The Rules for Disappearing


By Ashley Elston

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She’s been six different people in six different places: Madeline in Ohio, Isabelle in Missouri, Olivia in Kentucky . . . But now that she’s been transplanted to rural Louisiana, she has decided that this fake identity will be her last. Witness Protection has taken nearly everything from her. But for now, they’ve given her a new name, Megan Rose Jones, and a horrible hair color. For the past eight months, Meg has begged her father to answer one question: What on earth did he do???or see???that landed them in this god-awful mess? Meg has just about had it with all of the Suits’ rules???and her dad’s silence. If he won’t help, it’s time she got some answers for herself. But Meg isn’t counting on Ethan Landry, an adorable Louisiana farm boy who’s too smart for his own good. He knows Meg is hiding something big. And it just might get both of them killed. As they embark on a perilous journey to free her family once and for all, Meg discovers that there’s only one rule that really matters???survival.


“WHAT do you want your name to be this time? We have about thirty minutes.”

I stare at the muted television. The only light in the room comes from the flashing images on the small screen, one of those old Meg Ryan movies that’s on all the time. A movie I’ve seen so often that sound isn’t necessary.

All the other times they asked me this question, I’d stressed out searching for the perfect name. I used each available moment going back and forth, trying to decide.

Not this time.

“Meg,” I answer.

“Meg. Do you want just Meg or maybe Megan with Meg for short?”

“I don’t care.”

“What about her?” A hand points down to the lump of girl next to me. My arm curls around her sleeping form, and I fight the temptation to pull her in close.

It’s very late, somewhere around three in the morning, and I hate to wake her for this. She was pissed when I made this decision for her last time. I picked the wrong girl’s name from that show she likes. Luckily for her, it had been our shortest identity.

I shake her gently.

“Hey,” I whisper. It’s been hammered into us not to use our real names. Ever. With the suits watching, I can’t call her anything. “What name do you want? I don’t want to pick for you again.”

She tosses around, trying to wake up. Slowly, her eyes open. “What’d you choose?” Her voice is hoarse.

“I went with ‘Meg.’”

Lines race across her crumpled forehead. It’s almost like I can hear the wheels in her brain turning over possibilities. Each time she’s had to make this decision, she’s chosen a TV character she likes. Can’t think if there’s one left she hasn’t used.

“I don’t care,” she answers in a ragged huff.

Just like that she shuts off. Her eyes close and her knees curl in closer to her chest. My throat constricts. I hate seeing her like this. “What about Mary? You’d be a cute Mary.”

She’s quiet a moment more and then gives me a small nod.

If she doesn’t like it, I’m sure we’ll be changing them again soon. At this rate we will go through a dozen names. “We’ll be the M&M girls. How’s that?”

A ghost of a smile crosses her face, and she drifts back to sleep. I watch her for a few seconds. She’s talking less and less with each move, and I’m scared she’ll stop altogether. She doesn’t act like an eleven-year-old anymore. Most days she needs help bathing and doing her hair, like she’s five or six. And it’s not like Mom’s up to the task.

The woman taps her pen against a clipboard in an annoying rat-tat-tat. She told me her name at some point, but I’d stopped trying to remember them all months ago. I assume my earlier position.

“Mary. She’ll be Mary.” I’m exhausted. Drained.

“Do you have a preference for middle names?”


“All right, Meg.” Just like that, we are Meg and Mary. We will not be called anything else until the next move. “The only thing left is your appearance. From your file pictures, I see that you have—until this point—gotten away without any major alterations. Sorry to tell you—that’s not the case this time.” The woman squats lower.

“I brought a few things. We can start with you, and let Mary sleep a little longer.” She shifts around the bed until she’s blocking the TV. Her feet are planted squarely on the floor, and both hands ball into fists at her waist.

“We’ll have to cut your hair and change the color. I also brought contacts for you to change your eyes from blue to brown. Hopefully, that will be enough.” She talks slow and draws every syllable out like she’s trying to get through to an old person or a small child.

Ignoring her, I stare ahead as if I can still make out the images on the TV behind her. The old me would have revolted. My hair and eyes are my most striking features, and I know it. Up until this point, I’ve only lost my name. After this I will be unrecognizable.

I count to sixty in my head before I start moving. Inch by inch, I slide from the bed, careful not to wake “Mary” up. Her new name doesn’t fit, but that will change in a few days. The bathroom is small and smells like mildew. There’s only one light over the sink. It’s a single bare bulb that gives off a really hard light compared to the muted images from the bedroom. I force my shoulders back and step in front of the sink.

