***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Louisa Luna
Jamie Brandt was not a bad mother. Later she would tell that to anyone who would listen: police, reporters, lawyers, her parents, her boyfriend, her dealer, the new bartender with the knuckle tattoos at Schultz’s, the investigator from California and her partner, and her own reflection in the bathroom mirror, right before cracking her forehead on the sink’s edge and passing out from the cocktail of pain, grief, and fear.
She was not a bad mother, even though she’d yelled at them that morning. It was Saturday, finally, and Jamie was embarrassed to say sometimes she liked the weekdays more, the predictable rhythm of her aunt Maggie’s real estate office where she was the receptionist, the chance to drink coffee and read Us magazine online, thinking of the girls in school, which they actually liked for the most part. Kylie, the ten-year-old, might piss and moan over homework, but she loved the day-to-day operations of school—the hurricane of note passing and gossip. She was already popular, had already stolen makeup from Jamie’s top dresser drawer and sent texts to boys from Jamie’s phone. Bailey, eight, was just as sassy but loved school for the school part, reading and writing—especially vocabulary, the way words sounded and the rules that went with them.
The weekends were hectic, a blur of soccer games and ballet practice, playdates and every last minute crammed with errands: groceries, cooking, pharmacy (Kylie’s allergies, Bailey’s asthma), cleaning the apartment, dusting and Swiffering every surface to avoid allergies and asthma. And then meltdowns and screaming protests about the rules: one hour on the computer for non-school-related activities, half an hour of video games, one hour of TV, all of which would be broken by Sunday night. Jamie would have to beg them to go to the housing complex playground, which the girls claimed was old, dirty, with two out of five swings broken and a sandbox that smelled like pee.
All Jamie wanted was to get to Saturday night. Then Darrell would come over and maybe the girls would go somewhere for a sleepover, or to Nana and Papa’s. Maybe Jamie would let them play video games for a bonus hour in their room and take pictures with her phone just so she and Darrell could drink some beers and watch a movie that didn’t feature a chipmunk or a princess. And if the girls weren’t there, maybe they’d smoke a joint; maybe his hand would slide up her shirt and they’d end up naked on the couch, Jamie looking at him on top, thinking he is not perfect, he has funny teeth and always wears that leather jacket with the hole in the pit, but there are a few good qualities here. One large good quality: she would think and then she’d laugh, and Darrell would say, “What?” but then he’d laugh too.
But first, errands and then a birthday party for all of them. It was for a girl in Kylie’s class, but it was one of those parties to which everyone was invited—siblings and parents for pizza, games, and cake in the family’s big ranch-style house in a new development called The Knolls. Jamie didn’t like the trend, these big free-for-all events, was worried because Kylie’s birthday was in June and maybe she’d want the same thing. Jamie saw the problems coming at her like headlights: their apartment was too small for a party, her mother would never let her hear the end of it if she asked to have it at her parents’ place, and the money, all that money, for that many pizzas plus gifts plus a new dress for Kylie and the new dress Bailey would have to have too.
“Why do you guys even have to come in?” said Kylie from the passenger side, eyebrows wrinkled up over her big hot-cocoa eyes, a sneer in her angel lips.
“Fine, we’ll wait outside in the car,” said Jamie.
“Everyone will see us,” said Bailey from the backseat, anxious.
Jamie looked in the rearview, taking in Bailey’s face, a palette of worry. How can she care so much about what other people think already? thought Jamie. She didn’t want the girls to care; she missed the days when they were too little to worry about appearances or be embarrassed, back when they would streak like hippies before jumping into the tub.
“We’re not waiting in the car, Kylie,” said Jamie. “Hey—won’t Stella Piper be there with her family? Bailey can play with Owen.”
From the corner of her eye Jamie saw her shrug, and felt the weight of it.
“They’re not friends anymore,” said Bailey.
“They’re not?” Jamie said to Bailey. “You’re not?” she said to Kylie.
“Why can’t you shut up?” Kylie said, craning her head around the seat to glare at her sister.
“Mom!” shouted Bailey, pointing.
“I heard it, Bailey.” To Kylie: “Don’t talk like that to your sister. Why aren’t you friends with Stella Piper anymore?”
