How This Works
When Betsy gets back from the nondenominational church, she boils water for tea and slides open a kitchen drawer to find a teaspoon. But most of the teaspoons have disappeared. There is only one in the slot where eight should be nested in a thick pile. The single spoon left has been ravaged by the garbage disposal, the oval mouth of it chewed up and spit out.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, but Betsy jolts when she sees it. This used to be a safe neighborhood, the kind of place where children turned cartwheels in the front yards. But the past few months the neighborhood has been plagued by small thefts. A baseball bat left under a squat palm tree gone along with several low hanging fronds, a collar slipped off the neck of an outdoor cat, tulips cut with the precision of an exacto blade from a side yard.
And now this.
She will tell her husband about the spoons, and he will be pleased that she noticed. So many little thefts. They must be recorded. Greg is in charge of the recording and the neighborhood watch. He is the Captain. He is so busy with the neighborhood watch he calls in sick to work. He has been a mortgage broker for their entire marriage and, before this, has never used sick leave. He used to talk about rolling it over, cashing it out when he retires. But now, she hears him on the phone in the mornings faking a cough, lying about a fever. “I’ll work on that at home if I feel up to it,” her husband says. “No, no. I’ve got everything downloaded.”
Betsy’s husband is so busy as Captain of the neighborhood watch he has barely noticed that their 19-year-old daughter, Charlotte, left home in the middle of her spring break from college and disappeared, has been missing from their lives now for two months. Certainly she is back at college. Betsy has logged into the small amount of parent access she’s allowed online and watched Charlotte’s meal plan dollars continue to dwindle. But she doesn’t answer texts or phone calls or emails.
I should have been more patient, Betsy thinks. I should have taken her sadness over that boy in college more seriously. Every day Betsy thinks these same thoughts. Sometimes she adds new ones. I should have sent her to an all-girls college. I should have given her a sibling. I should have gotten her a Persian cat.
Betsy stirs her tea with the spoon upside down, so the gnawed-up mouth doesn’t rip open the tea bag. The string comes loose from the rim of the cup and loops around the spoon’s stem.
In truth, Betsy never liked this flatware. She would have preferred something plainer than the braided floral design. Something truly flat. She remembers registering for it quickly before she and Greg got married, when picking bath towels and a toaster oven and flatware were equal parts momentous and dull. When all they really wanted to do was go back to Greg’s apartment and pull shut the black-out blinds and sink deep into each other’s bodies, amazed at their single-minded good luck.
Now, two decades later, her husband’s body is as familiar and tuneless to Betsy as a dining room chair, a dishwasher, a potted plant. When she bumps into him, it is by accident, as she does now in the kitchen when he walks in and takes a beer out of the refrigerator.
“The teaspoons,” she says.
“I didn’t see you there,” he says.
“Time to run the dishwasher maybe,” he says.
Betsy opens the dishwasher and stares at seven teaspoons draped across the cup rack. “Oh,” she says. “Of course.”
Her husband is carrying a clipboard in one hand, his beer in the other. “Making some notes,” he says. “It’s important to keep track.”
“I thought I was,” Betsy says, but he has already left the kitchen.
Greg is walking through the house and out the front door. His beer is balancing on his clipboard and he is pulling out a pen from behind his ear and walking down the block slowly, shuffling really, as if he might be older than he is, as if he might be his own father, stopping and inching his beer over on the clipboard where it is balanced, so he can write things down. So he can make notes.
Betsy boots up her computer. She has been lurking in an online group for parents of missing teen and young adult children. She haunts the edges of the conversations, not sure if she belongs here. The children are runaways and drug addicts, living on the streets, and their parents are sick with worry.
There are other groups where she definitely doesn’t belong, groups for children who have disappeared from bus stops, groups for children who have been kidnapped and taken to other countries in the middle of custody battles. And the groups for children who have died from cancer, car accidents, botched deliveries.
