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Messages in Bottles
I was ten when my mother went missing.
I remember the entire day, the week, the month, with dreadful clarity. Mom had it marked on the calendar as “Our First Dateversary,” one of many minor days that she celebrated with my father. I guess it was her way of keeping the romance alive.
I wish I could forget much of it but I cannot, even with the help of time and distance. It started in the afternoon. It was unseasonably hot for the fall, even for the coast of North Carolina. There had been storms the previous day, and they’d left a thick humidity that made me feel sticky and uncomfortable. All I wanted as I walked home from school was a big glass of water and our air-conditioning, but the door was locked, and no-one answered my knocks. Mom’s car, usually in the driveway at this time of day, wasn’t there. I even walked around the house and peeked in all the windows. Everything was dark, and there was no sign of movement. I wasn’t sure what to do at first, so I got out a phone that my parents had given me. I wanted something new and fancy, but they got me one with big buttons and only the ability to call a few numbers. I called my father at work.
I was waiting on the doorstep of our small ranch house when he got home. His dark brown eyes, usually soulful and expressive, were full of worry, which scared me more than anything else. He unlocked the door, but of course, mother wasn’t there. He’d already called her cell but he continued to do so throughout the evening, even though her phone was apparently unreachable. This worried us but wasn’t in and of itself that unusual. Mom was infamous for forgetting to charge her phone and having the battery run out.
Although I’m sure he knew that they wouldn’t take a missing-persons report right away, he called the police. The fact that mom wasn’t home to meet me as she was every day was enough for them to tell all of their patrol units to be on the lookout for her.
I was more of a hindrance than a help to him. I was an observant and sensitive child, and I knew this was more serious than my father made it appear. I stayed near him, always, afraid that he too would vanish. When he called Susan, my mother’s best friend, over to watch me so that he could go out looking for her, I cried, but I didn’t ask him to stay. I knew that he had to go and that he couldn’t take me with him.
Susan was my regular babysitter and practically an aunt. She made a list of every hospital within 30 miles and then called each one in turn while I helped by taking notes and checking names off. I wasn’t needed, but it kept me busy. By the time my father got home, it was almost midnight. I had been sleeping on the couch, and his arrival woke me up.
I could hear him speak with my mother’s friend softly, and I pretended to be asleep, so I could overhear them.
“I drove every major road in the county, everywhere I could think of that she might have gone or been today. The only thing she mentioned was going grocery shopping in the morning.”
“I called all the hospitals, and there wasn’t anything. After Allie fell asleep, I called all of our mutuals and the church. No one had seen or heard from her today. I’m sorry.”
“It’s…it’s all right. You should go home, Susan. You’ve done enough today.”
“I can stay the night and watch after Allie. It isn’t any trouble.”
“No. You should go rest. I’ll call you if I hear anything.”
“All right. But I’m coming back tomorrow morning.”
I heard the door close. I felt my father’s large, reassuring hand on my shoulder. I didn’t move. I didn’t want to wake up like this, with mom still gone. She was the center of our house. We orbited her calm stability and warm love. Dad didn’t try to wake me again; instead, he picked me up in his strong arms and carried me to bed. I cuddled into his chest, and I’m sure that he knew that I was at least partially awake. He didn’t say anything. He just placed me in my bed and tucked me in. He kissed me on my head, as he always did, and closed the door behind him.
I fell asleep, begging tomorrow to be different.
* * *
The next morning was different, although not in the way anyone would have liked. Dad called the police again, this time twenty-four hours after the last time he’d seen mom. They came out, a few patrol cars and one detective. Dad let me stay home from school, keeping me close. I think that he worried that I might vanish as well.
I should have known that things would be bad when they asked dad for permission to search our house. Being honest, and maybe a little too trusting, he agreed. I remember police everywhere. I remember my dad, leading them to his car. Now I know it was just an excuse to get him away from me. A nice man, harmless-looking and with a warm smile, approached me. I was on the couch, dazed by the activity.
“Hey, honey, I’m Detective Barnes. Do you mind if I ask you free spin about your mom?”
