my parents think when they looked at me? Was I a warm reminder of the child that was still there with them, or was I a painful reminder of who was missing from our family? What was I without Ashley? If she were never found, would I alone ever be enough? I had things that I wanted to achieve in my life, but would those things serve to demonstrate my own ambition, or be a sad reminder of the chances that Ashley never had? Was my life destined to become a reflection of what was stolen from my sister?
Nothing was ever the same after Ashley was gone, and the painful sting of sadness marred any opportunity that came my way to surrender completely to joy or excitement. I tried to dream about what my future as an adult would hold for me, but it was hard to believe that anything I did would matter at all. The attention was centered on the fact that I was Ashley Atkinson’s sister. It seemed like no achievement of mine could ever truly matter, so over time I lost the ambition to try at all. I had felt despair in the mission to find Ashley, but it was at this time that I felt true hopelessness in myself as a human being. I became very withdrawn, and wondered whether anybody would even notice the lack of my presence.
It was a strange predicament that I found myself in. Whether people were aware of my existence or not, it was always for the same reason, because I was Ashley’s sister. And when they heard my surname, people unknowingly made an association that really had nothing to do with me as an individual person.
I could never have imagined the power that would haunt my family name, and the thought of carrying that legacy for the rest of my life was nothing short of daunting. I wondered what would come of my future, and I resigned to the notion that I may never be able to be praised for anything of my own doing.
I turned eighteen, and then twenty-one, milestones that Ashley never had. I emerged into adulthood without her; she is now frozen in our childhood, behind that smiling face in the news that provokes such question and suspicion.
I am on my own again now, without a little sister, but not an only child. It will never go back to the way it was before Ashley was a part of our family, and there will always be a hole left where she was taken away.
I have now come to accept that I will always have to live with the legacy attached to my family name. I have grown up in the shadow of my little sister’s disappearance, sharing my parents with their tireless effort to find her. But what about me, the other Atkinson girl?
Will we ever see Ashley again, I do not know. But life has to go on. My world is bigger now, and has reached further than just my family, school and the neighbourhood I grew up in. While not everyone recognizes my face these days, they still know my surname. I have etched out an existence of my own, not for the need of gratification from others but out of necessity. I have a job. It’s nothing spectacular, but it is something.
Maybe one day a man will be able to look at me and love me for who I am. Maybe he will be brave enough to marry me, to give me a new name that no one will think twice about.
Perhaps you and I will meet someday too. Maybe you will come to the place where I work and I will serve you. I hope that, without realizing it, you will see me for who I really am. Not just as the sister, but also as the individual. My name is Jane Atkinson, and I am the girl in the background. I am still here, and I have been here all along.