“She thinks Stella’s dumb. And her glasses are funny,” Bailey reported. “She says they make her look like a creature.”
“She’s been your friend forever, since you were in kindergarten,” said Jamie.
“I know,” said Kylie, hushed and hissing.
Jamie stopped third in a trail of cars at a light and said, “You shouldn’t be mean to someone just because they look funny.”
Kylie stared out the window.
“Someday someone might think you look funny, and then how’ll you like it?”
Kylie kept staring.
“Well?” Jamie took Kylie’s chin in her hand and turned her head. “Well?”
“I won’t like it.”
Jamie let go and looked up to see a policeman directing all the cars in her lane to the left.
“What’s this now?” said Jamie.
Bailey looked up over the seat.
“What is it? What’s happening?”
“I don’t know, for God’s sake,” said Jamie.
She pulled up even with the cop and rolled down the window.
“I need to go straight ahead to the Gulf on Branford.”
“Branford? That side of the highway’s closed for the parade, Miss,” said the cop.
“Fuck me,” Jamie said, remembering.
Spring Fest. The town’s annual parade of toilet-paper-covered floats and high school bands slogging their way through “My Girl.”
“Mom!” the kids shouted, embarrassed.
“Well, Officer, I’m about to run outta gas, so what do you recommend?”
The cop leaned into her window.
“Tell you what, I’ll wave you through to St. Cloud; then you can take a right to Route 1080 and you can get to the Hess over that way.”
Jamie pictured the route in her head and nodded. “That’d be just great, thanks.”
“No problem, ma’am,” said the cop, tapping the roof of the car.
Jamie drove the path laid out for her by the cop.
“I can’t believe you said the f-curse to the police,” said Kylie, a look of quiet shame on her face.
“I’m full of surprises,” said Jamie.
“Can we go past the parade? Miss Ferno’s on a float from her church,” said Bailey.
“What? No, we’re already late for this thing,” said Jamie.
She glanced at both of them. They stared out the window. Someday you’ll think I’m funny, she thought. Someday you’ll tell your friends, No, my mom’s cool. Once she said “Fuck me” right in front of a cop.
Finally, when they got to the Hess, Kylie asked, “Can we split a Reese’s?”
She had yet to outgrow an unwavering devotion to sugar—she would pour maple syrup over Frosted Flakes if you turned your head the other way.
“No, you’re going to have all kinds of crap at this party; you don’t need a Reese’s.”
Then the wailing began—you’d think someone was pricking their cuticles with sewing needles. Jamie held her head and leaned over the wheel, thinking she should have smoked the very last bit of resin in the pipe this morning. She didn’t like to drive stoned, but there wasn’t enough in there to mess her up proper, just enough to help her push through, get to the party where it might be acceptable to have a light beer at noon.
“Enough, stop it!” yelled Jamie, feeling her voice crack, the muscles in her neck tense up. “Fine, go get a goddamn Reese’s. Get me a coffee with a Splenda, please.”
She threw a five in Kylie’s lap.
“Go before I change my mind,” she said.
The girls unbuckled their seat belts and scrambled out of the car. Jamie watched them run into the mini-mart, heard the clicks of their dress‑up shoes. She checked her makeup in the mirror and shook her head at herself, then went out to the pumps.
She continued to shake her head, thought, Jesus Christ, do I ever sound like her—her own mother, Gail—“Before I change my mind” and all those threats. First you swear you’ll never be like your mother; then you find yourself sending them to their room and grounding them, and occasionally, once in a while, you hit them once or twice too hard on the back after they say something rude.
Jamie got back in the car and blew air into her hands. Spring Fest my ass, she thought. It was the end of March and still freezing in the mornings and at night, although they’d had more than a few hazy warm days the past two months that fooled everyone into thinking spring was really here; even the black cherry trees were confused—fruit had prematurely formed on the branches, then iced over and broke off the next week in a storm.
The girls had been in the store a long time.
