by Carley Gomez
In the fall of 1966, my mother disappeared. I was ten years old and thought that it was some violent trick a magician might do with a saw and a box, or in the case of our small Florida home, with a closet and hangers. I was at the age where I still believed in magic, and that I was capable of performing it. When I was younger, my grandmother used to sit with me on her lap and tell my mother, who sat across the table sipping tea, that we Gilden women had to listen to intuition. I was certain for years that ‘Intuition’ was our family’s guardian angel that would tell me other people’s secrets or help me see the future. At night, I would tell my three younger sisters who slept in the same room with me that it was time for our special ‘ritual’ (another word Grandma used a lot). I’d make them get up—even Diana who was only five when we started—and stand around me in a triangle. We’d cover ourselves with a cherry blossom pink sheet and my sisters would pretend to hold candles while I whispered gibberish and contorted my body with a flexibility that I’d lose before puberty.
Eight-year-old Katy would watch with wide, green eyes, her awe so apparent that I’d always make extra predictions about what would happen to her in school the next day. They usually weren’t nice, but sometimes they were right. “A boy will try to peek up your skirt on the stairs!” or “You’ll get macaroni and cheese on your shirt during lunch.” And then I’d shudder and convulse on the ground. Leanne, who was only eleven months younger than Katy, always dropped her pretend candle and made faces at Diana.
The night that our mother disappeared, we had long since finished our ritual when I woke up to the sound of a crash. Shattering dishes, the everyday ones with lavender flowers wrapped around the edges, were what came to mind. I listened, waiting for my sisters to wake up, but their breathing stayed heavy. My father’s muffled voice travelled through the wall, but in wordless sounds. I sat up, combing my thin, blonde hair out of my eyes, and looked around in the darkness. For a few seconds, I could see nothing, but then in the direction of the doorway, a thin ribbon of light traveled up the wall. I blinked a few times, trying to see into the shine, and finally I found my mother’s green eyes, widened with fear.
“Are they still asleep?” my father asked from behind her.
She mouthed something to me, but I could barely see her lips opening and closing. Then, the glimmer of her eyes disappeared and gave way to the shadowed contours of her face as she turned to my father. “Yes, they’re asleep,” she whispered. My mother gently closed the door behind her.
I stayed awake in bed for a while, picturing my mother’s terrified eyes, wondering what had broken. I imagined a teacup with a handle missing, a bowl with a chipped rim, a plate in pieces. After some time, I grew tired and fell asleep. When I woke, my mother was gone.
In the morning, I asked my father where she was as I stirred oatmeal on the stovetop. I wore a pink apron that matched my mother’s. She had made them in pieces when I was five, searching for patches of fabric when we could afford it. The trim was a cream colored lace, the ties were blue, and the pockets were beige.
She was onto Diana’s apron now, but it wasn’t finished yet. The pieces of fabric were bigger and more detailed, the trim more intentional. She sewed less frequently though, stopping to cup a glass full of iced scotch. She said that her fingers ached from the needle and that the glass was soothing, but it only took her a few moments to finish her drink.
It was seven in the morning when I asked my father where she was. He was already dressed, his collar crisp, his black shoes reflecting the pattern of linoleum squares on the floor. He looked over the pot and inhaled.
“Don’t forget the brown sugar,” he said.
It felt strange to put on my apron and bring water to a boil when my mother didn’t appear in the kitchen. My father called me to make breakfast, and there was no arguing with him, but I wanted to resist. My apron was the smaller fraction of the whole, incapable of containing the mess I would likely make while cooking. But there was still breakfast, still a routine. Missing her so immediately could not be the only evidence of her absence, there needed to be a disruption. There needed to be smoke and a bang. We had to fall into chaos. But we didn’t.
I asked my father again where she was. I knew that I might regret asking the question, but I figured I had to be at school soon anyway, and he didn’t like interrupting our schedule with discipline.
He told me that she was at the doctor’s office. I nodded and he stood there watching me as I poured brown sugar onto the steaming oats. I pulled out the bowls from the cabinet and counted three. One was missing.
My mother was gone for three days, but I knew better than to ask my father where she was again. After school in the afternoons, Leanne and Katy would stare at the door and Diana would just stare at me. Her gaze made me uneasy, like I was expected to pull a coat aside in the closet and reveal our mother. It made me feel guilty somehow.
