The Polaroid sinks to the floor. When it hits the carpet, the picture side’s facing up. The color’s taken on the sickly tone that comes with time. Madge bends over and smoothes a curled corner down.
“Ma’am,” one of the officers says, tapping Madge lightly on the arm. “We should get going and look for your daughter.”
Madge hands the photograph to the officer. She gnaws on her lower lip to keep from crying.
“She’s much older now,” Madge says, her words coming out in a croak. Her hand trembling makes the photograph flutter up and down.
“Don’t worry, Ma’am. We’ll find her.”
Madge lowers her head, the way Bill always advises, to keep from fainting or to get past a wave of nausea. Staring at the bare concrete stoop, she recalls how she’d always wanted a real front porch. One that stretched all the way around the sides.
She takes a deep breath, lifts her head, and slowly lets the breath out. The dizziness and nausea are, thankfully, gone. There’s no point waiting around, picking the dead skin growing over her nails and thinking terrible thoughts. She picks her soft, fat white leather bag up from the step and hurries out to the car.
* * *
The man has come here before, parked across the street from Thomas Jefferson Elementary and watched the kids arrive. He keeps the windows rolled up, to block the children’s screams. Even so, before the bell rings and the playground empties out, he’s forced to punch in the radio knob. Strains of classical music drown out the noise. He especially enjoys the oboe.
He started sitting here after Brenda moved out. The silent rooms made him feel hollow inside.
* * *
Barely ten o’clock and Sara opens her pink plastic overnight case and pulls out a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich. She can tell that her mom used the small sheet of wrinkled tin foil more than once. It has practically lost its shine.
Sara takes a bite, determined to save the rest for lunch. She swallows and notices the car. When she was seven and they lived in Hawaii, a car like that followed her home. Two blocks away from their little duplex, the man pulled over next to Sara and stopped. The short skirt of her Brownie uniform showed off her skinny legs, darkened and freckled from the sun.
He leaned across the front seat and out the passenger side window.
“Hey, little girl,” the man said.
He was holding a big red sucker.
Sara could smell his sour breath. She churned her legs and started pumping her arms, not stopping until she landed out of breath on her front porch.
Sara lifts the crumpled tin foil up. As she brings the sandwich to her mouth, she imagines that her doll Miss Poppy has asked for a bite.
“No, Miss Poppy,” she says.
A piece of thin white bread has attached itself to the roof of her mouth. She tries to dislodge it with her tongue. When that doesn’t work, Sara sticks her finger up and pries the damp glob of bread loose, then spits it out on the ground.
“Miss Poppy, we have to save our sandwich for lunch.”
Sara turns toward the doll. She’s forgotten about the car parked next to the curb behind her. If she swivels around, the sun will be in her eyes.
She imagines that she hears Miss Poppy complaining about being thirsty and lifts the doll and pats her.
“We’ll go get something to drink, Miss Poppy. Don’t cry.”
Only half the sandwich is left in Sara’s pink plastic bag. She slides Miss Poppy into the bag. To close the bag, she’s forced to shove Miss Poppy’s head down firmly with her left hand, while she yanks the zipper closed with her right. She feels sorry for the doll, having to stay all alone in that tight, closed dark space.
* * *
The man notices the little blonde girl get up and walk over to the sidewalk. He keeps watching to see which direction she heads. As she turns toward town, he sees that she has on a turquoise tee-shirt and matching turquoise shorts. Her sandals are white and her pale blond hair is pulled into two floppy pigtails at the sides.
He starts the car and checks the rearview mirror. As he glances in the side mirror, he notices the pale blue Chevrolet station wagon behind him.
* * *
Madge steers the car through the quiet, curved streets of the subdivision, her eyes darting to and from the sidewalk. Built in the fifties, the houses look mostly alike. A couple styles vary by size, the least expensive shaped like a shoebox, with three square-shaped bedrooms and a bath on the ground floor. That’s the style Madge, Bill and their three daughters have just vacated. There is also a split level, with a den and extra half-bath. The third and final option has one more bedroom and a separate bath with a shower in the master.