Many of the adult children—Betsy has learned from the forum this means eighteen or older—disappeared for no discernable reason at all, and these are the parents whose comments Betsy reads and avoids reading. I don’t know what I did wrong, the parents write. Tell me. What could I have done differently?
These parents are sleepless and oversleeping and they are breaking out in rashes and hives and their stomachs are twisted tight. They have developed ulcers and migraines and aches deep in their bones, aches that feel like some new kind of cancer. The parents in the online forum have hair that is thinning and falling out in clumps. Their children will not talk to them because the parents have failed in ways that are too countless to list.
The parents try to list them anyway, all the ways they have failed.
I worked too many hours. I was home too much. I didn’t let him breathe. I didn’t notice how sad she was. I shouldn’t have gotten divorced. I am a terrible mother. I was a lousy father. I should never have had children. I should have had more children. Her father was too strict. We should have moved from the suburbs. We should have been more consistent. I never really wanted children. I always wanted to be a mother, that’s all I ever wanted. We shouldn’t have moved to the suburbs. I shouldn’t have made him cut his hair. I shouldn’t have made her wear that dress. I should have let her get that piercing. We should have been more flexible. I should have made her stay in Sunday school. I should have volunteered in the classroom more when he was younger, when I could. I should have left her father. I should have pulled her from that school. I shouldn’t have gone back to work. Her father was too lenient. I should have made my son unlock that bedroom door. I shouldn’t have taken off the door. I should have let her lock her door. I thought it could have been worse. I didn’t know it was going to get worse.
I thought it was normal for teenagers.
I thought I was normal.
I thought she was normal.
I thought he was normal.
Is it normal to feel this way?
I thought this was normal.
Thanks for making me feel more normal.
Hello, is anyone out there today?
Betsy quickly logs off before she is spotted, although she doesn’t know if this is possible, how this works. She is new to online forums. She is not a joiner. For the past nineteen years of her life, she has been Charlotte’s mother. She knows she should have been something else, too, should do something else now, but she cannot remember what else she knows how to do.
Her phone is beeping on the desk, and she is afraid to look at it. She decides to let it beep a second time, the way it does when you miss a text. She makes a deal with herself that if she waits to look, it will be Charlotte texting. Her daughter will say she’s sorry. She’s been so busy. Come down to school and we can have lunch, Charlotte will say. Betsy will say, Of course. I’m on my way, pleased how smart she was to just hover around the edges of the online group, that this group of parents, of lost parents really, was not her group at all.
Even though Betsy counts to sixty before she looks, the text is not from her daughter. It’s from the lady at the little church one town over where Betsy helped clean the chairs that morning. When they were done working, the lady took her into the church kitchen and made them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sat across from Betsy in the middle of the day, at a thick, dented table and watched Betsy try to chew and swallow. When the lady asked, Betsy remembers now she had typed her name into the woman’s phone before she left.
Just checking to see if you made it home safely.
You are not my daughter, Betsy types back and then erases. She took valium earlier in the day, but the sweet, blurry effects have worn off.
Yes, she types. Here I am. Safely home.
Betsy wants to say there is nothing safe about home, that things have gone missing all over the neighborhood. Chimes have disappeared from side yard gates. Just yesterday, a neighbor reported spokes gone missing from the wheels of her daughter’s first two-wheeler. Betsy walks outside to find her husband. Maybe she can help him make notes, she thinks.
But she doesn’t see him when she looks down the block. Instead, she sees a little girl pushing a plastic shopping cart back and forth in front of a rental house. There are other rental houses on the block, but people have lived in those for years. This house has a regular turnover. Usually it’s young couples who start out with doormats that scream WELCOME TO OUR HOME before the letters fade to gray and hanging pots of begonias dry out on the front porch. And then there’s a U-Haul truck or somebody’s brother’s pick-up or both because it’s over now, and they’re moving to separate places. And the garbage cans in front of the house overflow with soiled throw rugs and yellowed pillows as if they’ve lived there many years instead of just one year, or even less. And then they’re gone, and a few weeks later, after the painter spreads a new coat of paint over the bruised living room walls, it all starts again.
