Pink plaid Bermudas, strawberry glossed lips, a shock of electric lemon flip flops not yet greyed with use. Tina May storms down the beach, her sandals flap-flapping against her callused heels, sand flying everywhere. All around her it is grey, and the air is thick with summer pollen and the whine of cicadas.
She’s on a crash course for Victor, roll the r. She’s heading straight toward him where he lies on a towel, greasy with coconut oil and sweat and sea spray. His skin has a bright sheen that she couldn’t help but notice when she pulled into the parking lot of the beach-side bar, a cold beer on her mind.
Her daughter is missing. The very thought of it makes her stomach clench, her throat tighten, her mouth go sour with bile. Her daughter is missing but the police say she’s just run away, will be back so soon, girls her age do this all the time don’t you worry. Tina May doesn’t trust a damned one of them, those pudgy, plodding men in their too tight uniforms and too shined shoes. For days, she ran around in a haze, every person she saw a fleshy mess of features, all unidentifiable. And then it all snapped into focus; there he was, there was Victor.
She saw him from the parking lot and her hands slid off the steering wheel, her jaw fell open. He was there, right in front of her, sunning like a model without a care in the world and she knew, she knew it was him. Victor, with his lank blonde hair and curated tan. Victor with his beater car, its roaring engine, his late curfew. Victor, who dated Genevieve for all of two weeks before the 20-year-old went missing, and now Tina May understands that he must have her daughter locked in his basement, he must have gone crazy when Genevieve tried to break up with him or asked him to slow down or said she didn’t want to get ice cream so late at night.
When Victor glances up, he beams, then glowers. Tina May knows for a moment he thinks she’s Genevieve. Those shorts, those flip flops, all Walmart bought. Tina May purchased them because she needed to have the exact outfit Genevieve was last seen in, needed to approach people saying, “She looks just like me, just like me,” fingering her blonde hair, panting with desperation, batting away hands as voices tell her Genevieve will come back soon.
Tina May stops in front of Victor with a spray of hot, bright sand that lands on his back and sticks there. Even after he sits up. Even after he says, “What the fuck?” and tries to brush it off. Across the beach, stragglers turn from their backs to their stomachs and lower their glasses, put down their books. The air is close and sizzling, and from somewhere over the Atlantic, thunder grumbles.
She purses her lips, moves them back and forth across her face as if she is uncertain how to wiggle her nose. The freckles there dance. The lip gloss smears and clumps. She spits in his face – a sad attempt at spitting, but saliva on his cheek nonetheless - then she's stalking back up the beach, flip flops linked through her fingers, to a soundtrack of crashing waves and screaming gulls.
Genevieve is found after five days, calves splattered with mud, hair unbrushed, feet swollen.
Tina May is beside herself. She howls at the sky and claws at her ribs, her sides raked and raw. She flutters from window to window in her home, fingers twitching the curtains back and forth so she can see, then hide, the outside world.
Genevieve sits on the couch with her lips tight, ignoring her mother's screams of how could you, why did you, how dare you. She is not allowed to shower until she explains her actions, but Tina May eventually relents because the sight of her filthy daughter is too much. Tina May can’t help but wonder if a corpse might have looked the same.
When Tina May manages to drag her freshly bathed daughter to the police station, the men there smile and nod. We were right, of course, their smiles say, we told you so, crazy woman.
And right they were. The girl walked five miles to the next town over and hitchhiked from the visitors’ center there. To each person, she told a different story. She was going to visit her dying grandmother. She was going to visit her dying brother. Her car broke down a state back and she was returning to college early for band practice.
Genevieve stares at the officers with eyes like planets. She tries not to pick at the itchy pad of the seat she is sitting in. She implores them, begs them to take her seriously. Genevieve tells the police, tells Tina May, that she met good, honest people; any one of them would have driven her straight to California if they had the time and gas money. They bought her cold Cokes and hot burgers, let her charge her phone in their cars, they let her change the radio station.
