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Fiction

Oversite

“It doesn’t hurt, Gram,” Renata says. My sixteen-year-old daughter pulls up her t-shirt sleeve to show her bare arm, the skin summer brown and the muscle swelling slightly into smooth biceps, flawless. “I had it done when I was little and see, you can’t even tell.”

My mother is sitting in the little examining room at the assisted living complex. Everything is white and hospital-like but there’s no examining couch. There’s just a desk, a little white table with two chairs and a scale. The doctor, a woman I don’t know, is sitting in the other chair. My mother is bewildered, her face turned up toward me. She’s got Alzheimer’s.

“It’s okay, Mom,” I say.

She wants to understand, I can see that. So I explain again. “It’s an implant that will let them know where you are, and how you are. It won’t hurt.”

Her eyes water constantly, now. In the time it takes me to explain, she grasps and loses the words, grasps and loses phrases as they go past.

She looks at me and then at Renata, who is smiling, and finally submits uncomprehendingly. We have worn her down. The doctor bares my mother’s arm, where the crepey flesh hangs loosely on the bones. The doctor swabs her upper arm with antiseptic and says, “I’m going to give you something to numb it, okay?” To me, the doctor says in her normal voice, “It’s just a little lidocaine.” I don’t like the doctor, but I don’t know why. She is no-nonsense. She has professional hair, lightly streaked. This is no reason to dislike her.

My mother winces at the injection and is surprised again. She looks up at me, at Renata. We are smiling, both of us.

“Okay,” my mother says. What is okay? I have no idea.

We wait for a few minutes.

My mother says, “Is it time to go?”

“Not yet,” I say. “They’re going to give you an injection.”

“What?” my mother says.

“They’re going to implant a chip. It will help them take care of you.”

I try to say it every time as if it was the first time I said it. I don’t want to embarrass her. Her head swings around, from Renata to me to the doctor and then back to Renata.

“It’s okay, Gram,” Renata says.

“Renata,” my mother says.

The doctor has an injection gun and while my mother is focused on my daughter, she puts it firmly against my mother’s arm and puts the chip in.

“Oh!” says my mother.

It’s another low-grade moment of horror, but I think about that particular time with my mother because Renata was there and we were united, she and I. So that’s a good memory. I come back to it a lot. In the background, shining, is Renata, who is young and healthy and good, raising her arm to show her grandmother that the chip is nothing, nothing at all.

The last two nights I have dreamed of dogs in trouble. I don’t dream about Renata, although when the dreams wake me up, it’s thinking about Renata that keeps me awake. The first night, I dreamed of seeing a stray dog and not stopping to pick it up although it was wandering in an empty parking lot near a busy road. That was the first night Renata didn’t come home and it doesn’t take Freud to figure out what that meant. Seventeen-year-olds sleep on friends’ couches, I know. Or Renata might be sleeping in her car.

The second night, I dreamed that I was on a desert island and Sonia, our Golden Retriever, was with me. There was some horrible fate impending for Sonia and I had to kill her before something worse happened. I laid her down on some sticks. She trusts me, she’s more my dog than anyone’s, and she didn’t like it, but for me she laid there. In my dream, I told her, “Stay, Sonia. Stay.”

She stayed because I held her there by looking at her, the way you can sometimes will a dog into submission. She stayed while I lit the fire. And then the horror of it all hit me and I said, “Sonia, up!”

And I woke up.

That was last night, the second night Renata didn’t come home.

• • • •

Today is Tuesday and on Tuesdays I drive from work to the nursing home where my mother is. I go to see her Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday, and even though she doesn’t know what day it is or what days I visit, I think maintaining the pattern is important.

It’s a nice place. The hallways are carpeted, and there is none of the clatter and echo, the institutionalization I associate with nursing homes. It’s more like a hotel near the freeway, the kind that includes breakfast in the lobby. My mom’s room has her own furniture from her condo—her gold couch, her bed, her little dinette table, the white ceramic angel that sat on an end table. She got the angel in a Christmas gift swap with her bridge club, but she thinks it’s something inherited, antique.

