ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
Her mother had dropped her off at home, then had driven away unceremoniously. Mallory knew her mother—she'd come back in a few hours, refuse to talk to anybody, and make dinner alone. But her mother didn't come back, not even when the sun started to dip. Not even when eleven o'clock came around and her father told her to go to bed.
Her father had chalked this whole thing up to her mother’s stress levels, her mother’s anxiety. Mallory didn’t see what that had to do with anything; she and her mother were stressed all the time. Could it have been Mallory’s fault? All she’d done was forget to pick up a DVD her mother had mentioned a few days ago. It was just like her mother to punish everyone for such a small infraction. Maybe she was just going a little further this time, seeing how much she could scare them.
The next day, her father convinced her to file a Missing Persons report at the police station. Mallory had forgotten what clothes her mother was wearing when she left; she never had a good memory for these sorts of details. Pink cardigan, flowery blouse, plain black skirt? Her father wasn’t so sure either.
Somehow, the situation still didn't seem too drastic. If anything, Mallory was getting impatient rehearsing possible apologies. Her mother still wasn't answering her phone. She gave up dialing, assuming that her mother was still driving and it would be dangerous to talk.
The next day, the station called to check back in, and Mallory wished she’d told them not to waste their time. They told her they’d checked the hospitals, but her mother was nowhere to be found. “Nothing new on this end either," she told them in her talking-to-white-people voice. "She still hasn’t called or picked up her phone.”
Then they asked to talk to her father. “He doesn’t speak English that well,” she told them. She and her mother had always been better at dealing with social niceties. Bonded over them. “You can just call me back on my cell phone if you have any updates about my mom. I’ll pass them on.”
It was unlike her mother to be so casual about her responsibilities. Even after Mallory had started college, her mother had called every single day to check in. What signs had she missed, what new code had she failed to learn? And why wasn’t her mother giving her a chance to catch up, or at least apologize for whatever she’d done wrong?
She found herself walking around the house, watering the plants, taking the laundry out of the dryer. Maybe she could call her mother back to them by being dutiful. She pulled one of her mother’s floral shirts out, pressed her face into the fabric. The warmth sent angry tears rushing to her eyes, and she shoved the shirt back into the basket, feeling guilty.
Above all, Mallory was frustrated with her mother for expecting people to do certain things without clarifying what she wanted from them. Her mother willingly did more than what was required and assumed others would do the same. Anything less was a disappointment that merited revenge. Mallory had seen it before: her mother spent months planning birthday gifts for her friends, permanently cutting off the ones who failed to reciprocate.
But in reality, Mallory knew how her mother felt. Some days, she wanted to kill herself to get back at everybody for disappointing her. To let them know that they had been taking her for granted this whole time. But she was stronger than that—her mother had taught her to take and take. When the two of them were together, they were the strongest people on earth.
Her father had begged her to stay at home for the first week of the semester, but Mallory didn’t see the point. Winter vacation had ended, and going back to school was the most responsible thing she could do. Her father could hover by the phone all day if he wanted. It wouldn’t be enough to bring her mother back if she was so bent on leaving them.
Leaving didn't seem like the right word, though—it was something parents did when they didn’t care. Occasional dramatics aside, her mother was a very good parent. Mallory thought of the endearing outfits her mother would buy for her, the homemade snacks she’d ship to her dorm room, the way she bragged about Mallory every time she called her friends.
So she couldn't blame her mother and she couldn’t blame herself. Disconcerting, since she liked the option of blaming herself, giving herself the upper hand. Mallory was good at apologizing and acknowledging her faults: I hurt you, and I admit that. I'll try not to do it again. She knew that self-awareness didn't excuse insincerity, but her behavior had made her relationships largely conflict-free. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been in an argument with her friends.
In this case, though, she couldn’t acknowledge or control anything. All she could do was watch the phone—exactly what her father was doing at home, she realized with a wave of self-loathing. She was waiting for something different, though. Her father needed his wife back so she could take care of him. Mallory was waiting to be let in on the joke, the great mutual secret.
After two days, she got a text message. Unknown number: How are you eating? It was two-thirteen AM Pacific Time—the only people she knew who would be up so late were her and her mother. Night rats, her mother had once joked. Some nights it felt like they were the only people in the world.
It brought her a degree of comfort to know that her mother still felt the same way about her. At the same time, a swell of anger rose up in her throat.
You can't have it both ways, she wanted to respond. You can't leave me, then try to make yourself feel less guilty. Of course, she could never be so mean. Sending something like that would hurt her as much as it would hurt the recipient.