The houses are painted mint green, birds-egg blue and pale, lemony yellow. Women do different things with the gardens -- gladiolas and roses in one and rough, forest green shrubs with severely trimmed shapes in another. People occasionally put up fences for dogs.
The shoebox-shaped house was the first Madge and Bill owned. Other times, they lived on base, in drab, dark apartments or duplexes, next door to couples with too many kids and dogs. Madge loved the sky-blue tract home with trim the color of clouds, even though the boxy place bore little resemblance to her dream of a sprawling Southern plantation house. They’d re-papered the bedrooms and bath and painted the kitchen and living room. On nice warm afternoons before the girls arrived home, Madge sat in a pink plastic folding chair and sipped iced tea and smoked out back.
In the beginning, Madge thought the moving around was fun. Gazing at her young Air Force pilot husband Bill, his black hair combed back away from his face, made her cheeks flush.
Madge’s eyes dart back and forth, trying to spot little blonde-haired Sara. She’s on her fifth Winston. She has just inhaled and is about to let out a thick cloud of smoke. Her stomach seizes up. She remembers seeing that nondescript Mercury whose faded black paint had caused white streaks to appear amidst the rust here more than once, when she dropped Sara off. She now recalls the foreboding she felt.
The car pulls away from the curb just as Madge drives up. She follows. A man, Madge can see, is behind the wheel. She can’t make out anyone else. The sunlight is shooting fierce rays into her eyes.
* * *
The alarm went off that morning when it was still dark. Madge must have been in the middle of a dream, because she had a hard time waking up. She leaned across the bed and reached her hand to silence the bleating sound.
Bill bolted up.
“Uh huh,” Madge answered, and laid back down.
“Wake me up when you’re done in the shower,” she mumbled, as he headed out.
If only she hadn’t closed her eyes that second time. If only she’d gotten up, boiled water, stirred a cup of instant coffee and checked plans more closely with Bill, before he’d gone.
The night before, she and Bill had fought. It started with her suggestion that Bill triple-wrap the antique porcelain living room clock.
“When are you going to stop?” Bill prodded her, his voice like burning metal. “When are you going to stop nagging me?”
Once Bill got started – and these days it seemed that anger or quiet sullenness was his permanent state of mind– he would go on and let out a store of slights and grudges.
Madge tried defending herself, not wanting the verbal battering to go on.
“I didn’t mean to nag you, Bill. I just don’t want to break the clock.”
One of a handful of things Madge considered valuable enough to take in the car, the clock had been passed down to Madge from her grandparents.
“How many times have I done this, Madge? Do you think I’m stupid or something? You’re always treating me like a child. I’m tired of this, you know. I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”
Madge quit listening, slipping quietly out of the living room and down the hall. She heard Bill slamming doors, the sound reverberating throughout the nearly empty house.
They hadn’t made up before going to bed. Bill was snoring moments after his head hit the pillow. Quietly furious, Madge lay awake for hours, telling Bill all the things she hadn’t dared say.
* * *
Sara follows the sidewalk east, toward the center of town. She’s thirsty and wants a Coke. She also needs to cry and is fighting hard not to start. After she gets to town, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. The only thing that comes into her mind is to head over to her best friend Carla’s house and ask Carla’s mother to get in touch with her mom.
She can’t have said why but at this moment, Sara feels an uncontrollable urge to run. It might be the sound of her mother and father fighting that has slipped into her mind. Her father’s voice has that edge, like a sharp knife cutting away at Sara’s heart, that makes Sara think what a terrible girl she has become. More than anything, Sara knows that she is the cause.
The long pink strap of her bag falls diagonally across her chest and she pushes it hard to the side. At school this year, on the dirt track, she’d run faster and faster, beating the other girls every time. Now, she falls into a rhythm that carries her smoothly down the block.
Her mind empties of thought. She can’t hear her parents’ angry voices. The razor blade edge of her father’s words no longer carves pieces from her heart.
* * *
The man’s eyes are fixed on the rearview mirror as Sara turns onto Maple Street, heading south. The thought enters his mind. He’s being followed. He slows the car down, to see what the Chevy wagon will do next. The driver behind him doesn’t pass or honk.
