Mom is dead. The cop who tells me this early Monday morning is so blond his face has a peeled look. I hear the words but I can’t understand them. He repeats what he’s just said. From far away I hear those awful words again: Car. High speed. Cliff.
To keep from screaming, I stare at him, memorize his face. I thought cops were tough guys. He doesn’t look so tough
“Is there someone you can call, Laura? A relative?” The gold metal frames of his sunglasses click between his fingers.
There’s no one.
“Lie, kiddo.” Mom would say. She builds stories around stories until things get so complicated we have to move to a new town. She calls it the art of disappearing.
The cop moves closer, speaks louder as if I’ve gone deaf. “Is there a family member I can speak to?”
“My father,” I blurt out. I don’t have a father. There’s only Mom’s boyfriend Bill.
He pulls out a notepad. What’s his number?”
“I’ll have to find it.”
He stares at me with clear round blue eyes that I can’t look into for very long. I glance down at my bare feet—at the glittery pink I put on my toenails last night.
I make myself look up at him, not into his eyes, but at the narrow space between his blond eyebrows. “I’ll call him. He’ll come. Get me. You can go.” I try to shut the door, but he grabs hold.
“You look. I’ll wait.” He follows me into the house.
I open the first drawer of the beat-up brown desk, scarred from cigarette burns. It’s stuffed with unopened bills. The first month’s rent and a cleaning deposit on this new place swallowed Mom’s savings. I know the number isn’t here. The last time Mom was mad at Bill, she ripped it up and said good riddance.
“Where does your dad work?”
“Greyhound,” I say, latching onto Bill’s last job. I’m flipping through envelopes fast, trying to hide all the red FINAL notices.
“Then Greyhound ought to know how to reach him.”
I slam the drawer shut. “I forgot. He quit that job.”
“So there’s no way you can reach him?”
I shake my head.
He says he’s going to have to take me to the Children’s Shelter.
“Mom will be back. She pulls stuff like this all the time. As soon as you leave, she’ll walk in the door.”
“Don’t say it again!” I wait a second, unable to speak. Then I say, in a tight voice that doesn’t sound like mine, “If Mom sees you—sees the cop car out front—we’ll have to move again. I don’t want to move. I love it here. Just go. Please! Go away.”
How can I make him understand that this is the best place we’ve been? We’re only a block from the ocean. Mom has good job prospects. She hasn’t been drinking–not since Bill disappeared. Well, last night she drank. I knew that as soon as I got up this morning. The curtains were closed—a bad sign. Then there was that dark, sad leftover booze smell. I’d crept around the house making my cereal so I wouldn’t wake her up.
What I shouldn’t have done was open the door to a cop.
“Your mother was in an accident last night and she died,” he says again, in a quiet, firm voice.
Just give him a good kick in the balls and run, Mom’s voice whispers inside my head. Then run like hell.
“You are fourteen years old. I can’t just leave you here, Laura. I have to do my job. I need to take you with me.”
“What are you going to do if I won’t go? Shoot me?” I start to back away. For every step I take, he takes one, too. “Maybe I don’t care. Go ahead. Shoot. Try to kill me with one shot.”
“I’m not going to shoot you, but I have to stop you. Then I’ll call for a female officer. My partner’s out sick today; otherwise she’d be here with me. We’re understaffed, but I can call. I will call if we’re in a stalemate. Are we?”
“Are we what?”
“In a stalemate?”
I can feel tears welling up behind my eyes. “I can’t go in pajamas. I have to get dressed.” I turn and head for my bedroom.
“No door slamming.” He’s right on my heels.
We’ve reached my bedroom. “You’re going to watch me get dressed?”
“No. Get whatever you want to wear. You can dress in the bathroom. Someone will bring the rest of your stuff later.”
I go through the chipped green dresser and pull out clothes, stuffing them into a paper bag. When I’m finished, I hold my faded jeans and a yellow sweatshirt with clean underwear tucked beneath them against my chest. My white sandals dangle from my other hand.
He checks the bathroom, sees I’d have to be part chimp to get through the window. Even so he cranks it shut. “I knew a guy once who had no collarbone,” he says. “He could squeeze through the tiniest places. You can’t imagine how small he could make himself.”
“I’ve got a collarbone.”
“Leave the door ajar.”
“I won’t lock the damn door.”
We stare at each other. He blinks first. “Promise? Girl Scout honor?”
Like I was ever a Girl Scout. I glare at him. Promise. It’s a hard promise to keep. I close the door. I look at the lock until it starts to blur. In my mind I can feel my fingers turning it, feel the stubborn twist before it clicks tight.