I got them to school everyday while our mother was gone. Our father had never driven us to school before and he didn’t start then. Every morning after breakfast, I brushed Diana and Katy’s hair, and I braided Leanne’s. If Leanne wore any other hairstyle, she’d get her hair caught in something. One day it was a hinge on the bathroom door, another day she got it caught on her desk when she bent down to pick up her pencil. We’d leave for school after I made sure their shirts were tucked in and their white shoes were clean of dirt.
The first day we walked past the row houses with yellow awnings and pink flamingos in the yards our mother had told us to avoid, and I was terrified. I thought for sure that someone would find out that we were motherless. Our father wasn’t an acceptable substitute. He was the obstacle that we walked around in our living room, and he spoke in sayings that sounded like they came out of fortune cookies. He said he was shaping us for our future, and he talked about work ethic and how he bought his first car by selling eggs from his three hens.
After the yards with flamingos, we passed small houses with patches of grass that went limp in the heat, and we passed old men who sat on their porches skimming newspapers until we neared them. Cars filled the neighborhood streets as we got closer to our school, but the morning still felt quiet. Leanne began to slow but I gripped her hand harder; we couldn’t be late, not today.
“Is she dead?” Diana asked. Our mother had taken us to school every morning before this one, so she knew there were questions worth asking. Death was the simplest of them, even if it made the least sense. As the youngest of us, she’d had no brushes with mortality yet; she knew the word from the fairytales I read to her at bedtime.
“She’s not dead,” I said. I crouched down in front of Diana and straightened the barrette in her hair.
“But—” Diana began.
“What did mother teach us about that word?” I asked.
“Only poor kids who don’t go to school have butts,” Diana said.
Leanne giggled and wagged a finger at Diana. “The use of any kind of ‘but’ can be chalked up to bad breeding.”
They began to fidget and Diana reached out to Leanne. I was losing them, I could feel it. We could become base so quickly. Curtesy and up-bringing lost to a few uncertain moments. I felt the absence of adulthood, my small limbs incapable of rallying what was required. I tugged my sisters closer, believing that nearness would bring understanding, that the bond of skin and blood would commit us to a shared consciousness. I willed the magic of the rituals I performed late at night to flow through me. But in daylight there was no way to chant or contort, and any slight of hand would be seen. I saw nothing but expectation in their faces.
“Mother will want to know all about our day after school so we have to behave. We don’t want to disappoint her, do we?” I asked.
Leanne and Diana swung their heads back and forth.
“Definitely not,” Katy said.
I looked between the three of them, watching their green eyes for some sort of assurance. I found nothing to make me sure.
My mother returned, but there was no party or hurricane like I thought there might be. Nothing happened to signify such an incredible event. She was simply there when we came home from school on the third day. Her blonde hair hung limp and her lipstick was splotchy, as if her hands had been shaking when she applied it, but she was home. She opened the door and looked at us as if she was surprised to find us there. I wondered who she was expecting instead.
For weeks afterward I would jerk up in the middle of the night wondering if I’d heard something crack from another room. I thought with absolute certainty that her disappearance could only happen with a bang. But in the weeks that followed, there was no arguing, no dishes breaking. In fact, there was very little noise at all. My mother moved around the house as if she was floating. All that was tangible were her cigarettes that she took to chain-smoking in the living room. I would sit at the end of our dining room table pretending to watch over my sisters doing homework, while instead I studied the ends of the cigarettes glow orange and then burn gray until they turned into ash and oated down into the green ash-tray. My father made little noise as well. He was softer towards my mother though, softer even to us, petting us awkwardly on the head when we went an hour without making any noise. In the mornings, he even kissed my mother on the cheek before going to work, but I’m not even sure she felt it. Her hair was still in curlers, her robe stained yellow from cigarettes, and her eyes vacant, staring through the grandfather clock in the living room.
On the nights he stayed out late, my mother sat on the couch smoking until she passed out. I took the cigarettes from between her fingertips before they twisted out of loose fingers and set her dress on fire. Then I helped Diana get ready for bed while making sure that Leanne and Katy had washed their faces. Sometimes Leanne would sneak off and poke our mother’s face after she’d passed out. Leanne said she did it to watch our mother’s skin change shape, that she just wanted to know if our mother was even able to smile. But sometimes I caught her jabbing our mother so hard that I think she was looking for any reaction. I don’t think Leanne would’ve even minded the belt if one of our parents had just looked directly at us.