The police chuckle and pat her hand. Tina May tells Genevieve there are no more good people in this world, and mother and daughter wear identical expressions of irritation at this comment.
I just wanted to go to Hollywood, says Genevieve.
You're too old for such fantasies, says Tina May.
We’re so glad this is all cleared up, say the police officers.
For Genevieve and Victor, it is summer afresh, and they exist as a tangle of limbs and swimsuits. Victor tells Genevieve he kissed another girl while he was gone, and when she laughs, he knows that all is forgiven. The pair roll around in the high grasses off the beach, lips sweet with peach schnapps, and over and over Genevieve tells the fluid story of her adventure while Victor’s fingers trace her salty, burnt skin.
After a long day of jumping over waves and drinking vodka hidden in water bottles, Victor comes over for dinner. Tina May is furious but keeps her bubbling rage tight inside. In a way, Tina May thinks, she was right. Victor might not have kidnapped her daughter, but he is responsible for her daydreams. He coaxes them out of her and feeds them, feeds on them. Unable to resist the tiger-like stalk of her movements, he filmed her. He trained the camera on her for hours and hours on weekends, and then tied the shots together and called it a day. “Music videos,” Genevieve explained when Tina May asked, “for his rap career.” And while he really can't rap, he knows how to catch the twilight sun in Genevieve's hair, across her jaw and clavicle, her bare feet on uneven concrete, her fingers wrapped around metal fencing.
For dinner, Tina May lets the anger seep through her fingers, possess her wooden spoon, her frying pan, take over the entirety of her kitchen. She overcooks the steaks, under-mashes the potatoes. She lets the Brussels sprouts crisp, then burn in the pan. When the fire alarm begins to blast, she stabs at it with a broom handle until it breaks and stops, all while thinking of Victor and his camera.
She serves the blackened meal on paper plates that she floods with juice and grease until they sag. She says an elaborate and long prayer before they eat, and then sprinkles everything with holy water, Victor included. He blinks, stutters out an amen, glances at Genevieve and her pursed lips for instruction, but she’s already eating.
While he shovels steak into his mouth, Tina May watches to see if his skin will bubble and burn.
Tina May works during the day, Genevieve during the evenings. When it's dark and she is alone, Tina May slinks into her daughter's room and runs her fingers over all the soft surfaces. Bedspread, curtains, piles and piles of pillows. She keeps inventory of these things, stores them in her heart.
The bedroom was pale pink once, then soft green; now it is a color called Consuming Cream, a name Tina May hates. The room smells as if no one has ever lived in it, a combination of cleaning supplies, the still lingering scent of paint, fresh air through the always open window. The posters have long since been taken down, all replaced with Victor's photos of Genevieve.
Above the bed, a shot of the ocean, Genevieve standing distant and center, effervescent in a gauzy white robe. By the window, a trio of painfully close shots of her face: the curve of her ear gliding into the slope of her jaw, the collection of freckles on her left temple fading to the gloss of her hairline, her dry and chewed lips parted in breath.
Tina May averts her eyes from these, keeps her gaze on the white shag carpet. She wiggles her toes and grinds her heels down to root herself in the space.
Across the room, Genevieve's closet is open just a crack, and from within spills the mess of all her clothing. Tina May can't help but pull back the accordion door and begin sorting: dirty and clean, hang up and fold. At the bottom of the hamper are the Bermudas and the thin white tank top, identical to those hanging in Tina May's closet. She fingers the top, can smell the days of escape on it, and then glances at the piles of clothes surrounding her. Denim pants and jackets, a denim vest, t-shirts in shades and blues. The Bermudas are the only pop of color Genevieve owns, and Tina May sees just how easy it would be to have the whole wardrobe, to always be prepared, just in case.
Tina May keeps a list of all the new clothes Genevieve buys. She visits the same stores and buys the same pieces, and if the item is sold out, she finds something identical online. Tina May wears the same outfits as Genevieve, but always a day later, so that Genevieve's Monday and Tina May's Tuesday are equally nautical in denim and thin blue and white stripes.
Consequently, Genevieve looks older, Tina May younger. Consequently, Genevieve sighs loudly, slams doors, but Tina May is always ready, just in case.
More and more often, Victor spends the night. At first, Tina May raged in protest, took away privileges while Genevieve rolled her eyes and recited "Mom, I'm an adult," like a spell. And perhaps it was, perhaps it worked, because here is Victor sprawled out shirtless on the couch, his arm draped over his Vee-Vee, and Genevieve's head is tipped over the edge of the couch in sleep. The TV is still on; a trio of men are screaming into the darkness, asking asylum ghosts to talk to them. The light of this flickers, illuminating the living room, as Tina May stands in the kitchen watching, just in case.
Tina May makes a plan. She does this at night, long after everyone she knows is asleep. She does this sitting on her back porch, listening to the faintest whispers of the ocean. She does this only when the light in Genevieve’s bedroom is off, when she can hear her daughter snoring through the open window.
Her plan spirals out of control sometimes – she considers, occasionally, just locking Genevieve in her bedroom, putting bars on her window, getting some sort of GPS tracker implanted in her gums – but she learns to control it.
If Genevieve disappears again, Tina May must call in sick at work. She will do this by holding her nostrils almost shut to alter her voice. Once that is complete, she will go to her bedroom, take out whatever outfit it is that Genevieve was wearing, and put it on. She allows herself three minutes for this task. When those three minutes have passed, she will run out the door while calling the police, she will get in her car while calling the police, she will start her car will explaining to the police what has happened, and she will hang up after she has explained, as she will have no time for their insulting questions. She will then drive around town looking for her daughter, stopping at gas stations and restaurants saying, “Look out for a girl who looks like me, like me but 20 years younger,” and she’ll hand out sticky notes with her cell phone number on them, notes she has already written.
In this way, she will find her Genevieve before she can make it out of town.
Tina May does not know how she will know that Genevieve has run away. She assumes it will come to her on the wind, like the stench of rotten garbage or dead skunk on the highway. She assumes that she will feel it in her muscles, an electric ping or a great shudder. She assumes she will know.
Time passes. Genevieve stays put. Dinners with Victor become more and more appetizing.
Some nights, Tina May splits a bottle of wine with Genevieve. She says she wants Genevieve to learn to drink in the safety of her own home, but perhaps it’s bribery.
Some nights they stay up, Victor included, and binge watch bloody crime dramas together. When the manic male detective discovers a grown woman has run away, has been murdered, Genevieve glances at her mother. Tina May doesn't blink, doesn't breathe, doesn't stir.
Some nights, over wine, over crime, Genevieve brings up California in a loose manner. She laments wildfires, earthquakes, the rising sea levels. She mentions friends who have made their way west. Tina May nods at these things, agrees that the disasters are disastrous, that the friends are courageous and possibly even destined for fame. Genevieve mentions a savings account and Tina May laughs.
On a bleary Saturday, Tina May is awakened by Genevieve knocking on her bedroom door. Tina May hovers between dream world and reality for a minute, she sees Genevieve as herself, an apparition, and her heart summersaults.
Mom, says Genevieve, mom do you want to go see that musical movie today?
It is only 7 in the morning, Tina May has no idea why either of them are up, but she’s so grateful to be asked.
Victor is not invited to go to the movie.
Tina May and Genevieve take a long weekend trip inland. They leave the briny air and sea shell craft stores behind to see skyscrapers and museums and little restaurants below ground level. They get coffee and stroll around the park in search of live music at Genevieve’s behest. Standing in front of a saxophone player – mud kicked up on the backs of his calves, and Tina May doesn’t even think of what that once would have reminded her of – Genevieve slides her hand into her mother’s, and they whoop and cheer with the rest of the crowd when the song comes to an end.
Mother and daughter agree to meet at the beach for a picnic dinner, wine included.
Genevieve gets up early that morning and tells Tina May she has to stop by the library for Victor. There’s a book he wants to read about photography, but he doesn’t have a library card.
Tina May asks if Victor is maybe abandoning his rap career, and Genevieve blushes when she says “finally.”
Outside the kitchen window, the sky is forget-me-not blue, the clouds thick and slow moving. Tina May is glad to finally see real summer. She plots what meal she’ll make for the picnic as she sips her morning coffee. She should pick up some cheese from the grocery store, arugula for a vinaigrette salad, maybe chicken for chicken salad on croissants, or cream cheese for cucumber sandwiches.
She watches her daughter walk down the sidewalk, large purse for carrying books swaying by her hip. Tina May’s heart swells, watching that girl stride so purposefully down the street, away from her, on into her life wearing bright pink shorts and a white tank top in the aching sunlight.
She doesn’t hear her mug shatter or feel the coffee as it splashes and stains her clear tights. She doesn’t register the crunch of porcelain beneath her heels.
She steadies herself against the wall, pulls in deep breaths like the police officers instructed her to do when she first reported her daughter missing. Her plans are almost forgotten, but they are there, scars that she has to squint at.
The first step is to put on the matching outfit, and she begins ripping off her blazer, tearing at the zipper on the hip of her skirt. No, no, the first step is to call in to work sick, then put on the outfit. Work, outfit, and then her mind hits a wall of fear and rage and disgust and disappointment and she sends a quick text to her boss, sprints up the stairs while ripping off her work clothes, yanks on the shorts and tank top, shoves her feet into the flip flops and rushes out the door, not even bothering to shut it fully.
She forgets to apply the strawberry lip gloss.
When Tina May gets to the foot of her driveway, she can’t find Genevieve. She stands on the hood of her car, but it doesn’t help, so she gets in the car and begins speeding through the residential neighborhood. Already, Tina May is imagining the Hollywood hell hole that Genevieve and Victor will rent; 2,000 or more a month for a bed, a bath and a kitchen above a garage somewhere. She can see Genevieve ignoring the way white grout turns grey, how dust piles and piles on ceiling fans. She can see Genevieve going to audition after audition and getting nowhere. She can see Genevieve landing a small role in a little play, perhaps, and she can see herself hopping on a plane to see this play and finding her daughter thinner and blonder and unhappier than ever before, stretching a smile wider and wider across her ashen face. She can see Victor becoming the kind of man who looks of muscle gone soft, and then having a beer gut, and then screaming at Genevieve whom he never bothered to marry despite Tina May’s wishes. And she can see Genevieve, Genevieve losing her looks and-
She can see Genevieve, there, just two blocks away, standing on the corner with her hips thrust out and her thumb sticking up, an outrageous pout on her face. And she is blonde and long-legged and in the harsh light of a full summer day, the pink of her shorts and the tan of her skin are almost unbearable to look at.
And Tina May can see Victor in his rusted, filthy joke of a car that could never take anyone to Hollywood, could never make it across state lines. And he's rolling down his window, and calling "Hey, good lookin'," and for a moment Tina May knows it's in jest, that they're just flirting, that what she's seeing is innocent. For a moment, she remembers the library, the bag at her daughter’s hip, the abandoning of a rap career for something Victor is actually good at. For a moment, she understands, and then she taps her foot forward just the slightest bit harder.
Later, the police are on the scene, their brows furrowed, their hands on their hips. Later,
the fronts of the two cars are all but interwoven, and Genevieve and Victor are standing tearfully on that same corner, arms crossed, refusing to look at her. Later, Tina May will admit to the officer closest to her that she had no proof that Genevieve was running away again. No, she had no proof at all, just a hunch. Later, she will pick at the bottoms of her shorts as she sits on the curb and notice the blood from a cut on her arm smeared on the pocket. Later, she’ll listen to the wails of the unnecessary ambulance and she'll make a note to buy a new of pink plaid Bermudas, just in case. Now, there is only the crunch, the screams, the shock, fear, then fury in Genevieve’s eyes.
Kathryn Ordiway lives in Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, Francis House, and 805 Lit + Art.