by Isabelle Brock
Liz unscrews the lid from a mason jar, shakes a mound of walnuts onto the cutting board, and pulls her favorite knife from the block. She smashes the walnuts flat with the broad side of her blade, smiling as they crunch into smaller and smaller pieces. She keeps her mind on the perfect strokes of her knife, keeps it off Chris and the way he looked at her this morning, distastefully, his small brown eyes on her stomach as she stood in front of the mirror in the master bathroom, the towel slipping from her waist to the floor. “What?” she’d asked, crouching for the towel. “What?” Standing, she’d pulled it tight around her until it squeezed her flesh.
“Nothing.” He’d shrugged his shoulders, turned his eyes to the quilt, and that seemed to be the end of it—until, clearing his throat, he’d blurted out, “I could get you a membership, you know, if you want.”
Liz brings the blade to the nuts, chopping and smashing until they’re nearly a powder. She lifts the cutting board above the metal mixing bowl and scrapes the nuts in with the blade. She doesn’t lick the spoon. She won’t eat a single cookie, not even one. Chris can have them all—four dozen, all to himself. Well, Chris and Jenna. Chris thinks her little six-year-old stomach is cute.
She flours her hands to shape the balls of dough, pushes them flat on a cookie sheet in careful rows of three. Twelve cookies to a tray—always—because that’s the only way to guarantee an even bake, and forget about ten minutes at 350. Seven minutes, maybe eight, leave them slightly underdone—like eggs, they’ll continue to cook once out of the heat. Plenty of things are out of our control, Liz thinks. But perfect cookies? Got it.
When the final tray is in the oven, she grabs a half-gallon of whole milk from the fridge, and pours a glass for Jenna. “Whole milk,” the doctor advised at a recent check-up, “to get her weight up a bit.” How very ironic, Liz thinks as she sets the glass on Jenna’s child-size table. She puts two cookies on a small plate, and sets it next to the glass of milk on the table. “Jenna,” she calls out the open window above the sink. “Would you like a cookie?”
But there is no answer from the backyard, just the buzz of the lawnmower down the street, the neighbor’s dog barking, two houses away.
Pulling on her oven mitt, she grabs the sheet from the oven and sets it on the cloth on the counter. She wipes a glob of dough off the edge of the unbaked tray and slides it onto the lower rack of the oven, and then she walks to the bottom of the steps in the hallway and yells up to the second floor, “Jenna! There are some cookies down here!” and when no reply comes, she wipes her hands on the back of her shorts and starts climbing. Jenna’s room is a mess, littered with baby dolls and tiny plastic bottles, a miniature nursery created from old diapers Jenna never wore and receiving blankets Liz never took to the Goodwill. It needs a good dusting and the sheets haven’t been washed in two weeks and there are stuffed animals and books all over the floor, so many things to do Liz wants to climb into the closet and hide.
There is no Jenna among the mess, and Liz takes a deep breath and steps back out into the hall, calling her daughter’s name. She checks the study and the master bedroom. She looks behind the shower curtain in the bathroom, pulls open the towel cupboard. There’s a bottle of Valium in the mirror cabinet, and she thinks about popping the top and taking two—the prescription says “for anxiety”—but they numb her, and lately she’s been needing them only to sleep.
“Jenna!” she calls, heading back down the stairs, but the living room is empty too. She pokes her head in the downstairs bathroom, and then ducks back into the kitchen, just in case. She’s running now, jogging is more like it—Chris would look at her thighs and think waddling, waddling like a goose— She’s telling herself it’s not yet time to panic; surely Jenna is in the backyard where she was, jumping on the mini-trampoline or catching bugs, maybe mixing up nasty little potions of mud and blueberry yogurt in shampoo bottles. Liz just didn’t see her, and Jenna didn’t answer because she knows her mother doesn’t like it when she does that—Jenna’s concoctions leave brown spots in the lawn, and she takes silverware from the kitchen to stir her mixtures and forgets to bring the spoons back inside, turns them into mini-shovels in the sandbox. “Jenna!” Liz yells at the screen door. “This isn’t funny!”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon. It’s a sunny summer day. Has she gone to the neighbors’? Jenna is six, old enough to know better than to leave the backyard by herself, but maybe they were throwing water-balloons on the lawn next door or drawing on the patio with sidewalk chalk. Jenna loves water-balloons in the summer, not throwing them, but cradling big balloons like soft, fragile babies. Maybe that’s it, maybe she was so excited to baby a balloon she simply forgot to stick her head in the back door, yell, “Mom, can you take me over to Ethan’s?” before slipping through the gate in the fence and running around the Juniper hedge to her friend’s yard.