No matter what changes the suits make, that girl in the mirror bolted with this last move. Gone. Pieces splintered away with each new identity, but the last big chunk shattered the second the suits yanked us from our beds in the middle of the night and threw us into that windowless van. No tears after this loss. Not after everything else that’s gone.

My long blond hair is thick and streaked with natural highlights that can only come from hours in the sun. It’s straight and falls well below my bra strap. It’s beautiful hair.

“Cut it off.” My voice is firm.

The woman comes up behind me and gathers my hair into a ponytail. Once it’s secured, she pulls it down, loosening it a small amount. She withdraws a large pair of scissors from her bag and takes a deep breath, as if she too understands what a travesty this is, and begins to cut. It takes a few moments and several attempts, but finally the entire ponytail is gone.

She holds the hair, still bound together, in her hand and offers it to me.

I can’t look at it. “Just throw it away.”

The woman takes the scissors and cuts smaller pieces here and there. I watch as a short pixie-like style begins to appear. She puts the scissors down and reaches back into the bag. Pulling out an over-the-counter package of hair dye, she studies the directions on the back. In my other life I would never have stooped so low.

I glance at the box and read the color as “Espresso on the Double.” The woman works the color through my hair, and I relax my clenched hands from the edge of the porcelain bowl.

Rinsed, I get the first glance at my new look. The woman takes out a pair of colored contacts and hands them to me.

She demonstrates, using her own contacts, how to put them in and how to care for them when I take them out. After several tries I finally get the lens in the right spot. I examine my reflection for a few moments more. The changes transform my face. My eyes are larger. The angles are stronger. My face looks too thin. The woman is right—no one from my former life would ever recognize me. I am truly gone.



Live on the fringe of society. You don’t want to be in a nice neighborhood because those people are all in your business and want to know everything about you. And you don’t want to be in a bad one, well…because it’s bad. If you go to all this trouble to hide from bad guys, it’d suck to get shot just because you live in a crappy area.

MY dad never calls anyone by their real name. Men he worked with, people from our neighborhood, and every guy who ever took me out on a date had some stupid nickname. The worst ones were Bud, Sport, or Champ. It’s awful when your date picks you up and your dad thumps his back a few times and calls him some really dumb name. I always thought it was rude, like he can’t be bothered to remember anyone’s real name. My sister and I have nicknames, too. My sister’s is pretty cute—Teeny Tiny. She was, like, four pounds when she was born. It doesn’t matter that she’s taller than most girls her age now; she’ll always be Teeny Tiny to Dad.

Mine, on the other hand, is not very original. It’s Sissy. Yes, Sissy. Dad started calling me that when Teeny was born since I was obviously a big sister. I always hated that nickname, was mortified when Dad would call me that in front of my friends, but now it’s different. With each placement came new names, but the nicknames stayed the same. We all use them between the four of us in private now. The suits would freak out, but so what? That stupid nickname has become really important: it’s the only thing anchoring me to my past.

I turn and watch Teeny. She showed no more interest in her haircut and color than I had. In fact, her eyes never once moved to the mirror. At least Teeny’s new style isn’t as severe as mine. The woman left her with a short bob that falls a few inches below her ears. We favor each other in many ways, with the blond hair and the naturally bronzed skin, but I’m the only one who has blue eyes. Teeny’s are a soft brown, and thankfully she won’t have to suffer the contacts.

“Do you think they did this to Mom’s hair, too?” Teeny’s voice is hollow.

We haven’t seen our parents since we were brought to this “safe house.” The suits usually meet with them for a while after we leave a placement—I guess trying to figure out what keeps going wrong—but this is the longest we’ve gone without seeing them.

“Probably. I’m sure we’ll all match with the dark hair just like we did with the blond.” My dad has the same natural blond hair as Teeny and me, but Mom matched hers to ours through a box. I suppose she didn’t want to be the only one in the family who wasn’t blond. This dark color would actually be more like her normal shade, but that’s a guess since I’ve only seen her natural color in old pictures.

I flop back on the bed and run my hands over my eyes. I’m exhausted. Every time I fall asleep I’m plagued with nightmares and wake up to Teeny’s screams mixed in with mine. Not sure who starts first, but it’s seriously freaking me out.

The woman comes back and hands me a sheet of paper. I hate what’s next. We’ll be drilled on our new backgrounds and names.

“Okay, Meg, Mary, your exact full names are Megan Rose Jones and Mary Claire Jones. Your ages will remain the same, with you, Meg, at seventeen and Mary at eleven. But your birthdays are different. Meg, yours is November fourth, and, Mary, yours is April third.”

Teeny traces the floral pattern on the bedspread. She’s not hearing a single word.