“Great. Some of these questions are going to seem a little funny, ok? But we just want to find your mom, so we need to ask them.”
If it helped find mom, I would answer questions. If he had told me that washing his car would have helped I would have done it, too. I was desperate to be useful and not just the child that I was.
“Do your father and mother ever fight?”
“I guess so.”
“Do they ever shout or hit each other.”
“Did they fight that morning?”
“No. Mom was happy.”
“Why was she happy?”
“I dunno. She just is in the mornings, I guess.”
“Ok. Can you think of anyone who could be mad at your mom or who might want to hurt her?”
Up to this point, I had still been thinking that mom was just lost. Or, at worst, hurt in an accident and unable to tell us. It hadn’t even occurred to me that someone could have hurt her on purpose. Even if it took me a little while to understand this, I wasn’t as naive as I seemed. I stayed up late sometimes and watched “adult” shows quietly in my room, by which I mean stuff like Law & Order SVU and Forensic Files. I put it all together then. He wasn’t trying to help my mom, he was trying to blame my dad. He was going to take my dad away from me.
“No!” I shouted, surprising the detective and everyone else in the room.
“Honey, it’s ok, I just have to ask…”
“NO! I know what you’re doing! My Daddy didn’t hurt mom! He loves her, and you’re not taking him away!”
Thank god Susan showed up when she did. I didn’t think of it at the time, but god-only-knows what my father would have done had he heard that. I was his little girl, and if he thought anyone, including a well-intentioned detective, was causing me harm or trauma, he’d have gotten pretty angry, giving the police even more reason to suspect him.
“What are you doing?” Susan said as the screen door clattered behind her, her indignation growing, her words coming fast and angry, “You can’t talk to her without her father present. Why aren’t you out looking for Maria? She’d never leave her husband and especially not Allie! And Will would never hurt her, they love each other.”
The heated exchange continued, but Susan had pulled me off of the couch and held me close to her, hugging me. I didn’t need to hear the rest, in any case.
* * *
After a week, the police became more insistent and less polite with their questions. Father spent more and more time talking to them down at the station. I began to hear words like “affair” and “body” thrown around by gossips when no one thought I was listening. I was always listening.
Despite my pleading and crying, he sent me to stay with mom’s parents. They agreed that it would be best to keep me away from the increasing media attention surrounding the case and now my father. My world collapsed. I had already lost my mother, and now I was losing my father, too.
I knew how these things went. Everyone always thought it was the husband.
My grandparents lived north from us, inland and in a small, safe town. I usually loved visiting them, especially in the fall, as they let me wander and explore as I wanted. This time though, I had no interest in leaving their house. I stayed inside. I read and watched TV. I waited for my father.
Papa and Nana, as I’d called them since I was old enough to speak, were good people, who got along well with my father. They were just as vulnerable to the news coverage though. I overheard them talking one early morning. They had assumed I would still be sleeping, but I hadn’t slept for more than a few hours each night since mom disappeared.
“But honey,” Nana said, “Will loves Maria. I know what the news is saying, but come on. He’s just not the man that they are painting him to be.”
“Maybe not,” Papa responded, a little anger coming out in his voice, “but they keep saying that he had some kind of affair. If he did that then maybe we don’t know him. Maybe we never knew him.”
I’m sure Nana was about to object, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I was angrier than I ever remembered being, and it gave me courage. I knew what affair meant. It meant that dad didn’t love mom anymore and that he was sleeping with someone else. I didn’t understand sex yet, not really, but I knew that affairs were Bad and Dirty and that people who had them killed their wives or husbands.
Like I said, I watched a lot of Forensic Files.
“Take me home!” I shouted. Both of them looked up in shock. I had never yelled at them, never talked back. Even when I thought their rules were silly or they were old-fashioned, I knew that they loved me, wanted what was best for me. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
“Honey, we can’t do that right now, your father is…”
“I don’t care! You think he killed mom! Everyone does! I’m not stupid, and I don’t want to be with people like you!”