Instead, she typed: Where are you? The I love you followed on instinct. The I love you was compulsory. Sending a message without some show of gratitude seemed insensitive. Her elaborate platitudes were partially the reason her friends complained about the formality of her emails and why her professors probably thought she was sucking up to them.
She felt the anger rise again. She left the Where are you?, deleted the I love you, hit ‘send’, and tried to go to sleep.
There was no reply in the morning. This was an even bigger blow than the disappearance. She was used to making up with her mother quickly, both of them too conflict-averse to prolong grudges against each other. She felt like she had made herself vulnerable, only to be stepped on again. It was humiliating.
After giving her mother another hour to text back, she dredged up the patience to call her father and tell him about the message. Then she called the police station and gave them a tip about the number. "It's a prepaid burner phone," they told her. "Hard to track, but we can try to find the tower that message was sent from." She was both hurt and awed by her mother's forethought. Who actually used a burner phone?
She told her roommate while she was waiting for the station to call back. Her roommate was a boy, actually—an artsy kid she had been desperate to be friends with. Her parents didn't know about this. For some reason, she had wanted to do something rebellious behind their backs. In any case, she was determined not to display codependence to him, so she told him the news as impassively as she could. He half-listened in that way of his, then asked "What are you going to do when they find her?"
"You mean find her location?" she asked dumbly. He nodded. Before she could think, she said "Well, I'll go meet her."
"Why?" He was actually listening now, and she felt pleased at his attention. "Can't the cops go bring her back?"
"I don't want to call the cops on my mom."
"Haven't you already done that?"
"No, I'm just asking them to find out where she is."
"Mal, you can't even drive. This is stupid."
"Can’t you drive?"
"I'm not gonna hop on a plane and take you around. I have classes. Why can't you ask your dad?"
“He just wouldn’t get it, okay?”
Her phone rang. She picked it up.
"Texas," she told her roommate. "That's where I'm going. Can you water my plant while I'm gone?"
There was something thrilling about throwing caution to the wind, sacrificing for a higher cause. Mallory, once neurotic about her grades, was now sending emails to all her professors to tell them that she was leaving for a week.
She had packed light. Another message had arrived shortly afterwards: Dress warmly! This was typical of her mother, who used to check the forecast for Mallory’s college town every morning. Even under the circumstances, Mallory had needed to restrain herself from sending Thank you.
The police had traced the message to San Marcos, so she had decided to fly into Dallas Fort Worth with the money she’d saved from her campus job. They were bound to cross paths. Her mother wouldn't strand her in Texas.
She had told the police not to worry about the investigation. She could take it from here. She refused to tell her father that she was doing this. Mallory and her mother did things that nobody else could understand, and she was worried that he would try to stop her.
Before stepping out to catch the airport shuttle, she told her roommate not to breathe a word. "If anyone asks why I’m gone," she said, "tell them I said thank you for noticing."
She couldn't sleep during the flight. She was burning with furious accusations one moment, petrified the next. She entertained impossible scenarios: her mother was running off with another man. Her mother had a whole different family. Her mother had been murdered and her killer got off on taunting her kid. Every situation had the same ending: her mother wasn’t going to be at the airport. She couldn't identify what had led her to this conclusion. Logically, she knew that she had put in too much effort to be disappointed, and that her mother was duty-bound to recognize this and meet her halfway.
When she disembarked, she fumbled for her phone.
I'm at Dallas Fort Worth, Terminal B, she sent. Meet me here. I love you.
Now she sits by the baggage claim and watches the carousel spit out luggage for five different flights. She watches families reunite: uninhibited little kids shrieking as they run towards business-suited fathers. Military kids sinking into their mothers' arms. There are a few cute dogs that distract her from time to time, but they're dragged away as soon as their owners get their bags. All the cafés and shops are upstairs, beyond the security checkpoint, so she can't eat either.
At nightfall, she considers sending another message, but decides against it. She has already been charitable enough. By the time the sliding doors open for her mother, everything has taken on a hazy, dreamlike glow.
Her mother doesn't look any different, which surprises her somehow. What did she expect? Tanned arms, a tank top, shorts, dyed hair? Her mother is as frumpy-looking and maternal as ever. She doesn't say anything, either, just sits down by Mallory and watches the carousel groan to a stop.
"I'm sorry," her mother finally says. "I didn't mean to worry you."
Mallory still has it in her to scoff. Her mother frowns, but Mallory doesn’t apologize. "You disappeared for a week," she finally responds. "How could we not be worried?"
"I needed some time to myself," her mother says. "I thought I would take a vacation.”