“Your parents are Emily and Bill Jones. You’ve moved here from Arkansas. Your dad, Bill, will be working at an auto parts manufacturing plant.” The woman pauses a moment before continuing. “Your mom, Emily, will not be employed in this placement.”

It’s not good if they aren’t making her work. I wonder if they know how bad the drinking is, or if there’s another reason. The same “reason” that caused the bad dye job and contacts.

The woman details the remaining facts of my new life. I’m surprised that even though I don’t like and would have never chosen “Rose” as my middle name, I really don’t care. And this is the first time Dad’s job won’t be behind some desk. He’s probably pissed he’s going to be working in a factory, but he’ll fake enthusiasm for our benefit. I hate to think what Mom will do all day at home alone.

As I read all the pertinent details, I find I’m missing a big one. “You said we moved here from Arkansas, but you never said where here is.”

“Natchitoches, Louisiana.”

Louisiana. All you ever hear about Louisiana is hurricanes and oil spills. Perfect.

“Well, today is Friday, January eighth. You’ll have the rest of the weekend to get this information memorized, and then we’ll move you into new housing on Sunday. Both of you will start school on Monday morning.”

We lived in houses for our first two moves, but since we were burning through new identities so fast, apartments made more sense. Wonder what type of “new housing” we’ll get this time. I pore over the details of my new past.

Great. Another boring life summed up in three neatly typed paragraphs.

The suit shuffles her folders around. I put my paper down and ask, “What’s different this time?”

She stops but doesn’t look up at me. “Nothing. Why would you ask that?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I can’t hide the sharp tone. “I mean, we’ve been in a rush to leave a placement before, but dragging us out of bed in the middle of the night seems a bit extreme. Then the hair, the contacts. Surely we didn’t do makeovers because we were bored here.”

Teeny buries her head next to me. The suit gives her a glance but then fixes on me.

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

Great, standard bullshit. She gathers her briefcase and heads to the door, pausing before she leaves the room. “Just be careful,” she says without looking back.

Our parents make an appearance later in the afternoon. Rough is the only way to describe them. They’re dyed and styled but not in a good way. They’ve turned into the “before” picture. I honestly would not have recognized them on the street.

Teeny and I slouch on the bed in the room that has been home for almost thirty-six hours. Mom comes in and sits down beside us while Dad leans against the wall, arms folded across his chest.

“How are my girls holding up?” Mom slurs. I’ve never seen her like this with the suits around. “Both of you look really cute with your new looks.” It’s a bad lie, but what else can she really say?

“How much longer before we get out of this rat hole?” I ask.

“It shouldn’t be much longer. We’re not far from where we’ll be living.” Mom strokes through Teeny’s short bob. She’s a touchy-feely drunk. No telling how she talked someone into getting her some booze here.

Mom looks down at Teeny. “You picked Mary? What show is that from?”

Teeny shakes her head. “It’s not fun being famous people anymore.”

Mom gives us both a weak smile and swivels toward Dad, almost falling off the bed. He grabs her by the shoulders, holding her up but slightly away from him, like he can’t stand to be near her.

“Girls, I know these moves are getting harder, but it really is for the best. None of these changes are permanent,” Dad says.

I roll my eyes in the exaggerated way I know he hates. “Whatever.”

I’m so sick of this. Witness Protection sucks, and I’m done playing along. Dad’s the only thing stopping Mom’s drunk ass from falling off the bed. Teeny’s off in never-never land, and I look like some terminally ill kid with a bad wig. This family has fallen apart.

“I’ve had it with your attitude. It won’t make things any different.”

I stopped tiptoeing around him three moves ago. “Well, then, I guess it won’t make things any different if you tell me—what did you do? Because whatever it is—we’re all paying for your mistake.”

Dad looks like he’s about to explode. Maybe I’ve finally pissed him off enough for him to spill it. What he did. Why we’re here. But the words seem stuck in his throat. He finally blows out, “It’s late and we’re leaving early in the morning. Go to bed.”

“Go to bed? Is that really all you can say to me?”

Mom’s head lolls around, and Teeny scrunches into a smaller ball, if that’s even possible.

Dad’s face gets blotchy as his white-knuckled grip digs into Mom’s shoulders. He mutters something I can’t make out and then hauls ass from the room, dragging Mom with him. I fall back on the bed in utter disgust.

I learned on the third move to always have a bag ready. It’s full of underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, pj’s, and a change of clothes. The stuff the suits give us is hideous. My makeup bag stays in there too, because luxury items are never provided for us. I’ve tried to explain that makeup is a necessity, not a luxury item, but no success there. It sucks earning money to buy the same stuff over and over. The bag was almost history on the last move. Luckily, it’d been beside me, next to the bed, so I’d grabbed it on my way out.