I ran to my room, dramatic bonus veren siteler as only a ten-year-old girl in real emotional distress can be. They didn’t follow me, understanding that I needed to be alone. I guess they called my father, however, because in about a half-hour my phone range.
“Daddy! Take me home! I don’t want to be here anymore!”
“I can’t right now. I want to, Allie, I really want you close, but I can’t.” I’d never heard his voice like that before. Sadness and fatigue filled his words, and I grew less angry and more afraid.
“Are…are you all right, daddy?”
“That’s what I should be asking you, silly girl.” I smiled despite myself. Silly girl was what’d he’d called me my whole life. It had started to feel annoying as I got older, but now it gave me comfort. It was a little piece of normal I decided to cling to.
“I’m fine, Daddy, but Papa is awful! He thinks you killed mom! He thinks you were having affairs!”
It wasn’t precisely accurate. Papa was, under the circumstances, probably somewhat reasonably suspicious, but I couldn’t forgive him. I couldn’t forgive anyone who thought that my father was a killer. He was silent for a long time.
“Allie, I need you to listen to me very carefully, all right?”
“Ok, Daddy,” I knew that I wouldn’t like what he was going to say, but I knew that I had to listen and be good and not cry.
“A long time ago, before you were born, before your mom and I were married, we dated in college. About a year into our relationship, we had a big, dumb fight over a girl that your mom thought I was too close too, and we broke up. Your mom was right to be angry. I never cheated, but I dated that girl for a few weeks after we broke up. Your mom went on a few dates too. After a month or so, I ended it, and your mom and I got back together. We went out for two more years before we got married. I didn’t have any affairs, and neither did your mother, but that’s how it’s getting reported. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know why he was apologizing to me.
“Then tell them that! Tell Papa and then pick me up!”
“Allie…I…” he stopped. The silence on the phone made me fret. I could almost hear his mind working, deciding what to tell me and what to leave unsaid. Thinking about this years later, I can’t imagine having to make that kind of decision. Finally, he just told me the truth.
“I think that they’re going to arrest me, Allie. I need you somewhere safe and loved, and your Nana and Papa love you very much…”
I don’t remember the rest of the call. All I remember was the tears.
* * *
I stayed with Papa and Nana for around two months. Despite whatever doubts they may have had, they ended up publicly supporting my father, which meant a lot to me. I withdrew into myself, but was good for them, not wanting to give them reason to complain about my behavior. I slept very little and often cried, sometimes for no reason at all. I just wanted things to be back the way they were. I just wanted mom back.
Then, something like a miracle happened. Mom didn’t return to me, but my Daddy did.
I was out running errands with Nana; when we got back, there he was- just outside talking with Papa. They weren’t jovially laughing like they usually were with each other, but there wasn’t anything awkward or hostile. They were just two men who shared the grief of my mother’s absence. I ran into my father’s arms, and he took me home. We stopped at McDonald’s on the way home, and we talked about nothing, and he made the dumbest jokes, and I loved him, more than ever.
He told me that night that he was no longer under suspicion and that the police would just look for Mom now, instead of wasting any more time investigating him. I didn’t exactly believe the latter, but I was overjoyed at the former. A gas station attendant from about twenty miles inland had finally come forward. He saw mom and her car. She had stopped, filled the tank, and then drove off; away from the city, away from us.
There was surveillance footage, too, with time stamps. My father was at work, much too far away, provably and verifiably through both witness statements and computer-recorded security-badge scans. Before that, the police had assumed that he had waited until I had gone to school, killed her, then somehow disposed of the car and the body in the hour or so of free time he had before he logged in at his office. It seems ridiculous to me now, but I suppose it was all the police had to cling to.
But this wonderful man had seen my mother, so father was exonerated, completely. The police still suspected foul play, but now they couldn’t just be lazy and assume it was my father. Even though I missed my mother dearly, I had regained the most important person in my life, and I was grateful for that more than I could express.
Time changed little for us. Neither my mother nor any trace of her was ever found. The surveillance video was the last confirmed sighting of her, alive or dead. Some mean-spirited deneme bonusu veren siteler people still swore that my father was involved in her disappearance, but by the time six months had rolled by, the standard assumption was that she had simply left my father for a lover, telling no one.