Our mother didn’t stop doing chores after she returned to us. She just did them differently. Sometimes when she made dinner she’d just forget things like the milk for our macaroni and cheese. She still drove us to school every day, but even from the backseat you could see that her face was wet from tears.
One morning on our way to school two months later, when she looked soft, her white face almost the same color as the light reflecting through the windshield, I had the courage to ask why she was crying. Katy had tried to make our mother feel better several times before, patting her shoulder and saying “There, there,” like our grandma always did when we got a scrape in the yard. Sometimes mother would even smile at that, but the tears never really stopped. So I asked her why. “Why didn’t the doctor make you feel better?”
She looked at me through the rearview mirror. For the rst time since she’d gotten back, there was depth to her green eyes; they were sharp and penetrating, reflecting the strength of her womanhood onto me. I thought for an instant that if I could ever look at someone like that, they would know that I mattered, that I was a person one couldn’t ignore. I’d have real weight in this world, real power even, something that went beyond influencing my sisters in one of our rituals. “Are you really asking or do you just want to feel better?” she asked.
It was such an adult question that I puffed out my chest, ready to know every truth in the world. I wanted to know what every adult was hiding from me. I wasn’t going to lose an opportunity like this. I looked at my sisters to make sure they understood the triumph of this moment. Diana was too young to get it and Leanne was staring out the window, but I think Katy understood. “I’m really asking,” I said defiantly.
For a second I thought my mother grinned, and though it went away immediately, the tears stopped flowing for about a minute or so. “Sometimes a doctor isn’t trying to make you better, he’s trying to make you better for someone else.”
She had very few wrinkles, but in that moment I counted every single one around her eyes and mouth because it felt like there was the weight of old age behind what she was saying. I had no idea what she meant by it. She was still staring at me though, her eyes still on me, so I had to nod like I knew what she was talking about.
That night I had a special ritual with my sisters. I told them what I thought were secrets about adulthood. How sometimes you had to do things you didn’t want to. Like even though curlers hurt, they’ll make boys appreciate you because you put so much work into your appearance that they’ll know you’ll put the same work into receiving company or cooking them food. A marrying woman wears curlers no matter what. I told them that was why our mother left things like milk out of macaroni and cheese. She hadn’t forgotten, I claimed. She was readying us for adulthood by helping us acclimate to things we don’t like. Like eating dry macaroni.
Katy and Diana both looked at me like they were swallowing everything I said. They bobbed their heads in deference and held their hands high, but I was losing Leanne. She ‘dropped’ her candle again and left our sheet temple. Instead I could see her shadow wiggling around on the ground beside our beds. She told me later that she had better things to do than listen to ‘Intuition’ lie to us. She’d seen a mouse a few days ago in our room and she wanted to find it and teach it tricks.
I was thirteen when my mother disappeared the second time. I’d long since learned that ‘Intuition’ wasn’t a name, but I found the concept more magical when I learned what it really meant. I liked the idea that wisdom came from inside us and not the guidance of something I couldn’t see. I gave up our rituals for blush and eye shadow I stole from my mother’s bathroom. When our father was out late and our mother had her night with other ladies, I’d sit my sisters down and paint their faces. Then we had beauty pageants in the living room. Katy’s talent was singing, Diana’s was dancing, and Leanne’s was climbing trees. We had to move to the backyard to watch her clamor up tree limbs. We got our old sheet out again, holding it tight at the base of the tree as if we’d be able to catch Leanne if she fell. She never did.
I was too old to really buy into our pageants by then, but Diana, who’d just turned eight, really loved them. I did love the blush and eye shadow though. Not because I thought they’d make me beautiful, but because makeup seemed magical to me. My mother had convinced me that makeup could make people think you were a different age, or from a different background. It could even inform the world what kind of woman you were. It was transformative, a quick disguise that would allow me to walk the world as something other than a thirteen-year-old girl. I snuck the blush from the house and wore it with friends to the soda shop around the corner from school. My mother noticed once, but she didn’t say a word. She just reached out with her fingers and smoothed the powder on my cheeks.