This time, when he looks in the rearview mirror, he sees the woman driver. He believes she’s looking into his eyes, reflected in the mirror, and from there, into his heart. He has an odd sensation. Those eyes in his mirror know everything he’s been through and what he’s feeling now. Not surprisingly, he wonders what she might do if he pulls the Mercury over to the curb and parks.
* * *
Before she started packing, Madge thought, what if I said no? Like a forbidden desire, the question slithered into her mind. She had never dared think it before.
She reached into the closet, pulling out skirts and blouses and packing them in an open trunk, while setting some worn-out clothes on the bed to give to the Salvation Army.
Sara came into the master bedroom where Madge was surrounded by clothes.
“Mommy, I don’t want to go,” Sara said, plopping herself atop a stack of sweaters.
Madge’s heart thumped. She felt sweat gather at the back of her neck.
“I know, honey,” Madge said, taking Sara’s hand and brushing a loose strand of hair up from her forehead. “Mommy doesn’t want to go either.”
Normally, Madge would have remarked how much fun they were going to have in the new place.
“Mommy doesn’t want to go either,” she said to Sara again.
* * *
Madge is thinking that she left the house so late because she hadn’t wanted to leave. By the time she backed out of the driveway, Bill had been gone for hours. She was looking forward to driving alone, meeting up with Bill and their three daughters at the rest stop.
Her mind kept drifting off but Madge knew enough to keep her eyes focused on the dividing line as she drove toward the rest stop. She could, if she chose, take the next exit and start a completely new life. Over the years, she’d stashed fifteen or twenty dollars away each month, in a bank account Bill didn’t know about. She told herself the account was for emergencies. Each time Bill gave her that look, his eyes squinting, his mouth turned up at the right corner, she thought about her account. She sometimes stepped into the bedroom and pulled out the black lacquer jewelry box, hidden in the second drawer, beneath her underwear. If she thought Bill wouldn’t come in, she’d open the box and pull out the forest green book in which the teller recorded her deposits.
Other than her girls, and especially her youngest daughter Sara, Madge couldn’t come up with a reason why she shouldn’t take an earlier exit. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt happy or recalled a time that Bill had wrapped his arms around her and made her smile.
* * *
Sara is panting when she reaches the little store everyone in town calls Pop’s. She pulls at the door and brightens on hearing the tinkling bell, knowing that the old man all the kids think of as their grandpa will step out to the front.
“Well, what are we doing here?”
Sara’s eyes haven’t adjusted to the low light inside. She looks in the direction of the deep scratchy voice but only sees an empty black room.
“I thought you were moving out of town.”
Sara can make out the counter now and the glass case, where long, thin ropes of red and black licorice, bubble gum, and hard, pastel sugar dots stuck to narrow white paper strips fill the shelves. She sees the old man, thin, with bony shoulders that curl down toward his waist, wearing a worn black sweater, even though it’s August.
“Sara. Aren’t you supposed to be gone?”
Stepping up to the counter, Sara lets the lies and excuses twirl around in her mind.
“I’m staying with my best friend, Carla,” she says, latching onto the last lie that has come into her mind.
The old man thinks he’d better call someone. He has a sense about children, after all these years. He can tell by looking at a boy’s hands whether he’s been stealing quarters from his mother’s wallet. At the beginning of each school year, Hal recognizes the bullies, the minute they shove their way into his store. Over the years, he’s predicted the couples that will end up getting married, from watching the way they treat one another in grade school.
So, he knows the minute he steps out of the back and sees cute, blonde Sara Ryder that something is up. She’s a military kid, with a daddy who’s usually off flying. He’s sensed since the first time she came in two years ago that she was a solitary child.
“Do you know what you want, Sara?” he asks, watching the child wander the penny candy case with her eyes.
“Okay. You take your time. I’m going to step in the back and make myself a cup of tea.”
The old man walks through the door and into the kitchen, where he lifts the receiver from the turquoise wall phone and dials Joe Henderson’s number at the police station three blocks down.