I don’t think anyone who actually knew her believed this, but these things get around, and eventually, in the absence of any other facts, become accepted truths. With the passing of time, even I believed that she had abandoned us, although I couldn’t truly understand why.
At least I still had Daddy. Life went on.
Five Years After The Disappearance
People forgot about my family tragedy, which I was okay with. I had my father, and he had me; we needed no one else. We naturally filled in for the roles that mom had previously performed. Well, not all of them, as I’m sure you understand. In particular, I became an excellent cook, both because I wanted to preserve family recipes and to please my father in any way possible, and he did love home cooking.
I never really wanted father to go looking for new romance, but I started to wonder if he was lonely, or had other needs. When I was fifteen, I’d asked him why he never dated anyone. Well, specifically, I asked him if he was dating Aunt Susan. She wasn’t really my aunt, but after mom disappeared her informal title seemed to become a real one. She was and remains a good friend. Daddy was also close to her, and they always hugged and kissed when they saw each other, so naturally, I started to make assumptions.
He just laughed and shook his head. Eventually, I found out two things related to this conversation: One, Susan was a lesbian. She had been in a few long-term relationships, but nothing had stuck. Soon after this conversation, she’d started bringing Linda over when dad cooked BBQ or I made something special. She’s still with her today, although I’m not sure if they will ever get married.
The second thing I learned was the reason why he would not date. He was almost adorably shy to open up about it, but eventually, after some prodding, he admitted to it.
“Allie, I don’t know if your mother is alive or dead. Sometimes I think one way and sometimes the other. Until I know, it doesn’t matter. I love your mother, and I made a vow to her. We both knew things could be difficult when we got married, and we agreed to be true to each other no matter what. That’s why I don’t date. Besides, at least for a little while, I still have you at home, and you’ll always be my best girl.”
I was almost stunned by his admission. To me, it was romantic, but also deeply sad. Five years had passed, which for me was a considerable amount of time. And by this point, I had more or less fully accepted that mom had left of her own free will and was never coming back. I didn’t know why she would abandon us, but I was reasonably sure that she had. I would never say anything like that to my father, though, and I was perfectly fine with being his only girl.
I tell myself that it was just because of the natural and platonic love that I had for him then, but now, I doubt the purity of my intentions.
If I’m honest, I knew something was wrong with me much earlier, I just chose to ignore it. I was dating a boy, you see. Reggie was my first real boyfriend. He was thin and tall and pretty handsome. He was also a huge nerd, but I honestly found that endearing. He was quiet and confident and a bit sensitive. In hindsight, he shared those qualities with my father.
In any case, we’d been going out for a few weeks, maybe a month. He wasn’t pushy, but things escalated as they do. We went from holding hands to kissing, to a little more. Today was different, I knew. I’d invited him over to watch tv. We both knew that more than that would happen.
I felt the anticipation of seeing this handsome boy as well as the illicit thrill of doing the adult and forbidden. Also, I felt guilty. I told myself it was merely from old social rules about a woman’s role. I was lying.
When he got there, we talked awkwardly for a little while, but it was clear what we both wanted. We started to kiss, slowly at first, but soon we were in the middle of an intense makeout session. Well, intense for two fifteen-year-old virgins, in any case.
He turned out to really appreciate my body in a very sweet way. I thought of myself as fat back then, although Larissa told me that I was “deliciously curvy.” I consoled myself with the understanding that Reggie, and men in general, tended to love large breasts.
Things got a little out of hand. Not in any non-consensual way. Reggie really was (and is) a good person and I wasn’t going to push him to do anything that he didn’t want. I don’t think that either of us had intended to do more than kiss, but as often happens with the young, things intensified beyond our control.
That was when I heard someone clearing their throat behind me.
We both jumped, and I think I made a little squeal of shock. Daddy was there, home early from work. In our distraction, we hadn’t heard the door opening, and he was looking at us with something like a disapproving stare.
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