“Isn’t that the bag dad uses for his guns?”
“No, it’s an ordinary bag,” Carrie said, “like yours.”
Emma had her own new pink bag with the large Japanese letters slung over her shoulder, so it was obvious that she was going over to Mika, probably to try again to make a positive impression on the new smart girl in class.
Emma nodded at the bed again. “It looks like dad’s bag.”
Carrie adjusted her ear ring, even though she had already done it. But at least she had somewhere to put her hands. “I’m going shopping. Is there anything special you want for dinner, sweetie?”
“Dinner?” Emma still tripped in the doorway to her parents’ bedroom, staring at the big black bag her mother had on the bed.
“Yes, is there anything you want?”
“Er, for dinner?” Emma repeated as if her mother had asked her about the site of an alien landing.
“Yes, I was thinking about fries and chicken … ”
“We had that yesterday.”
“Oh, right.” Carrie left the earring alone and pretend she was all clear. “Well, your brother likes it so no harm in having it again.”
Emma smiled briefly. “I think I will eat over at Mika’s … if you don’t mind?”
“The rest of us will certainly miss your excellent company, but we will try to manage.” Carrie was about to say something more, but it was already too late.
“Okay. Bye now!” And away she was. Carrie could hear the stair groaning in protest as Emma flew down to the front door, like a soldier to battle.
Carrie hooked up in the straps of the black bag and felt its weight. It didn’t feel like going off to battle, although perhaps it should. The bag was there, but it did not feel it belonged to her.
Her summer dress with the knee-length skirt—that belonged to her, even if she’d rather have a newer one. Her sandals that were a little too tight, and which she had to replace soon. A whiff of nail polish, deodorant, lipstick, all familiar. All belonged to her. She had just dressed for shopping, after all. But she did not feel like it.
She felt like an intruder in her own life. And it wasn’t the first time. She wondered if it would make a difference what was in the bag or that she was going to give it to Jenna, before going anywhere near Costco. In fact, she felt no appetite at all …
After a moment of hesitation, Carrie heaved the bag up once more, felt the strap bite into her naked shoulder but ignored it. She listened instead. There were the expected sounds. Michael was playing his games. This time it was strategy-something. And he was well into his own autistic world, as usual. He probably wouldn’t notice if she knocked on his door, anyway.
She went out, to do what she had to do.
Emma watched her mom walk over to the car, heels click-clacking on the sun-cracked cement that made for a driveway to their small house.
She was in her usual hide-out behind Mr. Taylor’s fence, which he luckily never got around to replacing. The old planks had long since come apart as rain and sun had done their job, each season, and it was easy to find an opening wide enough to look through, but not wide enough to be seen. Or at least she reckoned so.
Mr. Taylor himself was at the nursing home, looking after his wife, as usual. Or at least she reckoned so.
There were a lot of routines in Emma’s world that she depended on to get by and crazy as it sounded one of the routines was that she knew her mother’s dark moods well enough to be able to predict fairly well, when Carrie would be angry or just distant. Emma also knew when to look out for worse things. Her father had had a long conversation about that one night when Carrie had been at her friend, Jenna’s, with some other of her friends.
That conversation had frightened Emma, and she had felt crushingly alone, and her father as usual had kind of left it there and didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it again, although she desperately needed to.
Her mother started the car and it pulled out onto the street and then quickly disappeared between the boxes that went for houses in their suburb. She didn’t make the usual turn at the end, so Emma knew she wasn’t going into town. She was heading out of it. The only person in eastern Yuma that Emma knew her mom knew was Jenna Banks. Otherwise there was nothing for her there.
The sun was in the sky, as it was so often here in Arizona, but it felt cold.
Emma pulled her phone from her Japanese bag and called Mika.
“Look, I can’t come over now.”
“What?” Mika sounded both disappointed and a bit like it was what she had expected. “Not again!”
Emma bit her lip. “I’m really sorry. It’s mom. She’s gone over to a friend, I think, but something is wrong.”
“Last time you thought your mom would kill herself, she went to a barbecue party.” Emma could hear Mika chewing gum, and … someone else in the background. Were there other girls from her class? Mika had said that tonight was ‘their night’.