Jamie looked at the time on her phone. 11:32 a.m. They still had to go to Kmart for a gift for Kylie’s friend, which meant they would argue about the under-ten-dollar rule, then engage in negotiations until they got to an under-ten-dollar-without-tax agreement. If there was time, maybe Jamie could browse for something for her aunt Maggie, whose birthday was coming up. Maggie was fond of her, and Jamie didn’t really know why—maybe because she admired Jamie’s pluck, maybe because she’d been a single mother herself after Uncle Stu had left her for a girl in a massage parlor twenty years ago, and she knew how rough it was. Maybe because it was a way to piss off her sister, Jamie’s mother, which she enjoyed doing for a list of reasons either one would tell you all about if you asked them. Jamie ultimately didn’t care about the details since Aunt Maggie had cleaned up in the divorce and got her real estate agent’s license in short order, owned half a dozen homes in the Poconos that she rented out to vacationers, and brokered deals between buyers and the new developments surrounding Denville.
“Goddammit,” said Jamie.
She got out of the car and jogged into the mini-mart, scanned the inside quickly and saw only one other person—a man, looking at a porn magazine.
“Hey,” she said to the fat boy behind the counter. He seemed too old for the braces on his teeth.
“You see two girls in here?”
“Yeah. They went to the bathroom in back.”
Jamie did not say thank you, walked past the guy with the porn and out the back door. She saw Kylie leaning against the cinder block wall, holding a Reese’s cup between her thumb and forefinger like a teacup.
“What the hell, Kylie?” said Jamie.
“She had to pee. She said it was an emergency.”
Jamie stormed past, rapped on the bathroom door and said, “Bailey, come on, let’s move it.”
“I’m washing my hands,” said Bailey from inside.
“You’re done. Let’s go.”
“I’m trying not to touch anything.”
Jamie almost smiled. She had been trying to teach them to line the toilet seat with paper towels, hover above the bowl, and turn the faucets on and off with their elbows in public bathrooms.
“I have Purell in the car. Come on.”
The door opened and Bailey came out. She looked at her mother and covered her mouth with her hands.
“We forgot the coffee!”
“It’s okay,” said Jamie. “Let’s go.”
They went back to the car and drove to the Ridgewood Mall without speaking, Kylie staring out the window, Bailey reading her school workbook. Jamie glanced at both of them and thought they looked nice. Bailey in a pink princess dress, Kylie in a black dress with a purple flower print and the sweetheart neckline that was a little too old for her, Jamie thought, but since it was a hand-me-down from her cousin, she could not complain. They are both so big, she thought, which makes me so old.
The parking lot was surprisingly not crowded, the first three or four rows of the grid full but that was it. God bless Spring Fest, Jamie thought.
“So what does Arianna want?”
“Aren’t we coming in?” said Kylie, shocked.
“No way. I’m going in and out.”
“Come on. That’s so unfair!” they both said.
“Deal with it,” said Jamie. “What does she like?”
Kylie sighed. “She wants a sleeping bag.”
“I’m not buying her a sleeping bag. Does she like jewelry?”
“Great. I’ll get her some bracelets.”
Jamie looked through her purse for her phone and her wallet, left the key in the ignition so the heat would stay on.
“Can we at least listen to music?” said Kylie.
“Yes, you can. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
Jamie got out and was about to slam the door when Bailey said, “Mom?”
She looked up from her book and said, “Do you know you call a group of lions a pride, not a pack?”
Jamie stared at her, then at Kylie, who rolled her eyes.
“No, baby, I didn’t know that.”
She shut the door and left them.
Into the calm, controlled air of Kmart, pop music from ten years ago in her ears, she forced herself to stay focused. If she didn’t have a list, she had trouble concentrating in big box stores, got distracted by displays and sales. That was the point, wasn’t it, she thought, to turn you into a kid again who sees something shiny and wants it. When the girls were with her, a ten-minute trip turned into thirty minutes easily, everyone leaving with candy and gum and a tank top.
Jamie went to the toy aisles, skimmed over the bright boxes and tubes and balls to the girls section, Make-Your-Own-Headband, Home Manicure Kit, Bead-a-Necklace—she picked that one up; it was $9.99. You got lucky today, Arianna.
She made her way to the cards and wrapping paper, grabbed a pink gift bag with tissue paper already lined inside and a white card dangling from the handle.