The time in between placements drags on. No one makes sure you have something to do, so by the fifth move I’d added a few paperbacks and my iPod. I started throwing in similar stuff for Teeny to help keep her busy. The bag has gotten ridiculously big and heavy, but I loathe parting with anything in it. Right now Teeny’s working on one of those Sudoku books she loves so much.

We’re in the van again; the kind that has no windows. The front seats are blocked by darkly tinted glass. It’s like riding around in a box. The suits will let us out to use the bathroom and get our bearings only after we are a good distance from where we started. It must be a new suit driving us, because he obviously doesn’t know the rules. The local radio station is on, and it only takes two commercials to figure out the safe house is in Shreveport. Although that means nothing to me, I’m feeling pretty smug to have that info.

Once I hear the town’s name from the local station, I put in my earbuds and crank the music on my iPod. Perfect time to write in my journal.

I started it the same time as the go-bag. It’s full of personal things, but also some short stories, poems, and just random stuff that floats through my head. The suits would be pissed if they knew I wrote about what we’ve been through, so I have to hide it. I don’t use our names or the cities we lived in, but I write about what this ordeal has been like. It’s the only place I can be honest.

We travel for almost an hour before we come to a stop. I figure we’re getting out for a bathroom break, so I’m really surprised when we unload in the middle of a driveway that’s sandwiched between two rows of cottages tucked back off the main street. They’re made of old brick, and French doors with tall wood shutters span the front. It’s charming until you get close—the chipped paint and rusted handles remind me that we’re not in the best part of town. This must be it, our new, albeit temporary, home. At least it’s not one of those gross apartment complexes.

I grab my bag, putting Teeny’s book back inside, and we follow the suit to one of the middle houses. The same woman who cut my hair opens the door to #12.

“Hello, Jones family, welcome home.” Her bright cheery smile is overdone, and I can’t help but groan out loud. “Since this is a college town, no apartments were available on such short notice. These are old Creole cottages, and I thought it’d be more of a homey feel anyway.”

Dad nods at her and says, “Agent Parker, nice to see you again.”

“You too, Mr. Jones.” She points to a small building at the end of the long driveway and says, “You’ll find washers and dryers in there.”

It’s totally depressing on the inside. White walls. Brown carpet. It’s sparsely furnished with secondhand furniture that doesn’t match. The material is worn through in some places, showing the outline of the springs, and you can see remnants of stains. Yuck.

“This is a two-bedroom.” She looks at me quickly with a small frown and says, “Sorry, Meg, but you and Mary will have to share a room.”

“That’s fine.” Truthfully, it’s better this way.

“Let me show you around.” Her arms spread wide likes she’s one of those game show hosts and the curtain’s just been pulled back.

There’s no reason for a tour. The den, kitchen, and small eating area are basically the same room. There is a short hallway with three doors, which I assume are two bedrooms and the bathroom.

I don’t wait for the suit to show me the way—I just start opening doors. The first one has two twin beds with matching comforters in pale pink. Obviously our room. It also has a small desk and chair and a polka-dotted beanbag chair on the floor.

The next door is the bathroom. It’s tiny, with room enough for just a small counter with a sink, toilet, and bath/shower combo. The lingering smell of cleaner stings my nose but makes me feel better about taking a bath later. The last door is my parents’ room. A double bed covered with a frayed quilt sits in the center, and a single wingback chair takes up the corner next to a small dresser.

I walk back to my room and open the closet door. I already know what to expect: very generic clothes for us both.

Teeny comes in a few moments later, and I let her choose her bed. She sits on it and picks at the comforter. “I’m glad we’re sharing a room.”

“Me too.” After fleeing our last placement in the middle of the night, I want Teeny right next to me.

“Are you nervous about school?”

She leans down and pulls her book out of my bag. “No.”

I lie back on my bed and think about tomorrow. Coming in mid-year sucks, but this time I don’t care.

So much for senior year.

Teeny and I hole up in our room the rest of the evening. She falls asleep early, but it’s harder for me. I toss and turn most of the night until I can’t stand being in the bed a minute longer. As the soft morning light filters through the small window, I give up the fight and grab my jacket and journal to escape outside.

It’s cold. A fine layer of dewy ice coats the front steps, so I sit on my jacket rather than wear it. No one is out this early, and the only sounds come from the occasional bird searching for its first meal of the day. I rub my hands over my arms, hoping the friction will keep the chill away.