By then I’d had my first crush too. I’d take out my yearbook and stare at the picture of Bobby Meyers with his perfectly even, blonde hair and freckled cheeks for as long as I could until my sisters caught me. He was my age and played pranks on our teacher Mrs. Parker that all the kids enjoyed because she was terrible. She did the usual—measuring our skirt length and making us stand in the corner when we misbehaved—but she also checked our nail length and gave poor, colorblind Matthew a demerit for his mismatched socks.
When my sisters found me with our yearbook, Katy and Diana would sing songs about how I wanted to kiss him in the hallway at school and hold his hand under the fourth of July fireworks, and Leanne would steal the yearbook and run off to hide it. She was quick, but I was still taller, so I’d chase her down and sit on her until she told me where she put it. All red faced, with long blonde hair tugged loose from her braid, she’d call me foul things (words she’d picked up from her new older friends that smoked pot behind the dumpsters at school) before giving up the location of the yearbook.
Our mother knew about the boy I liked too. She caught me looking at his picture one day when she came back early from her night out. I thought that she might snatch the book out of my hand and maybe bury it or light it on fire because she’d done that with a scarf I’d bought without permission.
When she caught me with Bobby Meyers’ picture, she just started laughing and laughing as if I’d told her the funniest joke in the world. She said that love doesn’t fix a single thing and that it rots the good parts of you. She’d said things like this to me before. I already knew that my mother’s delicate state was because of my father. I’d heard it from Grandma too. Women weren’t born crazy, they were driven to it by men.
Before she disappeared the second time, I noticed that things were slightly different. It was small, like French toast that’s made with lemon peel instead of orange. It’s still citrus, but it’s obvious that it’s not the same ingredient. My father was gone just as often as before, but my mother didn’t pass out with cigarettes every time he didn’t come home ‘til late. I’d catch her looking at her ankles too, although I had no idea why. She’d sit on the couch and when she thought no one was looking, she’d reach down and wrap her thumb and her middle finger around her ankle as if she was measuring them.
That year our father taught us how to mow the lawn and pull weeds because he wanted to make sure that we were more useful than the dolls we left lying around the house. Once while my sisters and I were doing yard work, I went into the house to get a drink and heard noises coming from the garage. I tiptoed quietly over the linoleum to the backdoor and found that it was cracked open. There was a soft, breathy noise coming from behind it, and I realized that my mother was humming. The last time I’d heard her humming was probably about eight years before.
Through the crack in the door, I could make out her skinny form going through boxes. The light was dim and the air hitting my face was stale and hot, drying my eyes out. I could make out soft pastel colors though as she opened each box. I squinted and leaned closer, trying to get a better view but then the front door slammed and I jumped up as if I’d sat bare-bottomed on asphalt under the midday sun. Before my mother turned around, I ran off to the bathroom to pretend I’d been there the whole time.
A few days later, my mother was gone when my sisters and I got home from school. There was a note this time, but it was written in my father’s angry script. It said that our mother was at the doctor’s and that we shouldn’t wait up for him. I looked at my sisters uneasily, but I tried to smile. Deep inside of me, I knew she’d return, but I immediately imagined dry macaroni and blurry tears reflected at me through the rearview mirror. After she left that first time, it was months before she could really cook right again, and a year later, there had been entire weeks that she’d go without crying on errands. I wondered if the blotchy lipstick would come back. I wondered how long she’d be gone this time.
It was five days. During her absence, I caught Diana sneaking around the house, opening random doors as if she thought our mother might be hiding. I wondered if she thought there must be some cruel magic to this, the way I did. I tried not to dwell on the possibilities. Instead, I cooked and cleaned just as I had last time, checking to make sure that my mother’s ceramic dogs were angled just right on her dresser after I dusted them.
It was easier to fall into this role at thirteen. My sisters were old enough that I didn’t have to watch them so closely. Katy, Diana, and I had taken to listening for our father’s shiny black shoes squeal on the linoleum so that we could have dinner ready and his pants ironed on time. We avoided any punishment that way. But Leanne acted differently. She started following him outright.