Mallory begins to speak, but her mother continues with a sad smile. “I should have told you, though. Before you went out all this way to find me, poor girl."
She brushes a stray lock of hair away from Mallory's forehead, and Mallory feels tears blur her vision. She swallows the lump in her throat, and on instinct, she chokes out an "I'm sorry." Her mother keeps on stroking her forehead. It feels good. Mallory buries her face in her mother's lap and begins to cry.
This has always felt much better than a confrontation: the cathartic submission, the calculated surrender. Afterwards, everything will be back to normal. The crisis will be over, the conflict solved; she will be forgiven, she will do better next time.
But her mother moves her hands away. Sits back against the wall, causing Mallory to lift her head.
"I need to leave," her mother says. “For good.”
Mallory knots her fingers together. One night they’d stayed up gossiping about their extended family. They’d choked on their laughter, trying not to wake her father. She’d felt mature, trusted.
“It's not your fault, though,” her mother is saying. “It's nobody's fault. It's just the way things are.”
This is not part of the plan. Mallory has always been telling her mother to assert herself, but has never actually meant it. She has been trying to tell herself the same thing to little avail, and she resents how easily her mother is acting on her own terms. What a betrayal. She feels that all the nobility of her martyrdom—all their dual suffering—has been coolly undermined.
"So you're abandoning us?" she asks.
"I’m doing things for myself for once, Mallory. I'm happy now."
But I came all this way, Mallory wants to say. I skipped my classes and I called off the police investigation and I didn't tell Dad or anyone else. I bought a plane ticket all by myself, spent hundreds of my own dollars. I waited twelve hours in an airport terminal. For you. Only for you.
“You know, I’ve wanted to leave too,” Mallory ends up telling her. “I’ve wanted to kill myself for a while, but I kept thinking about how you’d feel, so I haven’t.”
Her mother pauses, then crosses her arms. “Don’t be so dramatic, Mallory.”
Mallory’s ears burn. She tears her eyes away from her mother’s face, stares at the frozen carousel. “If you can run off to Texas, I can talk about killing myself.”
“You don’t know what this is like for me,” her mother says. “You’re still a child. Please don’t scare me with these extreme statements. I’m trying to put all this behind me.”
Of course I know, Mallory thinks. We stayed up together handling other people’s shit. I’m the only one who knows.
“If you go, I’ll do it,” she says.
Her mother smiles and shakes her head. Mallory swells with shame.
“Why must you live for other people, honey?” her mother asks. “What kind of life is that?”
“The one you taught me to want,” Mallory wants to say. But she isn’t sure about anything now. Her mother’s smile doesn’t resemble hers. She wonders, in a moment of detached irony, if she got her mouth from her father.
She realizes she’s still staring, waiting for some shift of light to make her mother familiar.
Finally, her mother rises to her feet and leaves.
In the morning, a man in a navy blue suit shakes her awake. "Ma'am, are you alright?" he says over and over. Mallory looks at him with bleary eyes and a mouth full of sand. He looks around helplessly, maybe trying to find someone he thinks can deal with her.
This is enough to make her say "I'm fine, thank you." She staggers upright, looks around. Her mother is nowhere to be found. Light is streaming in through the foggy windows. Colorful travelers are flooding in from upstairs, snatching luggage, dispersing.
She pulls out her phone. The battery is nearly dead. She’s missed a call from her father—her father, who has no idea that she’s in Dallas. Suddenly, all she wants is to hear his broken English. His soft, unobtrusive questions: Everything okay? Can I help?
She calls him back, feeling younger the more she stands there. Four rings, then nothing. It occurs to her that he’s two hours behind, still asleep. She tries to compose a text, but her phone dies in the middle of it.
Her mother’s prepaid burner phone is on the bench. She stops herself from flipping the phone open, checking if her father had been getting messages too. Something tells her that he already knows everything, from beginning to end. It makes her feel even smaller.
Somehow, she leaves the phone there. What now, she thinks, what now? The world feels larger and heavier all at once. There is nobody to blame for it, least of all herself.
Another swarm of passengers is spilling into the room. She feels her pockets, realizes she hasn’t even bought a return ticket. Then she finds herself in front of one of the carousels, joining the throng of travelers. For a second, she imagines that she’s one of these people—coming and going, coming and going, for no other reason than the fact that they need to keep moving.
Ariel Chu is a Fiction MFA candidate at Syracuse University. Originally from Eastvale, California, she earned her B.A. in English from Williams College and is currently serving as a Hutchinson Fellow in Creative Writing.