I had hoped it would be okay for me to stay friends with Helena Broadstreet because she was so nice to me, but my mother said that this was the year for me to cut out anyone who wasn’t good for my brand. Helena was nice, but it’s true that she would get sad sometimes, and while my mother and I agreed that there was still a tremendous amount of work to be done in terms of people who are sad, the best thing I could do for others while still looking out for myself was to become a beacon of awareness, to highlight the problem without letting the problem affect me.
My brand is: quirky, off-beat, cute, not ashamed of my cuteness.
It was awkward to be in the same homeroom as Helena, and I could tell that the awkward feeling could lead to me being stressed and maybe eventually sad, so among the many ways that I was blessed by my mother, one of them was that she was not afraid to storm into my school and demand a transfer of homerooms. My mom is such an inspiration: her brand is vivid and so arresting that a lot of people can’t look right directly at it in real life.
I would see Helena sitting by herself sometimes and I would have to wonder how anyone could choose to be alone in this day and age. I always felt that with a few tweaks, her brand could have been much greater, but she chose to do nothing. Whereas my mother’s brand was like a star at the moment of its birth, Helena’s brand was more like the light leaking under a bathroom door in the middle of the night.
What had happened was that Helena and I were in the same math class, and she needed a partner for a presentation about integers. Before I’d had time to determine which of my classmates’ partnership would be best for my brand, the teacher just paired the two of us together. Helena, who did not know the pressure and therefore stress of trying to maintain a healthy brand, did not see the tight, oppressive sadness she was causing to well up in me. I could not believe the weight that was being dropped onto my brand by someone whose own brand was merely: math teacher.
I told my mother that night while she was making our dinner, and she was so enraged that she plugged the wrong time into the microwave.
“Right now, and for the next hour,” she said “I have to think about maintaining a tight core with my nutrition, but after that hour this problem will consume my entire being.”
Helena called several times that night, possibly to talk about integers, but I couldn’t bear to even look at her name on my screen. It was awful, and I was sad, and I didn’t sleep well.
The next morning, my mother dressed for war in the leggings of her brand. She — fierce, unafraid, fit, sexy, a mom — made a series of simple demands designed to relieve my stress and therefore allow my brand to stay relaxed and appealing. She trained the whole force and magnitude of her brand onto my teacher, and principal, and the head of school, and in the end she achieved what she assured me had been her goal in the first place: the opportunity for me to expand the footprint of my brand into an entirely new school, away from even the implication of Helena.
My mother escorted me out, along with the school’s resource officer (she assured me that this created a sense of healthy intrigue around my brand, and maybe even put it on the radar of an audience who would not have otherwise considered it), and took me out for ice cream (there is room for small rewards in a truly healthy lifestyle).
I was halfway through the first day at my new school when Helena called me again. This was irritating, because she was pulling my mentality out of an exciting new place full of new brands and new eyes on my brand. There were brands I had never seen before in person: excited for you to know that I am a person changing the world, not afraid to be a bodybuilding teen, believes myself to be a jungle cat, smokes drugs in the bathroom.
But then she called me again during a break in the day, and I had been thinking about the idea of integrating more forgiveness into my brand, so I answered. It also seemed to me that as the person closest to me at the time of my departure, she would also have been the person most aware of the loss of my brand and me.
“Hello,” asked a voice on the phone that I recognized as not Helena’s.
“This is the last number that she called,” said the voice. “I’m so sorry to bother you.”
“Who is this?”
The voice began to cry, and then apologized for crying.
“We were working on a project together,” I said, “but then I moved schools.”
There was a lot of breathing while the voice tried to reign in its crying. “I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I just wanted to know if you had any idea where my daughter went.”
“Three days ago,” said the voice, with much difficulty and sniffing.
I told her that I didn’t have an idea where she might have gone, and that I had to go to class, both things of which were true. I thought about Helena all through Science and tennis practice. She might not have had much of a brand, but anyone missing would truly be a sad thing.
At home, my mother asked me if I had heard from Helena’s mother that day. She was sheened with the sweat of a tough workout, and I told her that I had, and how sad it all was.
“Absolutely,” my mother said. “This kind of thing seems to be happening more and more often.” She speared a broccoli and chewed it. “It’s devastating.”
In that moment I realized that a tremendous amount of awareness could circulate around my brand if I used it to highlight Helena’s mother’s problem of not knowing where her daughter was.