Yes, Liz thinks, this makes sense. All she needs to do now is throw on a pair of sneakers and head next door where she’ll put a hand on Jenna’s shoulder and give her a slight scolding. “Jenna,” she’ll say. “Honey, please make sure you check in with me. I was worried.” Jenna will look up and blink her blue eyes—“Sorry, Mom.” They’ll walk back holding hands.
But when Ethan’s mother opens the door, Liz can see Ethan sitting on the floor of the living room in front of the television (on a summer afternoon!), his baby brother on his belly next to him, no blonde-haired child in jean shorts and a pink tank top in sight. “Caroline,” she says, steadying herself by throwing a hand out to the door frame. “Caroline, you haven’t seen her, have you? Jenna?”
“No,” Caroline says—her eyes are done with shadow and liner, does her husband like that? Does he think she looks good naked?—“We haven’t seen her all day.”
“I can’t find her.” It’s real when she says it, and Liz is suddenly the foolish mother—the one she knows she isn’t. “I’ve looked all over the house.”
“Huh.” Caroline turns towards the living room. “Hey, Ethan!” she calls. “Come here!”
Ethan scoots up from the floor and comes toward Liz with his neck turned, his eyes glued to the TV.
“Have you seen Jenna?” Caroline asks him. “Have you seen her today?”
“Nuh-uh,” Ethan says. He drags a bare arm under his nose.
“Okay.” Liz nods, but the concrete beneath her is shimmering, she’s dizzy, it’s the angle of the sun, the glare, and there’s sweat in a pool between her breasts. “Okay.” She turns from the door.
“Wait!” Caroline’s hand is on her shoulder. “Did you check the Sims?”
The Sims. Of course. Mrs. Sims loves Jenna; she’s always showing up with her hard flavorless gingersnaps for Jenna to gnaw. They get tossed in the garbage as soon as Mrs. Sims hobbles back up the street. She makes yarn dolls for the neighborhood children, little floppy toys designed for cats. Jenna loves them. Of course that’s where she is.
She walks there, up the block to the Sims’ house on the corner. She walks, taking big steps but not running, because there is absolutely no reason to run. Jenna will be sitting at the counter in the Sims’ small kitchen. She’ll be destroying her teeth with a gingersnap, but it’ll be okay, Liz tells herself as she reaches the doorstep, okay because she needs to make an appointment for her to go to the dentist anyway. She’ll do it just as soon as they get home.
“Liz!” Mrs. Sims says opening the door. “What a nice surprise! Come in, I’ll make coffee!”
Mrs. Sims shakes her head.
“Jenna. Is she here?”
“Oh no, Liz,” Mrs. Sims says. “No, we haven’t seen her all week.” She’s looking at Liz, frowning, but then she reaches down and slips on her gardening clogs. “Come on,” she says. “I’ll help you look. I’ll go to the park, maybe that’s where she is.” She reaches a thin arm out to Liz as she moves past her on the doorstep, pats her quickly on the shoulder and pulls the door closed. “You know kids,” she says, and then she’s moving stiffly across the street toward the park that’s two blocks over.
Jenna isn’t inside, Liz thinks, still standing on the doorstep. She isn’t eating a gingersnap. Liz turns from the door in a daze but then someone is calling her name and Caroline is coming toward her, the baby on her hip. “Not here?” she says. She hands Liz a phone. “Call the police, Liz. Call them. Now.”
The baby on Caroline’s hip is reaching his chubby hand down Caroline’s blouse and Caroline is pushing it away. The baby is stubborn, keeps reaching, over and over, his hand slipping down into Caroline’s shirt and grabbing for a nipple. He’s hungry. It’s obvious. “Aren’t you still breastfeeding?” Liz says. “You should be, you know. Six months is good, but really, a year is so much better.”
“Liz,” Caroline says, pushing the phone into Liz’s hands. “Call the police.”
Chris has called 911 before, when Jenna was eight months old, choking on a spoonful of mashed peas. He’d grabbed the phone while Liz was whacking her on the back with the heel of her hand, the way she’d been taught in the infant CPR class. In that instant, even with a choking baby face down over her knees, Liz had found herself wanting to have another child, a security, a reason to keep living, just in case, but two first-trimester miscarriages were all that followed. That night on the phone, Chris had just started to explain the emergency when Jenna spit a green mouthful up onto the leg of Liz’s jeans and started to wail. “If that’s the child I hear in the background,” the 911 man had said, “I think she’s probably fine.”