This time it’s a small family, a mother and father and preschooler. The little girl chalks the sidewalk in front of their house with pink hearts and yellow smiles. She draws a crooked hopscotch with angled squares that are not squares at all.
Today the little girl is pushing a plastic shopping cart. When Betsy gets closer, she sees the cart is full of baby dolls that once belonged to her own daughter. Betsy recognizes the matted hair and blurred eyes, the result of Charlotte playing with them in the bathtub despite the fact that the dolls were not made for water. Betsy remembers leaving them out on the curb at the end of a yard sale last summer before this family moved in.
Charlotte was home over the summer, and the yard sale had been her idea. “I want to clean out my room,” she said. “Can I keep the money?”
The dolls that weren’t ruined were purchased for a dollar each by a woman from Leisure World who planned to make clothes for them and give them to the women who missed their own children and grandchildren who rarely visited. The woman stroked a doll’s dark hair and said, You’d be surprised what comfort a doll can bring.
Seeing her daughter’s ruined baby dolls being pushed in the plastic shopping cart brings Betsy no comfort. “Where did you get those?” she asks the little girl.
“They’re my babies,” the little girl says.
“No, they’re not,” Betsy says.
The little girl’s eyes have welled up, and she is grabbing the dolls from the cart and hugging them, but they are tumbling to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” Betsy says as the front door of the rental house opens. “We were just chatting,” Betsy says to the woman who glares at her. “You have to be careful. There have been thefts here recently. It used to be safer.”
The woman is shooing her daughter inside, and the little girl is hiding behind her mother’s legs now.
“I live down the block.” Betsy points in the wrong direction and walks that way with purpose.
She walks all the way around the block and sneaks back into her own house. In the online support group some of the parents of missing children count absences in holidays: three Christmases, the fourth Thanksgiving, a sister’s bat mitzvah, a quinceanera. Others count in tangible losses: dogs and grandparents, a lemon tree gone to rot. A cat is eaten by a coyote that wandered down from the mountains through the public golf course.
They’ve missed so much, the parents write. It doesn’t make sense, they say. How can they stand it?
We can’t stand it, they write
Betsy’s mother is planning an anniversary party for Betsy and Greg. She is full of questions Betsy doesn’t answer. We need to pin down the time, she says on a voicemail. We need to finalize the guest list.
Her husband is standing in the entranceway when Betsy sneaks back into her own house after accusing a preschooler of taking her daughter’s ruined dolls. He is holding up Betsy’s housekeys.
“You left the door unlocked,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” Betsy says. She looks around for his clipboard and finds it on the stairs. The paper clipped onto the board is full of house numbers, check marks and asterisks, and notes written in tiny script, her husband’s empty beer can tilted-over on its side on top of it.
“A Mexican tile is missing from that front stoop,” Greg says. “You know the one. Down the block.”
“I was just saying hi to the new neighbors,” Betsy says.
“It’s important to keep track,” he says.
“The ones with the little girl. I think she’s about four. Maybe five. I can’t remember what four looks like exactly.”
“A reflector is missing from a child’s bike.”
“Was she always so sensitive?” Betsy asks.
“You can’t assume just because you’re down the block, things are safe here.”
“It’s been two months. How much longer, do you think? It’s like I’m holding my breath.”
“You’ve got to remember to lock up,” Greg says.
“I was just out for a minute.” Betsy wishes she had never agreed to the yard sale last summer, that she had made her daughter keep it all, every bright pink jacket, every framed poster of a kitten, every boy band key chain.
“That’s how it happens,” Greg says. Her husband is staring past her, his eyes flat and focused.
I’m right here, Betsy thinks but doesn’t say.
“That’s how fast,” he says. “That’s exactly how it happens.”