I thought for hours after dinner about the right way to make people aware that Helena was missing. They needed to know that I knew her, but not well enough to have more than just a cursory tragic knowledge about her disappearance. That I was allowing myself to feel sad on her behalf. I found a picture of Helena and me, from when we were friends (imagine, Helena finally being good for my brand!) and thought about the right words: “gutted to hear about this today” — no — “devastated to have heard about my friend Helena, such a kind girl. Please do whatever you can to help” — no — “Helena, wherever you are, you are so missed by the people in your life.”
The next day at school, I could tell that I was the object of extra attention even though being perceptive is not formally a part of my brand. I was still thinking about Helena, and her mother almost making me sad, but I was getting the sense also that by adding compassion to the constellation of traits associated with it, I was making it possible for my brand to really assert itself in this new environment.
I felt proud through lunch, and in the period after lunch, until I went to the bathroom. A girl whose name I had not yet had enough time to learn stopped me before I entered a stall, looked at me seriously, and said “you know, we all think it’s completely important what your mom is doing.”
I spent the rest of that class period on the toilet, consumed by my mother’s brand. She had uploaded a picture of Helena and me from before a school dance (it was a better picture of her than it was of me, which felt like a betrayal).
Her words were perfect too: “so devastated as a mother to hear about my daughter’s dear friend Helena. You moms know how hard it is to even let our kids out of the house in the morning. It’s hard to imagine living in a world where this kind of thing can happen, but we do, and we have to be aware. Do whatever you can to help, and anyone with info please reach out to the authorities.”
She had posted it after I went to bed.
The next image was from 12 hours later — a low-angle, high-resolution photograph of my mother in the bottom of her squat. She told me once that this kind of image brings the most eyes to her brand, as the squat is the exercise that most activates her body. The words were just as flawless as in the first post: “still can’t get the Helena situation out of my head. Fitness is so important in terms of feeling like our best selves, but sometimes it’s even more important to feel safe. It’s on all of us to work harder to make a world where girls can feel safe and sexy at the same time.”
The numbers, too: she was generating a staggering awareness.
I felt crippled. She had only used one name: “Helena.” I was a nameless daughter with a tragic friend. It was masterful.
Over the next days, my mother’s brand went supernova. There was a tremendous awareness of her own thoughts, her engagement with the situation, her knowledge of the feelings of a mother who has a daughter (never named). She made a great display of providing no-dairy, cashew-based hot cocoa for the police officers searching for Helena. She brought all kinds of new eyes to her low-angle bottom-of-squat photos as well as lat pulldown photos taken from above and bottom-of-a-pushup shots from right at floor level.
I couldn’t look at her. By every number I could think to use, her brand was eclipsing my own. And she was adding to it: concerned parent seeking change, not afraid to be a fit and socially conscious mom.
I had no choice: my brand went dormant. The words were something hasty about taking a step back to process the Helena situation. My picture was of myself. It was all pathetic.
The brand of my old school was overcome with candlelight vigils and words of inspiration, and the brands of my former classmates were coated with the text of loss and mourning. It amazed me that so many people had taken pictures of Helena considering no one ever spoke to her.
And for every picture of Helena in a lacrosse uniform smiling with her teammates or Helena with a friend after a school dance, my mother would post something of herself on an incline bench preparing to lift, or in the middle of putting ingredients into a blender, saying something about how it warmed her heart to see people her daughter’s age rallying around a cause.
Every brand that engaged Helena’s brand fed my mother, and her brand grew and was overwhelming.
Meanwhile, my own brand withered with disuse, like a mother who worked out but didn’t eat well. I was a joke: silent for days after promising silence. There was nothing I could do that would not lead back to my mother. Her brand had consumed mine, even the bones. A vulture, even in a sports bra was still a predator, it turned out.
The next day, the principal announced that a detective was interviewing students at my old school, and that he would be coming here too, for anyone who had known Helena and was comfortable talking. The detective introduced himself, and to me looked like his brand was that he hadn’t slept in years.
On the first day, no one volunteered to talk until Gracie Beechridge went after lunch to get out of a math test. Once we saw the stir it kicked up, though, and the deference she received when she told Mr. Wood after the interview that she would prefer to sit out the rest of class, we all sensed that a conversation with the detective was an opportunity to raise our individual profiles. Students who didn’t know Helena at all came out of the woodwork to see the detective. I still remember how sorry I felt for Sarah Lassiter, who had to be interviewed after school on a Friday, and got zero buzz. She was desperate to talk at lunch on the following Monday, but by that time two other girls had already missed a Humanities seminar.
Not that it mattered for me. I sat through class each day and knew that my brand had been used up. I never wanted to be interviewed, but after the third day the detective asked to speak with me specifically. I left Physical Science in a daze. It was peak hours: the class right before lunch. When class let out this would dominate the cafeteria. It felt like what I had heard being drunk felt like.