Probably fine, Liz tells herself now. Jenna is probably fine.
“What is your emergency?” a voice says. Liz is wandering the sidewalk in front of the Sims’ house, and the baby, Caroline’s baby, is still asking to be fed.
“She’s missing,” Liz says. “Jenna. She was in the backyard. My little girl.”
Caroline is looking at her when she hangs up. “What?” Liz says. “What do you want?”
“Are they coming?”
Liz nods. That’s what the 911 man said, right? She has to go back to the house, and that’s a good idea anyway, because maybe Jenna has come home. Maybe she’s been there all along, maybe Liz just missed her the first time. Did she check the upstairs bathroom? The basement! Maybe Jenna went down to the basement to look through the boxes of old toys in the storage space. Maybe she’s fallen asleep down there, curled like a kitten next to the dryer in a pile of laundry.
She turns from Caroline and runs back down the block, towards Chris who is now standing outside the front door, home a little early for a Wednesday, but then it’s summer, and all week he’s been leaving the office by four. Usually when he gets home he pulls on his Spandex and laces his sneakers, heads out for a jog, sending a look at Liz that says, You could be doing this too. As if she doesn’t have her hands full with Jenna all day long. As if the house will vacuum itself.
“Liz,” Chris says, starting down the porch steps. “What’s going on? The house is full of smoke. Were you baking?”
“The basement,” Liz says, pushing past him and into the house. She pulls open the basement door and heads down into the darkness. “Jenna!” she yells, tugging hard on the string in the ceiling that controls the light. Baking! If she hadn’t been baking cookies, if she hadn’t been in the kitchen, if she’d been outside, if she’d been in the yard with Jenna, watering the garden, if only she’d been outside. She runs down the stairs and paws through the clothes, a dirty pile she meant to wash this afternoon. She opens up the washing machine and the dryer; she looks in the pantry, under the pool table, behind the storage bins, in the dryer again.
“Liz,” Chris is saying. He’s followed her down, he’s standing on the bottom step, disapproving with his hands on his hips. “Where’s Jenna? Where is she, Liz? What’s going on?”
She straightens up from the dryer and looks toward her husband and she thinks about last Saturday, how she got angry at Chris for taking Jenna to the grocery store in his truck. “She can’t ride in the front seat yet!” she’d hissed while they were unloading the bags. “She’s not even fifty pounds! She has to be buckled in her booster seat in the back! It’s just not safe! Jesus, Chris, don’t you get it?”
She stands by the dryer and she looks at him, and she says, “I don’t…I don’t know, honey. She was in the backyard.” And then there are two policemen knocking at their door.
Chris leaves her on the porch with the policemen and heads up the block, yelling Jenna’s name. “Mrs. Elliot,” says one of the policemen. “Can we sit down?”
She raises her arm at the deck chairs and sits down at the top of the steps, where she’ll be able to see the sidewalk in case Jenna comes skipping by, returning with a story about chasing a cat through someone’s back yard. The kitchen is a chimney, and even outside she can smell the smoke.
“Is there a fire?” a policeman asks. He’s looking at her strangely, and he brushes a sheet of red hair off his forehead before reaching for a notebook in his back pocket. The other has kept his sunglasses on, big square-ish industrial-looking glasses that conceal his eyes.
“I was baking,” Liz begins. She takes a deep breath. “Cookies. I was baking cookies. And Jenna was in the backyard.”
“Okay,” says the red-headed cop. “And how long ago was this?”
Liz has no idea. Twenty minutes? An hour? Somewhere in between?
Both policemen have their notepads out and they’re looking at her, waiting for an answer.
“Forty minutes ago,” Liz says. “Maybe a little less.”
They write this down.
“Can’t one of you do this while the other starts looking?” she asks.
“Do you have a picture of Jenna?” asks the policemen with the sunglasses.
“Yes,” the other cop chimes in. “A picture would be helpful.”
“Of course I have a picture,” Liz says. “I have hundreds and hundreds of pictures.”
“Well, one or two will do,” says the one wearing sunglasses. “Recent pictures. Pictures that show her face.”
Liz gets up from the porch steps and goes into the smoky kitchen where the refrigerator is carefully decorated with photos. In straight lines. They are attached with matching magnets, little black squares that don’t invade the photograph. One photo was taken last month, over in Ocean City. Jenna is sitting on a swing on the beach, the dirty Atlantic behind her, a whole-grain rice-cake in her hand. In the picture her mouth is wide and her eyes are big; she’s pretending she’s going to shove the entire rice-cake in her mouth. “Jenna,” Chris had said, holding the camera. “Please, for once, just smile like a normal kid.”