Leanne asked our father questions about his day at work. She started adjusting her hyper, jittery gait so that it matched our father’s even, weighted stomp. She was looking to be like him, and I disdained her for that. I disdained her for trying extra hard in the yard while our mother was away, for trying to hoard our father’s rare smiles like she used to hoard shiny pennies. I thought it was wrong for her to want things the way men wanted things. I was on my mother’s side, and I didn’t even realize that she had a side. I believed that there was a grace in doing everything I was supposed to do, but never anything extra.
It was my first experience with something akin to hatred, and even though I was ashamed of my feelings, I also found them strangely satisfying. As I washed my sisters’ clothing and pinned their delicates on the wash line, my hands and scalp burned with what I thought was wisdom. Leanne was foolish to believe that she could learn something from our father. Sneaking around in pants she stole from the boys locker room and trimming her hair inch by inch while hoping no one would notice didn’t change the fact that she was developing breasts and had to sit with her legs closed at the table. Her habits made me so angry that I wanted to steal her best shoes or to rip up her favorite books.
One night while our mother was gone, Leanne tried to convince our father to let her have a puff of his cigar. I snuck glances at them from the kitchen as Leanne perched on the sofa and asked politely. He just looked at his paper, smiling wryly, but after she asked a couple of times, he held out the cigar. As she reached for it, he told her that if she coughed after inhaling, she’d get the belt. He didn’t want his cigars wasted.
Leanne paused, but before he pulled it away, she snatched it from his fingers. She put it to her lips and inhaled. She curled into herself and her shoulders shook, but she didn’t cough. Instead, her eyes teared up and turned red, and she ran from the room right after handing the cigar back. I could hear our father’s chuckle as I followed Leanne to the bathroom to nfid out if she’d coughed once she’d gotten away. I was morbidly curious, simultaneously disgusted that she would try such a horrifying habit and wondering if she’d been capable of swallowing the smoke that swirled around men’s heads in the evening. She wasn’t; she began to cough and vomit as soon as she reached the bathroom.
I was so furious (although I’m not sure if I was more angry that she’d tried or that she’d failed) that I did just what I’d been imagining. I went into our room and found her favorite book, Charlotte’s Web, underneath her bed and I ripped out half the pages. I tore some of them to pieces and flushed them, but I was too cruel to do that in its entirety. I knew it could’ve been months before she found out because she only read it once in a while. To make sure she’d know, I tossed strips on her pillow, making sure that the title was visible.
She cried out in shock when she saw it and the sound hurt worse than the burning anger. Almost immediately I admitted that I did it and when she hit me in the stomach, I was relieved. I thought that maybe I had gone too far, but the sound of ripping pages had been so coarse and final that I couldn’t stop. Besides, Leanne had to learn what she was, and I was the only one that could teach her while our mother was gone.
It was years before I realized that maybe I had felt hatred for my father. It had never occurred to me that he might be the cause. He was the Ken doll found in every living room in the neighborhood, the center of gravity that everyone performed their lives around. How could you hate something that was so like a bathroom fixture? We could yell at the hurricanes in the summer all we wanted but that didn’t mean that they’d change or go away.
My mother’s green eyes weren’t vacant, her lipstick wasn’t splotchy, and her hair was shining. But she wore black. For weeks after she returned, she wore black shawls, dresses, and shoes. She laughed every morning in the mirror, staring at her reflection covered in black. Our father didn’t find it funny. He’d finger his collar and tell her to change, but she told him that she was in mourning. He liked that even less, slamming the door as he left for work everyday. She laughed at that too.
She went back to falling asleep with her cigarettes, but she was more than a routine that cried, drank, and passed out on our couch. Sometimes she would burst forth from inactivity and remind us that she was our mother. She’d take us into the kitchen on a Saturday and bake pie with us all day long, dropping pinches of flour on us if she thought that we were too clean. The whole house would smell like cinnamon apples for days. One afternoon, she even picked us up from school, and without saying a word, drove us to a farm a few miles away where they were selling Border Collie puppies. We chose the smallest one and named her Delia. She sat on Leanne’s lap the entire ride home.
But our mother also started having bouts of anger when she returned. Once in the middle of the night, I heard noises from our backyard. A cross between sobs and a ripping noise came from behind my window. My sisters didn’t wake, so I snuck out of the room and went out back. Under the moonlight, I could make out my mother’s crouched form draped in a white, dirt-smeared nightgown. She was tearing grass from the ground and then throwing fistfuls of it aside. Before going to her, I scanned the yard and saw that there were more pockets of dirt and uprooted grass from fence to fence. She was crying too, but these weren’t the tears that I’d seen in the rearview mirror. These were exclamations of fury.