The detective was set up in a conference room near the principal’s office. It smelled like smoke and he had a notebook in front of him. He handled a pen while he spoke.
“Sorry to pull you out like this,” he said.
“It isn’t my favorite class or anything,” I said.
“You have to work hard or are you the kind where school comes naturally?”
“Most of it is easy for me,” I said. I wasn’t prepared for a conversation this direct, and it already felt like a misstep to have put a strength of mine out in the open. I should have known better.
“You’re lucky,” said the detective, before I could offer something that would have made what I said about school more relatable. “Got a daughter your age, dyslexic. Words are backwards sometimes, so she does average but has to work twice as hard.”
“I am aware of dyslexia,” I said. I tried to speak with the sense that I was the kind of person who could empathize with this daughter without presuming to know what she was going through. “She must get sad sometimes.”
“She’s a tough nut,” he said. “Takes after her mother.”
“That’s so important,” I said.
The detective chewed on his pen and flipped open his notebook. When he started to write things down, he clicked the pen against his chest rather than with his thumb, for some reason.
“We were hoping you’d come to us,” he said. “A lot of these kids never knew Helena Broadstreet.”
I fidgeted. I felt a thumb twitch. “She didn’t go here.”
“Right,” he said. “But it’s a small town. People know each other, kids go to summer camp. If I’m being blunt, though, I sat through a lot of useless interviews.” He waved his notebook at me, indicating a thickness of used pages.
“I don’t blame you,” he continued. “In the reverse, I probably wouldn’t talk to me either. Kids don’t want to talk to cops, that’s fine. That’s natural.” He coughed, and looked at the room’s one small window. “What if we did this outside?”
All I would have had to do to get a full rundown on the dangers of secondhand smoke was scroll through my mother’s feed. My skin-glow, the sheen of my hair: I was harming any aspect of myself that didn’t deal well with dryness. But there I was with the detective on a bench across the street from the school while he wrote in his notebook and took deep breaths through a cigarette. It would have been tremendous for my brand. It would have been amazing.
“You have had some contact with Sophia Bradstreet, correct?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Helena’s mother,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Yes.”
“You didn’t have much to say, according to her. Is that accurate?”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“Not on its own, no.”
I was starting to get a more thorough read on the detective’s brand: always hides some of what he means, dares his bad habits to do the damage he has been warned about, works hard to seem trustworthy.
He rubbed out his third cigarette on the ground, stood up, and held out a hand to help me stand.
“If you hear from her again, can you let me know?” He handed me a business card with a number and his name.
Here is a feeling I almost can’t describe: returning to the school day smelling like someone else’s smoke, knowing beyond doubt that every whisper you can almost overhear is about you. For the rest of the day, I smelled my clothes whenever I had a moment alone.
When I went home that night, and my mother smelled me, she gave me a look. I knew that I had to choose my words carefully. What I said could devastate her, if I said it correctly. “The detective who interviewed me smelled like this,” I explained.
She took a step back, like she’d been hit, and I knew that the next part could land like a knockout punch, so I said it slowly: “I guess they feel like I’m really plugged in with the Helena situation.”
I showed her the detective’s card, but I don’t know if she even saw it. Her gaze glassed over, and she realized what I had known since I stood up from that park bench: my brand contained an infinite potentiality that my mother could only dream about.
I excused myself from the kitchen, and went upstairs as innocently as I could manage to seem.
I referred to Helena’s mother respectfully on the phone, with her last name. She had picked up after one ring: desperate.
“It’s been hard to process what happened,” I said. “I think it would help if you could send some pictures of us from her phone to me.”
It felt like there was wind in my head when she agreed to it. My heart sped up again and I started shaking.
“Will you talk for a minute,” she asked. “I just feel like I lost touch these last few months.” She breathed into the phone, looking for words. I held it away from my ear. “What was my daughter like?” She asked.
“She was nice,” I said. “But…” I stopped myself.
“She was so nice,” I said.
I jumped, later, when a vibration of the phone alerted me to the pictures arriving.
A week after my mother’s first post, I launched the anonymous brand Justice4Helena to a great response. The investigation was ongoing, but the outlook was grim, so it was a great time to be keeping her at the forefront of our minds. The picture was old, Helena smiling under a tree. There was a lot of pressure on the text, and I ended up going with “missing you today, more than ever.”
The Awareness was huge, almost immediately. The level of engagement was like something out of a dream, and even though she had no way of knowing that I was responsible for it, I could tell that my mother was panicking.