Aside from the first placement, I started every new school believing that we would last. I made friends, joined school clubs, and in the third placement even got a spot on the dance line—anything to make that new school feel like home. But each time, those men in suits showed up. I lost everything over and over. There are countless friends I’ve made around the country who must think I fell off the face of the earth. Not again. If our track record shows anything, it’s that we won’t be here more than a month. I can’t do it again.

Opening the journal, I find a crisp blank page and write:

1. I will not join any clubs

2. I will not try out for cheerleading or any other sport/team

3. I will not make any friends

4. I will discover the truth no matter what

I underline and star number four until it’s almost hard to read. The list is short but powerful, and I make a vow to live by every word.

I tiptoe back into the cottage and get Teeny up for school. Looking at the clothes makes me depressed. The last person who stocked a closet for us at least had a small sense of style. No luck this time. The choices seem pitiful even by Witness Protection standards. I pull out an ugly gray hoodie and it makes me laugh. I wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing anything like this just a few short months ago, but now it seems like the best option for today.

I shower, dress, and put on makeup in record time. The stupid brown contacts give me a little trouble, but I finally get them in the right spot. Hair is towel dried. It’s so short, there aren’t a lot of options, so I leave it sticking up everywhere.

“Sissy, where are we again? I forgot.” Teeny’s fumbling with her hair, and I step over to help her fix it. The second I take over, she slumps down. She would have never tolerated being babied like this in our old life.

“We’re in Louisiana. The city is named Natchitoches.”

Reciting the major facts again, I try not to think about how much of her slips away with every move. I quiz her on our new identities, and she answers most of them right.

“I think I should stay home today.”

Teeny says this every time she’s about to leave wherever it is we’re living. She’s terrified we’re going to be relocated without her. “No, you’ll be fine. I’ll see you right after school. Mom will be here when we get home. It’s all good,” I answer. In the second placement, the suits packed everything while Teeny was gone, and she came home to an empty house. She freaked and it took her forever to believe we wouldn’t leave without her.

Dad’s dressed and waiting for us in the kitchen, but Mom’s a no-show.

By the fourth placement, Mom had changed. She lost all desire to keep the apartment clean or pay attention to Teeny. Back home, my parents were very social. We always had people over for some sort of function or another—any excuse to have a party. Mom loved to entertain. And she would drink—beer and margaritas around the pool, wine with dinner, gin and tonic late night—but only when we had people over.

I close my eyes and picture Mom in the kitchen of our old house. She’d dance around, mimicking some move she’d seen somewhere, and sing along to the music using a cooking utensil as a microphone. Even though it was embarrassing, my friends loved hanging out with her and thought she was the coolest mom. She was the life of the party.

Her favorite thing was to throw these ridiculous formal dinners that lasted forever. The only ones I looked forward to included Dad’s boss, Mr. Price, and only then if his son, Brandon, came. I can’t remember a time in high school when I didn’t have a crush on him. I would beg Mom to let me be in charge of the seating, and I always made sure to put him right next to me. Those were the only nights Mom’s dinner parties were too short.

I push thoughts of Brandon away. Thinking about him always makes me feel raw inside.

But two placements ago, Mom moved the drinking to a whole new level. She wasn’t drinking to be social—she was drinking to get drunk. Dad won’t talk about it. He just cleans up her mess or hides her from us. The suits must know her drinking is getting out of control since they didn’t find her a job this time.

“I can take you and Teeny to school today. My job doesn’t start until tomorrow. After that, you’ll have to take the school bus.”

“I don’t get why I can’t have a license. You and Mom get them in your new names.”

Not the first time we’ve had this discussion. Dad lets out a frustrated snort. “I don’t know why either. They have a certain way they do things, and one of them is no minors get licenses.”

Teeny scans the room. “Where’s Mama?”

Dad rinses out his coffeecup, ignoring her.

Then the coffeepot.


I move to Teeny. “Sleeping in. She doesn’t feel good,” I answer, and lead her outside and wait for Dad to show us which car is ours. A funny feeling says it’s the old green station wagon with wood paneling down the side.

And sure enough, Dad heads directly to the driver’s side. The suits must really hate us—this is the most hideous ride I’ve ever seen.

With one car and Dad working twelve-hour shifts, it looks like Mom will be stranded here all day.

But then again, she probably won’t get out of bed, so it really might not matter.


On Sale
May 21, 2013
Page Count
320 pages

Ashley Elston

About the Author

Ashley Elston is the author of several novels including: The Rules for Disappearing (a finalist in the Best Young Adult Novel category of the International Thriller Writers Thriller Awards) and This Is Our Story. She has a liberal arts degree from Louisiana State University in Shreveport and worked for many years as a wedding photographer before turning her hand to writing. Ashley lives in Shreveport with her husband and three sons. For more information about Ashley and her books, please visit

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