For several minutes she looked through me and kept tugging at the grass. Then, quite suddenly, she reached out and gripped my blonde hair. Her grip was tight, but it didn’t hurt. She leaned in close to me so that I could smell wet soil and something citrusy and a little sour on her.
“Men may hurt us a little, but we’re stuck because of our children. My mother, your grandma, she had fourteen! Fourteen! Twenty-eight hands, fourteen mouths all calling for her,” she told me, her voice earnest and shaking.
I stared, my wide eyes drawn to her, despite the fact that I felt I should look away. Something dark and miserable inside was urging me to listen and watch.
“Only one hundred and thirty-nine toes though. Your Uncle Bill is missing a pinky toe,” she said, giggling. “They keep us by way of our children.”
I gripped her hand and loosened her hold on my hair. Shame swept through me, hot and liquid, even though I wasn’t completely sure what she meant. I didn’t know if she was blaming me for her life or warning me about the direction of mine, but I didn’t know how to ask her questions. She was an ethereal presence, the moon’s light holding her to the Earth. She was more magical than I had ever been, even when my sisters had held candles for me in the bedroom. And sadly, I couldn’t reach her.
It took me about forty-five minutes to convince her to come in the house. After that, I got her a damp, floral rag and mopped the dirt from her face and hands. Her ngernails were caked in it, but every time I tried to clean them, she jerked away. At least I managed to convince her to give me her nightgown before going back to her and father’s room. I couldn’t imagine how he’d react if he saw her covered in dirt.
After washing her nightgown, I went back to my room and realized that I was not the only one awake. Leanne sat on the floor reading with a flashlight. Her green eyes locked on mine and I realized how strange it was that our eyes were exactly the same. I knew them from every time I looked in the mirror and every time I stared at my mother. So I knew just from the look she gave me that she had heard our mother too and had decided not to help.
In the two years that followed, I had my first secret boyfriend who I let touch my breasts in an empty classroom after school. He was a year older than me and liked to talk about what kind of car he would buy when he was old enough to drive. I learned how to apply blush and even eye shadow correctly, although I was still only allowed to wear it around my mother when she was in an exceptionally good mood. And I learned how to cook my father’s favorite meals the way our mother did.
Ten-year-old Diana learned that she had an affinity for sewing, and on a good day our mother showed her how to use the sewing machine. Katy spent more time reading the Bible than any other kid I knew. During our mother’s second disappearance, Katy took religion to heart. She listened closely to our Home Ec teacher, Mrs. Christiansen, as she spoke about how to be a good, Godly wife. When our mother came back, Katy’s interest didn’t wane.
On days when Katy felt like chatting, she took to quoting passages that she thought applied to our lives. At dinner, when our father didn’t show up, she’d say, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift...Ephesians 2:8.” Other times her passages made even less sense. She loved quoting Mathew when our mother drank. Sometimes I thought that maybe our mother did too because her eyes would drift shut and her hands would come together loosely in her lap as if in prayer, but other times she would interrupt Katy and ask me to fetch her another cigarette.
Leanne spent her time as a twelve-year-old trying to feed mice she’d find in the yard and then transitioned to smoking pot with her older friends when she was thirteen. All of us could smell it on her, but she showered before our father got home. My mother never said a word about any of it. There was nothing to threaten Leanne with. She claimed that she didn’t care about men or her hips. Leanne reacted to our mother’s anger by getting angry back, leading to shouting matches in the living room until my mother was too tired to say anything else.
I thought that these fights would dissipate, that my mother’s fury would leak away from her in the same way her tears had slowed after she came back the first time, but I was wrong. Her anger was always there, reaching out to suddenly shock us like a sparking outlet. The black clothes got packed away in the garage, but her anger stayed. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when she disappeared the third time.
There was no note or noise or intuited explanation. When she didn’t come home that evening, he started watching the door from his seat in the living room. He smoked his nightly cigar like always, but his gaze held and never wavered from the door.