Liz slides the photo off the fridge and takes it upstairs to the study where sheets of Jenna’s school pictures are sitting on the desk. It’s just unbelievable that she hasn’t cut them apart and stuck the wallet-sizes in envelopes addressed to the grandparents yet; she’s had them all summer. But there they are, still in sheet-form, dozens of little Jennas in blue dresses with high white collars. Liz grabs a pair of scissors and snips out the eight-by-ten. The photographer must have taken the kindergartners’ pictures first thing in the morning, because Jenna’s hair is still smooth, the matching blue barrettes still carefully holding her wispy bangs in place.
“Here,” she says to the cops, handing over the eight-by-ten. She returns to her stoop at the top of the steps, holding the photo from the fridge in her lap, staring at it so she doesn’t have to watch them write things down. She tells them Jenna’s full name and her birthday and her weight, her social security number, the names of her friends.
“Does she have any birthmarks?” asks the policemen in shades. “Identifying marks? Scars?”
“No,” Liz says, and then, “Yes.” She tells them about the scar Jenna has on the underside of her right forearm, the size of a pen cap, two or three inches below the elbow.
“And what kind of a scar is it?” the one in glasses says. “A burn? A scratch?” He’s looking at her—Liz can tell, even though his eyes are invisible behind those lenses. He’s looking at her, waiting, eager to hear the story of Jenna’s scar—a child abuser!—but she isn’t, she’s never hurt Jenna, not even a spanking! She’s a good mother! She was baking cookies but Jenna was safe! There’s a fence in the backyard! A fence!
“There was a nail,” Liz says, squeezing her eyes so tightly her temples feel pinched, then opening to look out over the walkway at the sidewalk. “Coming through the divider in her closet. We didn’t know it was there. Jenna cut her arm on it. Last year.”
They nod. They write all of this down.
Liz pushes herself up from the steps and walks to the sidewalk. She can’t see or hear Chris, so he must be a block over—with the big thick Juniper hedges separating most of the lawns in the neighborhood, voices don’t travel. Either that or he’s not yelling loudly enough. They need a megaphone, a grid, a map of the block broken up into tiny squares. You take this one, I’ll take that. She closes her eyes and makes a list of steps—she needs somebody to draw the map, can she get one online? And teams—neighbors broken into teams—she’ll lead one and Chris can lead the other. They’ll split up, go to the different parks, the swimming pool—it’s a far walk, but possible—and that megaphone, definitely the megaphone. Walkie-talkies too, there’s a set in with the camping supplies in the basement—
“Mrs. Elliot,” one of the policemen says from the porch. The batteries for the walkie-talkies are upstairs in the kitchen, in the middle drawer next to the stove, separated in Ziploc baggies—
“Let’s go into the backyard,” the policeman with the sunglasses is saying. He’s come down the walkway. He puts his hand on her arm.
“She’s not in the backyard,” Liz says. “I already checked.” Why didn’t she think of the walkie-talkies earlier? She could beep over and see if Chris has checked the park yet, if he’s looked up all the tunnel slides. Jenna loves climbing up the tunnel slides, and sometimes, if she’s tucked in at the top, you can’t see her from the ground.
The policemen usher Liz around the side of the house where the gate in the wooden fence is still latched. Jenna is tall enough to open the gate, but she doesn’t, not ever, not by herself. The policemen lifts the metal bolt and pushes the gate open with his bare hands. “What about fingerprints?” Liz says. “What about evidence?”
“We can’t get fingerprints from wood,” a cop says, his voice echoing through the yard. “It’s a little-known fact. People think you can get fingerprints from anything, but it’s much more complicated than that.”
Is this true? It doesn’t make sense, is it true? “She was here,” Liz says, and now her voice is echoing off the side of the house. She’s walking along the inside of the fence, toward the back of the yard where the Junipers have gotten out of control. “I was watching her from the window.” She turns and wanders to the middle of the yard and sits down on the edge of the mini-trampoline, her elbows on her knees. She thinks about the cookies, the spoonfuls of soft dough, the careful push of a fork criss-crossing them flat, a pretty little X. She can feel the extra flesh in her stomach hanging over the top of her jean shorts, and she thinks back to a summer a decade ago, to smooth brown legs and bikinis, to salads and Diet Coke.
“Mrs. Elliot,” says one of the policemen. He’s coming across the yard, the dark ovals of his glasses glinting in the sun. “We’d like to go through the house. Sometimes we see things you don’t.”