I still kept my personal brand dormant, but I saw the dignity in it now. There was a grace to stepping back in order that Helena could come forward.
As far as news, it was about what you’d expect: trench coated detectives and volunteers swept fields for evidence, patrol cars crawled around the neighborhoods once the streetlights popped on at night. Suspicions: the kids who kept to themselves, the corner store owner of unknown origin, Helena’s estranged father with a financial job in the city.
I knew from keeping up with old brands that the detective made his way over the next few days to my old school. He snooped through lockers and asked questions of teachers and wrote in his notebook under unflattering hallway lights.
The outfits my mother wore to pick me up from school became more and more outrageous. But even when the teachers stared, even when her tank top stretched across a perfectly flat abdomen, I was immune. When she walked the hall one day in a neon orange sports bra underneath a plain white t-shirt, all I had to do was roll my eyes to vault myself above her. I wasn’t just in on the joke, I got to decide what the joke was.
I spent those days at a wellspring, drinking at the bottom of a waterfall of Awareness.
The day that my brand overtook the engagement numbers of my mother, she took a bottle of wine and a power bar into her room and I didn’t see her until the next day. When she emerged, she had surrendered to her unknown enemy. She had, in her own brand’s words, taken a step back to more fully process the Helena situation.
“It just invited a lot of stress into my perception,” she said to me at dinner that night, to answer a question I had not asked. “I know I was doing the right thing by focusing so much on Helena, but it was starting to get to me, so now this is the right thing for me to do.”
“It was very freeing when I took a step back,” I said.
She was chewing hard, popping her jaw, staring at nothing when I excused myself from the table. Later, on my bed, I slid my hands across myself and could not help but smile at the thought of so many eyes on me. Eyes cannot focus on more than one thing at a time, so if they were on me, I knew, my mother was invisible.
My next post was more recent picture of Helena, warming up before a basketball game, wrist flexed at the end of a practice free-throw. “We’ll always remember you this way, working hard, putting others first.”
I scrolled through a universe of pity and concern and heard my mother sobbing through the walls of her house.
The detective’s work accomplished nothing. Helena was no closer to being found, and the days slipped past any optimistic timeframe. I could sense an emotional upswell, and by some intuition I knew that it was time for a final post that would bring all eyes back to my own personal brand and keep them there. Helena’s mother kept calling me and crying, so I blocked her number.
I thought about it for the entire day leading up to the act. Once I was alone in my room, my fingers trembled and I was very aware of my breathing. Each letter I punched seemed to be heavy until I finalized the post with a sigh. The picture was the first thing Sophia Broadstreet had sent me: Helena and me smiling before some activity, neither of us looking at the camera. It was a photo that made the viewer feel like she was the one who had taken it.
The text: “Times seem hopeless now, but it’s worth remembering Helena in moments like this, smiling with her best friend.”
Moments after posting it, I heard a manic wail from my mother’s bedroom. It was like a dying animal, and I thought about it all night until I went to sleep.
The next day was like a dream. It was the most important day in the history of my brand because I was going to be the first me that anyone would see after the me who had been photographed with Helena.
I woke up earlier than I meant to, in a darkness that became an eerie red glow over the course of the early morning. I dressed in this glow. My mother was either asleep still or hiding, and I was the only thing breaking the silence in her house. I felt loud, and powerful.
It was cooler than I expected when I stepped outside to walk to school, and passed beneath a streetlight that I remember was still on even though the sun was out. It must have been on a timer.
I walked until a car pulled next to me and the detective emerged. He let half a cigarette fall out of his mouth and stepped on it, snuffing out the faint glow it had. He coughed into his hand and found a spot in the air above me to look at instead of right at me.
“I thought I asked you to let me know about Mrs. Broadstreet,” he said.
My own breath was foggy in the cold, and for a moment I pretended that I was smoking too.
“It doesn’t reflect well on you,” he said, “keeping things from me.”
My phone vibrated in my hand, a number I didn’t recognize. I dismissed it, and almost immediately the detective’s phone rang.
“Mrs. Broadstreet,” he said, by way of answering. “No,” he said, still looking at the spot in the air above my head, “but we have some promising leads.”
“Let me give you a ride,” he said. He opened the back door of his car and lit another cigarette. He held the box out to me in offering, and justified doing so with a little shrug and a slight smile when I gave him a look. I thought about taking one, but didn’t.
I scrolled through my personal brand in the smoky backseat, which I had relaunched after posting the last picture of Helena. The engagement was beyond my hopes. I could still be someone, I realized, relieved. I was not going to have to be no one, after all.