We all thought, or maybe hoped, she’d come home in a couple of days. In the mornings, I went back to putting on my apron and cooking breakfast, and we continued with our routines. But after a few days, Diana had to hem our father’s pants and Katy’s hand-me-down dresses. Leanne began to sneak pot into the house and smoke it by the window, and Katy started reciting passages under her breath all the time. Our father made his meal requests and I kept things in order. I think he believed that she would show up some afternoon.
After two nights, I asked him if we should call someone. The police, or perhaps her friends. He sat in the living room reading the newspaper. His brown eyes barely peeked over the rim of the beveled paper as I spoke. For a moment, I thought that he was considering my words, and then I realized he didn’t seem to be thinking at all. After a few seconds, the paper rose up to his hairline so that all I could see was salt and pepper hair. I stood there for a full minute after, uncertain what to do.
He was the stone tablet on which our commandments were written. Just his presence held us to rules. But with our mother missing—really, truly missing—his gaze floated, his steps oated. In that moment when the paper shielded his face, I realized that it was unlikely he would be creating any more laws.
Since he wouldn’t make a choice about what to do, my sisters and I took to playing chicken with the phone. Katy was the first to pick up the phone, claiming that when one of God’s lambs are missing, we should do whatever it takes to bring them home. She decided we should try our mother’s best friend first. We had only met the red-haired nurse twice, but our mother gave us the woman’s number just in case of absolute emergencies while she was with this other woman.
“The lambs are not literally missing,” Leanne said just as Katy pressed the ‘2’ button.
“It’s still applicable,” Katy said, but she set down the phone so that they could yell at one another while they walked up and down the hallway. Diana tried to call someone second. It was the fifth day our mother was missing, and Diana claimed that the police would want to know. But she couldn’t even bring herself to press any numbers. She just picked up the receiver, listened to the dial-tone, and set it down. She did this after school for half an hour. I think she would’ve continued, but we heard our father arrive home and Diana was still frightened of him then. She ran from the living room and pretended that she’d been in her room the entire afternoon. Leanne made fun of Diana’s run all evening, flipping her skirts and pretending to pant from being out of breath.
Finally, on the sixth day, I picked up the phone. Leanne had shown no interest in calling anyone about our mother’s absence. She began dressing in clothing our mother never would have allowed and started taking second helpings at dinner when our father wasn’t looking. So after school, I decided to call our grandma. I also fiddled with the phone before dialing, unknotting the chord and cleaning off invisible flecks of dust. I didn’t want to call anyone. I didn’t want to admit anything. When I finally dialed our grandma’s phone number, I realized that my mother might actually be gone.
The days sprawled out slowly and never ending, like the headstones we passed when we visited grandpa at his grave. Weeks passed and there was a bit of an investigation. None of the police looked too hard though. Turned out that an orange suitcase was missing along with our mother’s best black dresses. They told us she left. When the police gave us the news, our father just stood their shaking his head, a parody of all the times he’d said ‘no’ with easy authority.
That night, a childish part of me resurfaced and I was tempted to ask my sisters to do one last ritual. I wanted to go back to the time when I believed that ‘Intuition’ was an entity that would protect my family. I wanted to be able to implore something to find her. Maybe if we all believed in it hard enough, we could make extraordinary things happen. But I couldn’t even pretend to believe that I had any power. Instead, the four of us girls sat in our room that night and listened to Katy read passages she thought were our mother’s favorite. Later, she led us in hymns, and I could’ve sworn I saw our father peek in through our cracked door as we sang, even though he never joined us.
We settled into a new daily rhythm because we were on our own. It seems strange to me now that I moved so certainly, so fluidly those days. It felt so obvious to put on my apron just like it was any other day, so natural to lock the door behind me when the four of us left for school. I remember thinking weeks later, when we stopped talking about our mother’s return as if it was inevitable, that our mother’s disappearance was truly like a violent magic trick, except that there was no violence in disappearing. No, there was a strange violence in the sinking of my heart, the burning of my intuition, every single day that she didn’t come home.
Carley Gomez is a Gus T. Ridgel fellow and PhD candidate in English with a concentration in fiction at the University of Missouri. She has an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and she was a 2015 Luminarts/Union League Club of Chicago writer in residence. She is the co- editor of Partial Press, an experimental press with Chicago roots.