“Things?” Liz says, looking up at him. “What things? What would you see that I could have missed?”
“Please,” the policeman says. His hand is on her shoulder again.
Across the yard the gate pushes open, and Liz jumps up from the trampoline, ready to run and scoop up her child. It doesn’t even matter where she’s been. She won’t even ask. But it’s only Chris coming through the gate and he’s alone, his thick shoulders leading him into the yard. He’s moving so slowly, Liz thinks as she sits back on the trampoline, too slowly; Jenna is still missing and here they both are in the backyard, as if they’re about to have a cookout or run the lawn-mower, as if their daughter will just find herself.
“Mrs. Elliot,” the policeman says as Chris comes toward them. “My partner’s going to start organizing a grid-search, but first I’d like to look through the house, see if maybe there’s something there that you’ve missed.”
Liz nods. Is this protocol? Is it normal for him to look through the house? He’ll see the mess in Jenna’s bedroom, and the kitchen—it’s still smoky, it smells like burnt baking, and the sink is full of dishes. She looks up, but it’s Chris standing beside her now, and the policeman is already pulling open the screen door.
“I asked everybody,” Chris says. “Caroline’s still out there, and so are the Rios, and Marcy Linden is driving over to the pool.”
“Did you check the park? Did you look up the tunnel slides?”
Chris nods, and then he puts his face in his hands. “What happened, Liz?” He’s sobbing, muffling his voice with his hands. “How did you lose her?”
She pushes herself up from the trampoline, staggers across the yard to the house, into the kitchen. It’s not even five o’clock and the last tray of cookies went into the oven at 3:46. Liz remembers that now. She was going to check them at 3:53, maybe give them one more minute. She’s only been gone an hour, just an hour, there are still so many places to look, so many places a child could disappear to for an hour. The policeman is coming through the living room, and he’s taken off his glasses, and his eyes are big and clear. “I’m just trying to think,” he says. “Does she still take naps? My girls do, when they’re going through growth spurts or if they’re getting sick.”
Liz nods. “Growth spurts.”
“Well, sometimes,” he says, “my eight-year-old, Mara, she falls asleep in the strangest places, like she’s just too tired to make it to her bed.”
“I’ve looked,” Liz says, but she’s already heading toward the stairs. It’s still a mess up in Jenna’s room, but Liz yanks the blankets off the bed, pulls open the closet. Just shoes and princess costumes and party dresses, a plastic bin of toys Chris keeps forgetting to take to the Goodwill.
She hears the screen door slam downstairs and thinks the policeman must have gone back outside, but instead it’s Chris’s voice calling her name. “Liz!” he’s saying, “we found her!” It comes slowly, but there’s no joy, just fear in his voice and something else there too. She’s down the stairs in seconds but he’s not in the kitchen and Jenna isn’t either. In the driveway the red-haired policeman is on his radio. “What’s happening?” she screams, running around the side of the house into the backyard, and there, at the back of the yard near the Junipers that need to be trimmed is Jenna, and she’s lying still in the grass, and her head is in Chris’s lap.
“They’re calling an ambulance,” Chris says, his eyes on Jenna’s face. “She’s breathing, but Liz—” he jerks his head toward the Junipers, and Liz bends low, where the bottom branches have formed a sort of cave against the fence, a hollowed-out area that’s probably full of spider webs, a bed of dry twigs and dirt—“Liz, there’s your stuff in there. Your pills, you know? Liz, she must have taken some.”
On her belly, Liz scoots farther into the cave—how could she not have seen this was here? There are little plastic bowls and a pile of pinecones, seed pods, the heads of tulips she must have plucked from the window boxes, and a single-serving yogurt container. There’s a mixing bowl full of sand and two shiny spoons lying side by side. A little laboratory under this bush at the back of the yard, a concoction cave. Near the pinecone pile is one of Liz’s brown bottles of Valium, the top set neatly in the dirt, three yellow pills lined up in a row.
She crawls out of the cave and the policeman with his glasses is looking at her and Jenna’s head is in Chris’s lap. Liz looks across the yard, at the garden over by the gate. She hasn’t watered the garden today, and the careful rows of her tomato plants, the little Sweet Millions, are burning and shimmering; they’ve sucked the water out of the air. It’s too soon to hear the ambulance coming toward their street, but still there’s something shrieking—something shrill and airless, just shrieking, out there in the yard.
Isabelle Brock is an instructor and writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. She is currently at work on her first novel. She spends much of her time pursuing Vitamin D.