Slowly I get dressed, wash my face and reach for my toothbrush. The faded pink tile by the glass that holds my toothbrush and Mom’s is cracked. When my glance lands on the tile an unexpected sob pops up from my mouth. I press my hand hard against my throat until I’m sure there won’t be another one.
We are halfway to the front door when I remember the photo album. I can’t leave it. “Wait. I have to get something,” I say. Outside Mom’s room I hesitate, my fingers curled around the cold brass knob. When I open the door she’ll be in bed asleep. She’ll be asleep and I’ll wake up.
Her bed is a wreck of tossed sheets and blankets. An empty booze bottle is on the bedside table next to a butt-filled ashtray. Her sleeping pills have spilled from the bottle onto the table and the floor. The photo album on the top closet shelf is too high for me to reach. Clothes are piled on the only chair. I don’t want to touch the emptiness of them. I jump up, hand outstretched. My fingertips graze the scruffy red cover and slip off.
The cop reaches over my head and gets the album. A loose picture floats gently down and lands face up on the hardwood floor. I stare at the picture of Mom and me taken a month ago. Mom is behind me, her forearms drape over my shoulders. The point of her chin rests on my head. We’re both smiling at the invisible picture-taker—Bill. We’re at the zoo in front of the flamingos, celebrating my fourteenth birthday. I’m smiling although I remember being mad. It was only ten in the morning and already they had a buzz on and were joking in ways that could only lead to a fight.
The fight happened on the drive home—over her driving, him losing his job. Mom swerved near the center divider, screeched to a stop and ordered him out. My last glimpse of Bill was of him standing in the median of the freeway, a zoo pendant slung over his shoulder, cussing her out.
“You don’t think he got run over, do you?” she asked a few days later when he didn’t appear.
“Bill knows how to cross a freeway.”
“Right. And like a bad penny he always shows up.”
Only this time he hadn’t.
There’s a funny prickling at the top of my head, as if I can still feel her chin pressing there. A rolling wave of longing hits. I want to be that girl again, who was only worried about how drunk they’d be at the end of the day.
The cop stoops, carefully retrieves the picture. I stick it inside the album just under the cover.
Outside it’s a sealed-in gray day. By eleven, the sun will have shot through the overcast. By noon, people will be oiled and glistening and spread out on the sand like pancakes on a griddle. I can hear the roar of large waves. The air smells of seaweed and fish. I know that whenever I smell the air on a day like this, I’ll remember this very moment forever. The cop has put on his sunglasses and looks like a giant bug.
“Fasten your seat belt,” he says. The back of the car is separated from us by wire. I am in a cop car being taken away, I think in this new disjointed way I seem to be thinking. It’s like seeing bubbles with the words already in them, the way cartoon characters speak. I just don’t feel anything.
The woman next door is watering red and purple flowers from a bright green plastic pitcher. She doesn’t even look up. The cop car kicks up gravel. For the first time I see what Mom meant when she called the place a dump. From this angle, the house definitely looks shack-like. It tilts to the right. One shutter is missing. It needs paint.
“We’re coming down in the world, kiddo,” Mom said when she rented it. “After this we may be living under a bridge.”
“Freeway or river?” My job as I saw it was to keep her happy. When she was happy she didn’t drink. When she didn’t drink, we didn’t move. “It doesn’t matter as long as we’re together, right?” I remember saying.
She agreed. But I sensed trouble. Since Bill disappeared she’s been unsteady, scared. Sometimes when I looked at her I could see her heart ticking against the hollow in her neck. Her fingernails were chewed raw.
Mom wasn’t always like this. There are photos from other times. I know them all by heart. In one there’s a surprised baby sitting alone in the middle of a huge blanket. In another she’s seven and standing alone on a beach with a pail and shovel in her hands. Her eyes are tightly closed.
“Why are your eyes closed?” I asked.
Once she told me it was too bright, another time that she was scared. I never knew what to think. Maybe it was like the zoo picture—where the opposite of what she was feeling got recorded. There’s nobody I can ask. Mom’s mother is dead and after her father left she lost track of him.
In my baby pictures I’m smiling a clueless baby’s smile. As I got older, Mom would go up to strangers and ask them to take our picture. Town after town, place after place, year after year is safely recorded, with me coaxed into a smile whether I felt like it or not. “Pictures are like dreams,” Mom said. “If you’re going to bore people with them, you can at least look friendly.”
The cop is babbling. His name is Stuart. He’s been on the force for two years or maybe it’s five. He’s got a wife, a little boy. I don’t even pretend to be listening. Why would he think for even one second that I care?
In between the houses we’re flying past, there are glimpses of the ocean. High speed. Cliff. Dead, spins through my mind until I can’t stand it anymore. “I want to see. I want to see where she crashed.”
He turns sideways to look at me, pale eyebrows drawn together over the gold rims of his sunglasses. “You don’t want to see that.”
“I need to see it.”
“She isn’t there, you know. Her body has been recovered.”
Body. Recovered. A shudder ripples through me. I wind myself into a knot of concentration to stop from hearing those awful words. If he says them again, I’ll sock him.
“Please, Stuart. Please take me. I have to see. Otherwise it’ll be unreal—like a bad dream—I’ll always think…” I have to swallow and swallow. “I’ll always think she ran off because she didn’t want to be bothered with me anymore.” A tear trickles to the edge of my lip.
He pulls sharply to the left, makes a U-turn, and we’re headed in the opposite direction. The road uncurls ahead of us. Huge cliffs on one side, sheer drops to the ocean on the other. Suddenly we’re on the edge of the highway, stopped. Beside us is a short, thick, wooden, white fence, missing a chunk.
I unsnap my seat belt and fumble the door open. Stuart is quickly beside me, rigid, ready to grab in case I decide to jump. I hang onto the fence, my legs trembling. I can see where the car slid. There are boulders and reddish blond dirt and way down, huge jutting rocks. At last I see our blue Ford upside-down like a dead bloated animal. That’s when it hits me with the force of a blow. Mom is dead.
I cling to the rough wooden fence. Silent tears spill out of my clenched eyelids. Stuart puts his hands on both my shoulders. Behind us cars whiz by, tires squealing on the curve. Below me the ocean thumps rocks. Inside me, my heart hits against my chest like it wants to fly out and over the cliff.
“I’m sorry,” Stuart says after a few minutes. “I’m sorry about your mother.” There’s a hollowed-out echo to his voice I recognize—as if he knows first hand what my life with her has been like.
Grady, a kid in one of my third grade classes (we moved twice that year), had the same echo. Grady wore thick glasses with one cracked lens and had hair clumped together like it needed scrubbing. He always smelled of cigarette smoke and stale whiskey. I used to secretly sniff my sweater sleeve to see if anybody could smell that smell on me.
Once after school when I saw Grady pressed against the wall of the gym, I had this huge urge to go up and hug him. Instead when I drew near, I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue. Then I ran toward the Ford where my mother, her lips too red and her eyes too bright, sat with the radio volume set too loud on a country western station. I flopped down on the back seat and cried, until in an effort to shut me up, she took me to McDonald’s and stuffed me silent with a chocolate milkshake and French fries. She didn’t eat. She wanted to get home and have a drink.
“I’m never going to drink,” I say in a low voice. “Ever.” Mom’s secret that I’ve held so carefully through each new town and each new school spills out into the cool gray morning.
Stuart pats my shoulder. “With any luck you won’t be in the Shelter long. I’ll try real hard to locate your father.”
“I don’t have a father. I’m going to be at the Shelter a long, long time.” I look straight out where the ocean and the sky look like they’re joined. The ocean is as flat as a gray floor. It looks like you could walk across it, right up into the sky. Mom finally perfected the art of disappearing, I think. Only she forgot me.
“I’ll come by sometimes on my day off,” Stuart says once we are in the car. “I’ll bring you a milkshake.”
I glance over at him. “That’s okay. You don’t need to.”
“I won’t wear my uniform, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll just be a friend making sure you’re all right.”
He doesn’t ask if I’d like that. Just states it like it’s a fact I can count on. “What’s your favorite flavor?”
“Chocolate,” I say after a few seconds.
“That’s mine, too.”
He turns on the overhead lights to ensure a prompt entry onto the highway. I slip my fingers underneath the album cover and touch the cool smooth dreams. All those times I was happy and didn’t know it.
About the Author: Marion de Booy Wentzien is a recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award (twice) and The New Letters Literary Award. The Chicago Humanities for the Arts presented one of her stories in their Stories on Stage. Her work has appeared in Seventeen Magazine, Blue Penny Quarterly, The San Francisco Chronicle, Scholastic Books, Story Magazine, On the Page, Big Ugly Review, The Quotable, Prime Number, The Sonora Review, The Stone Hobo, Tattoo Highway, Red Fez, Cossack Review, Citron Review, Extract(s), Solstice, Drafthorse, and other literary journals. She is a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, and her novel, Desert Shadows, is available from Avalon Books. She lives in Saratoga, CA with her husband and some formerly stray animals.
Artwork: Michael Lemire