Then on her way to the checkout she stopped when she saw a sheer cowl-necked sweater on a sale rack. The tag read $21.99. Nope. At the register, she checked her phone (11:55). Oh who cares, she thought. It doesn’t matter if you’re late to this kind of thing; it’s an open house. Suddenly she felt relaxed, realized her hands were in fists, holding the strings of the gift bag hostage in her fingers. The day opened up in front of her. The party would eat up a couple of hours, then maybe they’d stop by her parents’ place, then she could pick up McDonald’s for dinner, and then they could waste time until Darrell came over and she could send them to her room and let them watch TV in her bed. It didn’t seem that bad when she thought of it that way. Just some hours to fill. She paid, picked up her bag, and left. Into the parking lot, back to her car, she sped up. Confused at first, she thought, This is my car. Checked the dent in the fender, the plate. No girls. I’m going to kill them, she thought, took a breath too quickly and coughed, started talking to them in her head. Don’t even tell me you can’t tie it in a knot till we get to the fucking party, Bailey. Or you, was this your idea? she thought, picturing Kylie’s face. You and your sweet tooth, looking for free samples. Jamie looked around at the stores: Reno’s Coffee, Morgan House-wares, StoneField Ice Cream. She ran to the latter, coughing like she was a smoker, entered through the doors. It was quiet and cold inside. A woman and two little boys and a baby in a car seat sat in a booth. The girl behind the counter had a ring in her lip. “You see two girls come in here?” said Jamie. “Yeah, they were just in here.” For a second they stared at each other. “So where are they?” said Jamie. Lip Ring shrugged. “How should I know? They left a few minutes ago.” Jamie could feel the blood rush in her chest. She started to leave, then turned back and said, “Lemme ask you something: How the fuck do you eat with that thing in your face?” She left and slammed the door before she could hear the answer. Then Reno’s Coffee— a couple, a man post-workout, everyone on his phone.
“Did you see two girls in party dresses?” she asked the people behind the counter. “Eight and ten years old. Did they come in to use the bathroom?” Then to the couple and the man: “Did you see two girls?”
They all said no.
She left, looked back at her car, still empty.
Then Morgan Housewares, Global Market, Eastern Sports. By the time she got back to Kmart it was 12:11, and the fear had become a rock in her throat.
“I can’t find my girls,” she said to the security guard. She put her hand to her lips after she said it, like she was trying to get the words back.
“Did you lose them in the store, ma’am?” he said. His double chin was strangled by his uniform shirt.
“No, they were in the car. I was in here. Now they’re gone.”
“We can page them in the store,” he said.
“They’re not in the store. I was in the store.”
“Maybe they came in to look for you,” he said.
“Yeah, okay. Yes, please, page them.”
She was standing in Customer Service with Geri the Customer Service Liaison and two other security guards when she heard the guard with the double chin’s voice say her daughters’ names: “Kylie Brandt, Bailey Brandt, please come to the Customer Service Center.”
Jamie watched people emerge from the aisles, calm, bored. It was not their daughters’ names in the air.
“You have bathrooms? Where are the bathrooms?” she said.
Geri pointed to the left.
“You can hear the loudspeaker in there too,” she said. Jamie couldn’t even see this woman; her face was a smudge with dull gray spots in the middle.
Jamie ran now through the white aisles, hearing the sound of her own wheezing and rationalizations as she talked to herself, “She had to pee, Bailey had to pee. Maybe one of them got sick from that Reese’s.”
She threw herself onto the door and into the bathroom, knocked on and pushed open every stall. A woman with a walker and a younger woman stood at the sinks.
“Did you see two girls? I can’t find my girls.”
The woman with the walker appeared not to understand. The younger woman said, “No, what did they look like?”
“They’re wearing dresses,” Jamie said, and ran out again, to the front of the store.
She passed the security guards and Geri, and now a small crowd of people looking and talking, to the front doors where she exited, ran into the parking lot, back to her car, which was still empty. She hit the hood with her hand and ran back to the store, where more people stood, watching her.
The face of a man with a mustache blurred in front of her, next to the guard with the double chin.
“Ma’am, I put out a Code Adam alert for the entire mall and called the police. Do you want to sit down?”
Jamie didn’t understand the words he said. He held out his hand, to guide her inside to a cushioned folding chair, where someone would bring her a glass of water.
Jamie didn’t take it. She dug her fingernails into her scalp and whispered, “My girls . . . my girls.”