“Hey, Joe. It’s Hal.”
Hal keeps his voice low.
“You know that Ryder family?” He pauses, listening to what Joe has to say. “Military. Yeah, right,” he says, then pauses again, as Joe informs him that the Ryders have moved out of town.
* * *
Madge passed Bill’s silver Dodge as she circled the rest stop parking lot. In the back corner farthest from the highway, she found a spot. She needed to pee but figured Bill and the girls would be starving. So, she slid the red and white cooler across the back seat and out the door.
As soon as she stepped out of the car, her hands gripping the cooler handles, she saw him. He was standing next to the picnic table, in a bright white tee-shirt, waving his arms. He looked like the men on the flight line, signaling to the planes as they moved into position before taking off.
Her throat grew dry. Without knowing it, she’d hunched up her shoulders. She would have loved a gin and tonic, but she’d have to wait. Bill kept waving the whole time. She couldn’t let go of the cooler to respond.
Before she set the cooler down, Bill asked.
* * *
The man sits waiting in the car. He can see the headlights of the blue station wagon, reflected in the rearview mirror, like two wide-open eyes. He doesn’t have a clue what she wants. It wasn’t until Brenda left that he began to consider what she had wanted.
Beethoven is playing on the radio. He doesn’t know much about classical music, except what he likes. Beethoven speaks to him, he might tell this woman, because the music is full of sorrow.
The man wonders if he should step out of the car. He feels as if he’s just been stopped by a cop. Static from the radio has replaced the sound. He fiddles with the knob. The music is clear and he thinks it might be Mozart. Someone is tapping against the window on the driver’s side now.
* * *
The young policeman, Bobby, fishes around in his pocket. He pulls out a quarter and then digs another one out. He looks down and smiles.
“I’m buying,” he says.
The little girl looks up at Bobby and smiles.
* * *
Madge circles her right hand at the wrist, mimicking the movement of rolling a window down. The man reaches for the black handle that’s missing its silver end and begins to turn. As soon as he’s got the window rolled down, the woman leans in. She scours the interior with her pale green eyes.
“I’m looking for my little girl,” she announces.
The man feels ashamed, as if he’s been hiding something all along.
* * *
They both see the police car before the black and white Ford has made it all the way down the block.
“Don’t move,” Madge says, keeping her left hand on the edge of the rolled-down window, as she signals to the police car with her right arm. The officer pulls the car over behind Marge’s car and stops.
She still holds onto Bill’s door, until the officer walks over to her. Bill doesn’t hear what the officer has said, but watches the woman as she runs across the street and disappears into the store.
The Mozart piece ends. Static fills the hollow space within the car. He’s thinking he ought to get out and walk. For a moment, he even imagines himself entering the candy store.
* * *
Madge steps out of the store into the bright afternoon light. At first, she needs to squint, as she blindly searches for her sunglasses. She pulls the dark glasses out of her purse and slides them on, opening her eyes to check in the direction where she expects to see the faded black car. The wind has tossed a sheet of newspaper into the space, empty now.
Sara grabs her mother’s free hand. Madge lets go and raises her wrist to consult her watch. It’s nearly three o’clock. She can picture Bill waiting at the motel, his white tee-shirt reflecting the bright heat of the sun, as he studies the cars passing on the two-lane highway, looking for his youngest daughter and his wife.
“I’m hungry,” Sara says, pulling on Madge’s arm.
Madge feels inside her purse for the envelope. She lets her fingers slide inside, taking the measure of the bills with her middle finger and thumb. She has never done a brave or foolish thing in her life but the feel of that envelope and her daughter’s soft warm fingers tell her this might be the time.
Heat waves ripple above the sidewalk. The humid wind carries the scent of roses.
“Let’s go get a hamburger,” Madge says, leaning down and gazing into her daughter’s wide blue eyes.
The breeze lifts her hair. She feels like a young girl again. Together, she and Sara begin to swing their arms.
“Let’s get hamburgers and fries and chocolate shakes,” Madge says, in a childish voice she hasn’t used since soon after Sara was born.