“Clara,” she says when she sees me. “What are you doing here?”

For a moment, everything seems normal.

“Hi, Mom,” I say. “I came to see you.”

She leans forward and whispers, “Take me home.”

“Okay,” I say. My mother wanders. She tries to get away. That’s why they implanted the chip. It’s called a Digital Angel and it monitors her blood pressure and temperature and has a GPS so that at the reception desk they can track her. When she was living at her condo, the police found her in her nightgown and a pair of black high-heeled shoes, carrying an empty pocketbook, walking down Ashleigh Drive. It was five in the morning. When I picked her up at the police station, her bare ankles almost broke my heart.

“Where’s Renata?” she asks. She thinks Renata is still eight.

“She’s at home,” I say.

My mother frowns. She has an inkling she’s missing something. She doesn’t really know anymore that she has Alzheimer’s, but sometimes she knows something is wrong. That she is disappearing. Plaque filling up the interstitial spaces between her neurons, her brain like Swiss cheese filled with fibrous mold. “She’s with the babysitter,” she says.

“Renata is seventeen now,” I say brightly, as if it were utterly normal that nine years had been absorbed into the fungus. And of course, Renata isn’t home. I don’t know where Renata is.

My mother purses her lips. She senses I’m lying. Sometimes she makes the connections, and sometimes she is fiercely there, fully firing. She looks at me, her pale eyes bright, her Einstein hair flaring around her head. She leans forward. My smile is fixed on my face.

“Take me home,” she whispers.

• • • •

We got a Digital Angel for Renata when she was nine. There had been a rash of abductions, another summer of disappearing girls. Matt and I knew that statistically she was in more danger in our car. But while I was getting ready for work in the morning, I got into the habit of switching on Court TV, and there was a trial going on of a man who had abducted a girl. He lived in a camper. He was fiftyish, balding, and had a handlebar moustache like some character actor in a realistic Western. I would get into the shower, and when I got out, I would dry off and come back into the bedroom, and absently pat Sonia the Golden Retriever lying on the foot of the bed hoping not to be thrown off. On the television, they would be talking about there being no body. About how hard that would make it to convict him. About the girl’s palm print found on the wall above his bed. I would picture her, leaning her weight for a moment to steady herself.

So I told Matt I was going to do it, and he agreed. Matt is such a softy. I told him on the phone, and I heard him sigh softly, relieved. Relieved that I had made the decision that we both wanted but both knew was a little foolish. We agreed it was foolish, but it wasn’t expensive, only about a hundred dollars, so why not?

I could track her on the computer on DigitalAngelMap.com. It’s a street map, zoom in, zoom out, like the ones for driving directions, only Renata shows up on it as a yellow triangle. While I was at work, I could plug in her number and my password and see the yellow triangle that was Renata at 2216 Gary—the house of Kerry, her best friend. I left it up on my computer, running in the background, while I talked on the phone or did columns in spreadsheets. I’m a planner. I order parts for manufacture. Planning is an inexact science, a kind of art. If I have too many parts ordered, then money is sitting around as inventory—costing us space. If I order the parts too slow, and we run out, then the assembly line shuts down, and that’s even worse.

When I took Renata to the doctor’s to get the chip implanted, she sat on the examining table, frightened, while the doctor swabbed her arm to give her the lidocaine. I held her there with my eyes, the way I could sometimes hold Sonia, the Golden Retriever.

Renata did not cry out. She only flinched.

• • • •

There is no trace of Renata on DigitalAngelMap.com. We were arguing. I told her to be in by eleven and she said she’d try and I said trying wasn’t good enough. It escalated from there. She told me, “You watch! You watch your computer! One minute I’ll be there and the next I won’t! You won’t know where I am and that will kill you!”

The kids wrap metal tape around their arms to cut off the signal. I knew that. I didn’t know she did it.

Matt says, “Should we call the police? Report her as missing? As a runaway?”

I say, “She’ll be eighteen in five months. What would we do then?”

“Don’t we want to send a message?” he asks. “Let her know we take this seriously?”

“I think she has to come back herself,” I say.

“I think we should get the police,” he says.

“But won’t they arrest her? She could end up in some sort of juvenile detention place. Or have a record. What if Keith has something in the car?” We think they smoke pot. We’ve discussed it.

“I’m going to make some calls,” he says. “I’m going to call Kerry, and then Keith’s aunt.”

“Okay,” I say, although I don’t expect anything. Kerry and Renata have been drifting apart—Kerry on track for college, Renata going . . . wherever it is that Renata is going.

Matt gets in the car and drives around. He calls me from the park to tell me she’s not there.

• • • •

Renata has a boyfriend, Keith. Keith is short and skinny and has three lines branded beneath his lower lip, radiating like the rays of a sun. We won’t let Renata get branded, tattooed, or pierced. Keith shaved his head for a while, but now he’s letting his hair grow. Matt remarked one time, “Have you ever noticed how Keith always needs something?”

That was the evening Keith needed a jump for his car. Matt stood out on the driveway, dressed in his business casual (Matt is an engineer) and hooked up the jumper cables, talking amiably with Keith, while Renata sat on the front steps with her bare arms crossed over her knees and her chin on her forearms, staring at nothing. Renata had dyed her hair black a week before. She was wearing a pair of men’s pants, suit pants, charcoal gray. As far as I could tell, she had stopped wearing underwear.

I don’t think there’s a day in my life when I haven’t worn underwear.

When she dyed her hair black, she challenged me, “Are you going to tell me I can’t dye my hair?”

“No,” I said. “You can dye your hair any color you want. You can shave it off if you want.” I hoped that by telling her she could shave it off, she wouldn’t. But Matt and I had decided she could do anything temporary—just nothing permanent—no tattoos, piercings, or brands.

It is a phase, adolescent rebellion, the process of separation. I want to blame Keith, of course. Renata got all “A’s” and “B’s” all the way through middle school. Now she’s getting an “A” in art and “C’s” and “D’s” in everything else.

Renata is getting an “A” in art, despite the fact that she doesn’t even bother to do some of the projects. Mr. Vennemeyer, her young art teacher, just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Of all the people I’ve taught, only Renata is a real artist.” When she was fifteen, he started an Art Club where he taught her to stretch canvas, prime it, and choose colors for the ground. Other kids do sculpture and collage and work with the kiln. Renata paints. Every so often she gets interested in something he assigns, and does a 3-D maze or a collage, but mostly she paints.

She paints in our basement. I buy her oils and canvas and stretchers. Matt doesn’t know how much I’ve spent on tubes of Windsor and Newton oils. “How can you paint in the basement?” I ask. “Don’t you need more light?”

She shrugs. “I need space,” she says. She and Keith are down there for hours, music playing quietly on her dad’s old boom box. I’ve gone down often enough to make sure and I never have the sense that they are doing anything. No hurry, no dishevelment. Just Renata painting and Keith sitting in a ratty old armchair they found set out for the garbage.

Matt doesn’t go down in the basement. His workbench and tools are in the garage. I go down for something now and then—boxes for Christmas gifts, or glasses stored down there. I shouldn’t look at Renata’s paintings. They’re hers. There is something private about them. But I do.

“Come downstairs,” I say to Matt on the second night Renata is gone.

He comes down with me and we stand with our arms around each other’s waists while he looks at Renata’s paintings.

Renata paints pictures of girls hit by cars. There are always four paintings: the moment when the girl is struck, the girl sliding across the hood or against the windshield, the girl in the air, and the girl crumpled on the ground. Renata has all sorts of photos stuck up on her easel and on the table she uses for her paints. She has pictures of her best friend Kerry. Keith has Kerry around the waist and yanks her backward forcefully—all you can see of Keith are his arms. Renata used Matt’s digital camera. In her first series of girl hit by car, you can see it is based on Kerry.

There are also pictures of cars and car hoods; Matt’s, mine, Keith’s, cars I don’t recognize.

In the first series, the Kerry series, the girl looks awkward, not quite right, except in the painting where she is flying through the air. I think Renata really caught something there.

In the second series, the girl is a black girl who looks around ten. There’s a magazine photo of a black woman falling off a fire escape, and you can see that in the girl in the air. In that series, the best painting is the girl crumpled on the pavement. In the third series, the girl is an enormously fat white girl with red hair. She bobs in the flying-in-the-air painting like a huge pink Macy’s Parade balloon. She has on a red jumper and white anklets and Mary Janes. She doesn’t look frightened. And when she is lying crumpled on the pavement, her haunch is exposed so her white panties show. Her huge thigh is painted pink and smooth as strawberry yogurt.

The one Renata is working on right now is an Amish girl series. She works on them all at once, so they are sitting around in stages. On her easel is the Amish girl being hit by the car. The Amish girl is in gray, with a white bonnet sketched over her hair. She is wearing sneakers. The car is Keith’s car.

“Well,” Matt says slowly. “She’ll have to come back for all this, won’t she. She wouldn’t leave all this.”

I don’t know.

There is a folder, open, full of pictures of girls cut out from magazines, and just visible, the scalloped corner of an old photograph. I reach for it, and Matt says, “Don’t touch that,” but I do anyway. It’s from one of my photo albums. It’s an old black and white picture of a young woman, maybe Renata’s age, wearing a forties-style one-piece bathing suit. She’s soft, and, by today’s standards, a little heavy in the hips, and her bangs make her look something like Bettie Page. The bathing suit is a jazzy number with polka dots. She’s sexy and solid as a pin-up. It’s my mother. I show it to Matt and then take it upstairs with me. He doesn’t say anything.

• • • •

Brenda, one of the aides where my mother lives, left me a voicemail at work that my mother was out of some things—lipstick (Cool Watermelon by Revlon, a strange, overly vivid shade that my mother prefers) and lotion and menstrual pads, because sometimes my mother has a little urinary leakage. It’s Wednesday and I’ll see her Thursday, but I stop on my way home from work and pick things up at the grocery store and drop them off.

I always want to leave right away, so I always make myself sit down and say something to Mom. I touch her a lot, on the arm, on the shoulder. I kiss her cheek sometimes. We were not a huggy family. We’re not as remote as the classic Presbyterian family (my husband says that in moments of great emotion, the men in his family would shake hands), but we don’t touch each other much. My mother seems to like to be touched now, though.

Her phone rings. I can’t think who would call. I call her and tell her I’m coming over, although I have no sign that she remembers. I used to see notes written to herself, CLARA COMING. But not anymore. I pick it up, expecting it to be a telemarketer. It’s Matt.

“Renata called,” he says. “She’s on her way home.”

“Is she all right?” I ask.

“She didn’t say,” he says.

“I’ll be right there.”

My mother is watching me, birdlike. “Where’s Renata?” she asks.

Lost, I want to say. “I don’t know where she is, Mom. She’s run away. She’s seventeen and she’s run away. But she’s on her way home now.”

My mother looks at me and reaches out and covers my hand with hers. Her hand is cool. She searches my face. I think she is together in this moment and I know what she is going to say. It’s what she said to me when Renata was two and I told her that sometimes I was so afraid I would get up in the middle of the night to see if Renata was breathing. She said, “Our children are hostages to the world.”

She pets my hand and then she says, “Take me home.”

• • • •

Our driveway is a bit of an incline. Keith parks at the bottom, the way he always does, and Matt and I stand at the door, watching. The car sits for a long moment, while Renata and Keith are apparently talking. Then the doors open and Renata gets out and comes up the driveway, head down, leaning forward against the slope. She’s wearing plumber’s tape around her upper arm. Keith gets out and leans up against the door of his car, arms crossed across his chest.

I gasp and Matt says, “Oh shit.” Keith’s lip is split and his face is bruised all down one side, swelling now so that one eye is half closed.

Renata doesn’t look back at him, doesn’t say anything to us, just goes in the house.

Matt goes down the driveway and I know what he is asking. Are you all right? he is asking. Do you want me to go with you to the emergency room? But Keith is shaking his head.

I follow Renata inside. “Have you had anything to eat?” I ask. I hear the door behind me, Matt coming in.

“We stopped at McDonald’s,” Renata says. She tried to be vegetarian for a week or two, but she’s a carnivore. Even as a baby, Renata would choose steak over ice cream.

“So where did you go?” Matt asks her.

“Some guy Keith knows has a friend who has a trailer. He uses it for fishing or something. Out near Sandusky.” I can imagine the trailer, low and mean and narrow. The story comes out in little bits, and before much of it has come out, Renata is crying. The guy who owns the trailer is named Don, and he showed up there today. He was high on something, Renata thinks maybe crack.

“He’s missing a bunch of teeth,” she says, “and I can’t understand him when he talks.” She is crying in the way that is almost like hiccoughing. “So I kept smiling and nodding my head like I knew what he was talking about but I was afraid I was nodding my head at the wrong times or something.

“And then he got mad at Keith, I don’t know why. And he got all ugly and he, like, winged this ashtray at Keith and it hit him in the head and they started fighting and then Keith and I got out of the house and he said he was going to get his gun and we were out in the middle of nowhere and I was so scared and we ran to Keith’s car. While we were trying to back out his crappy driveway, he shot at us and he hit the back of Keith’s car. There’s a hole in the trunk. We kept backing up really fast, and his driveway is really long. It’s just these two ruts, not even gravel or anything.”

We are sitting on the couch and, at seventeen, she almost crawls into my lap. I stroke her hair, coarse with black dye.

We ground her, of course.

“Here’s the deal,” I say. “I’ll take you to the doctor and get the chip taken out. But you’ve got to do your part. You’ve got to tell us where you’re going and what you’re doing.”

She is subdued and listens without agreeing or disagreeing.

Matt and I lecture, even if we know it is the worst thing to do. How can we not? All our feelings spill out in warnings. She’s got to straighten up. She’ll be eighteen in five months, and she’s got to make some decisions. If we’re going to help her go to art school, she’s got to get her grades up. And on, and on.

Her dad goes to the bathroom and I take the photo of my mother out of my purse. I slide it toward her on the coffee table.

She frowns at it, and looks up at me, puzzled.

“You can have it,” I say. “But please don’t paint her being hit by a car. I couldn’t stand it.”

She covers her mouth with her hand, thinking. What words are trapped behind that hand?

Then she nods and says softly, “Okay, Mom.”

• • • •

At two that morning, I wake up, frightened from some dream. I lie in bed and catalogue my sins; obsessive, insufficiently understanding, self-absorbed. Then I get up and call up DigitalAngelMap.com. First I put in Renata’s code, which I know by heart. The yellow triangle is steady on our street. I watch it a long time. Sonia climbs the steps. I can hear her. She’s an old dog now and she has arthritis. She comes into the extra bedroom where we keep the computer and lies down and sighs.

I put in my mother’s code. As soon as I start typing it, I am gripped by the deep conviction, the premonition that my mother is out wandering around.

But the triangle is right where it should be, unmoving. I turn off the computer and then step over the dog and turn out the light, step blindly back over the dog and sit in the chair. The dark and stillness spread around me, blanketing the house and the street. The cars are silent and still and the girls are all safe in their beds.

Maureen F. McHugh

Maureen McHughMaureen F. McHugh was born in what was then a sleepy, blue collar town in Ohio called Loveland. She went to college in Ohio, and then graduate school at New York University. She lived a year in Shijiazhuang, China. Her first book, Tiptree Award winner China Mountain Zhang was published in 1991. Since then she has written three novels and a well received collection of short stories, Story Prize finalist Mothers & Other Monsters. McHugh has also worked on alternate reality games for Halo 2, The Watchmen, and Nine Inch Nails. She lives in Los Angeles, where she has attempted to sell her soul to Hollywood.