“It’s not her this time. I think she might kill … I don’t know.” Emma stalled. She couldn’t say it. And it was crazy, wasn’t it? The only clue she had was dad’s black bag. But it had looked … heavy.
“You think she’ll go on a shooting spree?” Mika’s voice became serious, all of a sudden. “Is that what you are saying?”
“I don’t know what I am saying … ” Emma felt something in her stomach, like acid. It was eating away at her insides. “I don’t know, I’m just worried. She has had a lot of arguments with Jenna recently.”
“Maybe you should call your dad. Isn’t he a police man?” Mika chewed the gum again. “I want to help. Tell me if I can do anything.”
“I’ll call my dad. It’s probably all right. She hasn’t been doing pills or booze or anything … ” Emma hung up, but the acid was still there and it was spreading.
It was that feeling that she had had more and more often. It was both acrid and ice cold at the same time, and it nailed her to the spot.
She couldn’t move. She felt her heart beat faster and she had trouble breathing. Doctor Maryam had called it anxiety attacks and had given her some pills, too, but the only pills Emma could think of was the ones she knew her mother sometimes had in her drawer. The ones against depression. Had she taken them recently? Were they enough?
Despite what she had told Mika, she really didn’t know if her mother had been skipping her pills or if she had been drinking again or anything else. It was easier to keep an eye on mom due to COVID 19, of all things, because they had been home so much, but on the other hand, it wasn’t as if Emma could survey the attic or the bedroom 24/7. Emma suspected mom already knew that she was sometimes watching her.
She finally tore herself loose of the cold and started walking down the street, her pink bag bopping at her hip. She was only 15 but it felt like she had already spent whatever life had been allotted to her. She wanted to go over to Mika’s and have fun and watch those series they had talked about, because Mika and her brother had both Netflix and HBO.
But instead she got on her bike and began half-heartedly cycling east, towards the Foothills where she knew Jenna lived. She wrestled with the question.
Should I call dad?
There could be a million reasons her mother had borrowed that bag. It was one of the biggest they had. Maybe her mother would go to Costco on her way back? Maybe her mother thought it was none of Emma’s business that she was going to Jenna’s first? Maybe she wasn’t going to Jenna’s but somewhere else?
Emma knew it was stupid to continue biking. She had to do something. Stop and call. Decide this was normal and ignore it. Go back to talk to Michael. But as long as she was biking at least she felt she had direction, as crazy as it was.
If only she felt that her own life in general was heading in some kind of direction. A direction that gave you hope. Not one that made you feel like you were driving towards a deep dark tunnel that nobody knew the length of.
Perhaps one that never ended.
Then the thought struck her.
If mom really wanted to do something crazy, she would have left a note, right? That’s what they always do.
It was pretty absurd, but the thought gave Emma what she needed. Hope and another direction. She went back to the house to search for a sign, some indication. Then she would call her father.
I might be ten thousand times too late … but I have to do this right.
The doctor said she should always think twice. Think about what really could have happened. The possibilities. Not just the worst-case scenario. If only the latter wasn’t so hard.
For a moment, she considered calling mom. It would be the obvious thing to do. Except that her mom would probably lie, as she had done so often before. No, not lie. Lie was a bad word. More like her mom was always hiding, not telling her how she really felt.
Emma went to the bedroom. There was nothing.
Then she went to the locker in the basement where her father kept his guns. It was locked. But her mother knew where the key was. She knocked on the locker. It sounded as if there was something inside. She tried moving it a little bit. It felt heavy, as usual. There was definitely something inside. Yet, her father had many guns …
She couldn’t stand it any longer. She went upstairs to get a better signal for her cell phone and began punching her dad’s number. She wondered if she should take the extra pills, Dr. Maryam had prescribed for ‘difficult situations’, but she wanted to call first.
Then she saw the note in the hallway.
It had to have fallen out of mom’s purse. No, it looked crumpled, like she had thrown it away. She sometimes did that with the strangest of things in the strangest of places. Once her mom had left an entire Happy Meal on the pavement, because she had decided she wasn’t hungry, and then went home to cook late. It had been one of the bad days, so nobody had said anything about how hungry they were and things had dissolved into workable normalcy the next day.
Emma picked up the note. It said: