MARIAH DUNNING SAW her missing mother standing on the other side of the crowd.
The food court at the mall—ugh—had been one of their mother-daughter hangouts. Mom endured the food court because Mariah liked it. Mom was particular about what she ate, while Mariah was not—chicken biscuits, Mongolian barbecue, pepperoni pizza, none of which Mom would touch and all of which Mariah would consume and then work off the calories playing basketball. And when Mariah got the summer job during her high school years selling tickets at the movie theater, a back corner booth at the food court was a place where they could meet and share a sacred hour between Mom’s business trips, Mom saying, “Well it’s better than airplane food—I think.”
Mariah had not been to the food court since Mom disappeared. She had been careful to avoid it on the few outings she made to the mall. But she and her father had gone to the Apple Store to buy Mariah a new computer and a new iPhone; it made Dad happy to give her gifts even though she was an adult who could buy her own gear. His gifts were like a hug, sideways, when you didn’t know the depth of the other person’s feelings. The food court wasn’t a place she wanted to be; it made the back of her brain itch, made her feel like she couldn’t sit still. Dad had said, “Let’s get a snack,” and he was trying so hard to make today fun that Mariah didn’t have the heart to say no. But in the middle of the music and the loud conversations Mariah glanced up from her pad thai and she saw her mother. Mariah froze, the chopsticks in her hand, the tangled noodles hanging like a noose.
Her mother had vanished nearly a year ago, and then there she stood, peeking out from behind a sunglasses display at the edge of the food court. Dark glasses, red lipstick, pale skin, even the distinctive twist of scar at the corner of her mouth that could only be Mom’s. For five seconds Mariah couldn’t move, couldn’t make a noise; she felt like she might never speak again. They gazed at each other, like she was in a staring contest with a ghost. Mariah stood, dropping the chopsticks into the bowl.
Her mother retreated behind the display. Gone.
“Mariah?” Dad asked, glancing up at her. “What?”
“Mom is standing right over there.” She pointed, her hand shaking. Dad stared for a moment and then turned.
“That can’t be.”
Mariah started to walk fast. Then to run, threading her way through the maze of tables and diners.
“Mariah?” Dad stood, craning his neck. “Where are you going?”
“I saw her.” Mariah ran, heedless, toward the sunglasses display. She couldn’t see Mom anymore. She shoved past two women, nearly knocking one’s tray of Chinese food over and the other’s milk shake to the floor. “Mom! Mom!”
“Mariah!” Dad calling, low and urgent. Like he didn’t want people to notice. Hurrying in her wake, apologizing to the people Mariah collided with, apologizing to those she dodged. “Mariah, wait.” He made his voice steel, trying to stop her.
“Mom!” she screamed, loud and long, like she could leash her mother with the sound of her voice. Like Mariah was still a child instead of twenty-two years old. She moved fast, but blindly, hardly seeing the people she pushed aside. She circled the sunglasses vendor. Mom was gone. She spoke to the clerk. “There was a woman just here: dark hair, dark coat, scarred mouth. Forties. Where did she go?”
The clerk shrugged. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see her.”
“She was just here!” Mariah’s voice shook as she glanced around.
“I didn’t see her,” the clerk repeated. People were staring, watching. Mariah saw a girl aim a smartphone at her.
Mariah hurried beyond the display, past four other mall carts, out into the wide hub where two wings of the mall came together. Ahead of her was a two-story department store; to her left, a wing of the mall with a bunch of specialty shops; to her right, the ever-busy Apple Store and several smaller stores.
“You didn’t see her,” Dad said, touching her arm, and she flinched away. “Sweetie, if it was her, she wouldn’t have run. You imagined it.”
I didn’t, Mariah thought. She was here. I saw her.
“You didn’t,” Dad said, as if Mariah’s thoughts displayed on her forehead. “Mariah. Let’s go.” A tinge of embarrassment touched his voice. “We don’t need this.”
“What’s your damn problem?” a woman demanded, a spilled chocolate milk shake running down the front of her white blouse. Her eyes were bright with anger.
“She’s so sorry,” Dad said, watching a mall security guard approach. “Please, let me take care of your cleaning bill for that.” He opened his wallet, began to count out twenties. He seemed desperate for them not to be noticed.
“Hey. Haven’t I seen you on TV?” the woman said.
“No,” Dad said. “No.”
Mariah ignored them both. She wanted to see you. She came and looked right at you. No sign of her either to the left or right.So Mariah ran, full tilt, for the department store ahead of her, Dad calling her name in a pitiful bleat.
Mariah tore through the department store, dodging around a woman spraying perfume samples then turning and grabbing her arm. The sample bottle fell and shattered, and the lavender aroma of the French perfume rose hard in the air.
“A woman, black hair, black coat, did you see her go past?”
“Um. I think so. She went out that exit.” The woman pulled away, fright in her eyes.
Mariah ran to the nearby exit, jostling around a woman with a baby stroller, fury and impatience driving her out into a small side parking lot. She scanned the cars.
“Mom!”she screamed. But Mom was gone. She saw a car, the only one pulling out of the lot. Dark blue. Honda. And the car sped away, and was gone.
It must be her. It had to be her.
Mariah ran to her car. Thankful she’d driven, and not Dad, so she already had the keys. She got into the car, jabbing at the ignition, wheeling it backward before she could even get the door shut all the way. In the mirror she saw Dad running toward her, his expression frantic. She powered down the lane, racing out into traffic, narrowly missing an oncoming minivan loaded with a mother and kids. The mother honked and screamed at her, and Mariah screamed back “Sorry!” and pulled the car out of its swerve. The Honda turned and headed down the steep hill that led to the mall’s exit onto a cross street.
She followed, blasting through a four-way stop and turning at the same hill. The blue Honda took a hard right, away from the highway, back toward the center of Lakehaven. Mariah accelerated; her old Ford sedan straining at the boost. She started to close the gap. She could see the driver was a dark-haired woman.
Get up next to her, she thought, confirm that it’s Mom.You’re not crazy. It’s Mom.
She accelerated, drawing closer to the Honda, and then the Honda veered into a sharp turn. Mariah overcompensated, control drifting from the wheel, and she spun into the oncoming lanes. She saw the markings of a police sedan, the sirens atop the roof as she spun toward it and then the car hit her Ford’s rear, spinning her again, and she came to a jarring halt. Shaking. Looking at the Lakehaven police car in her mirror. The Honda was gone.
“Get out of the car, now!” the officer’s voice yelling at her sternly, and she trembled, because now people would have something else to talk about her family, a bright new flame of shame. She bit her lip.
Mariah Dunning got out of the car, hands up. “Hello, officer. I have a bunch of guns and gear in the trunk. And I’ve got a telescoping baton in my boot. Just so you know.”
AN HOUR LATER,Mariah and her dad were dropped off by a rideshare service at the driveway of their modest house not far from Lakehaven High School. Home was a 1960s ranch-style house at the top of a hill, the type that had been torn down repeatedly in this Lakehaven neighborhood and replaced with a much larger, grander McMansion squeezed onto the lot. Sometimes when Mariah came home she’d see her father standing at the window, peering out to see if there was a for sale sign in a neighbor’s yard on Bobtail Drive. There had been several in the past year. People were cashing in on the renovation craze. She wondered if her father was worrying about a teardown happening and hiking his property taxes or just hoping for new neighbors, ones who didn’t know about his wife’s disappearance. Neighbors who didn’t look at him with thin smiles that seemed to whisper, How’d you do it, Craig? How’d you get rid of the body?The gossip always seemed to convey with the sale. The new neighbors never said hello when Mariah or her father were in the front yard or shooting baskets in the driveway.
She’d gotten him to venture out of the house today, for the first time in weeks, and it had all gone wrong.
Mariah had moved home right after her mother vanished, and she knew she should get her own apartment again, but she couldn’t. She didn’t feel ready to leave Dad quite yet…to leave him alone. She’d finished her degree in computer science at the University of Texas as fast as she could; she didn’t like to leave Dad at loose ends for long, even for classes and labs. She got permission from her professors to do group assignments solo, even though it was harder, so she wouldn’t have to let him dwell in his personal darkness.
It was the two of them against the police and against the world. Parties and service projects and all the other résumé padding and fun times of college had ceased to matter to her, gone on the wind of her mother’s vanishing. It was too hard to explain to people with unsullied pasts and bright futures: Well, you see, my mom disappeared without a trace and no we don’t know if she was murdered or kidnapped or if she just walked away from her life and my dad was the prime suspect in her disappearance but nothing could be proven so we live in a limbo. What’s your major?
Now Mariah felt a hot embarrassment rise from the small of her back, spread through her chest, redden her face. She’d lost control. The control she kept in place for the world’s eyes. And now Dad knew. The gear in the trunk, the file box with clippings about her mother, the guns and the police baton and the Taser, the laptop loaded with software designed to trace and find people. She’d had to explain it all to the police, in front of her father, when he’d been brought to the station. She could have argued she didn’t have to explain anything. But telling them this had made them sympathetic, and they’d let her go without formal charge. One of the officers had stared at her father the whole time. Oh, they all knew Craig Dunning.
He was, in their eyes, guilty. The guy who got away with murder.
Her dad got a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator, shuffling, walking like a man carrying too heavy a burden. Craig Dunning had been a football player at Lakehaven High and then at Rhodes College up in Memphis on scholarship. He was a broad-shouldered blond with blue eyes and a strong jaw. In college he had done some modeling for a couple of Southern clothing catalog companies; Mom had kept a portfolio of his work, to his total embarrassment and Mariah’s vast amusement. She liked to pretend to be horrified at him posing in modest swimwear and suits and cable-knit sweaters, and whenever she saw one of his modeling shots she’d make sure to say, “Ewww, I thought the point was to sell the clothes.” Because he knew she was teasing him. Her handsome dad. There was no interest from the pro football scouts, so he’d put his trophies and disappointments on a shelf, and he’d gotten a master’s in accounting and worked his way up to partner in one of the national firms. Now he “consulted,” which meant he didn’t go to the office in downtown Austin or wear a suit, and the firm sent him work he did mostly from home. Sometimes he rallied enough to go in for a meeting or a call; he no longer went to the firm’s holiday party or the Fourth of July picnic. Now he was rail-thin and sunken-cheeked; ash-gray streaked his hair. He had loved just one woman in his life, and her loss was like a physical mark on him. He was still a handsome man, but the joy that once animated his best feature, his smile, was gone. To Mariah, he was like a painting you could look at and say, yes, the lines are all in proportion, the colors are right, but something is missing.
“You’re lucky Broussard is not pressing charges,” Craig said. Lakehaven’s police chief, Dennis Broussard, had listened to Craig’s account of Mariah’s…confusion with a stony silence. Yes, we’re going to get her back into therapy. No, she has not imagined seeing her mother before. Just stress.Ignoring the officers’ stares at him because they thought he might be a murderer. And here was his daughter, with a car trunk full of weapons and gear, like she was planning a robbery or a heist.
“Do we have your consent to search the car?” the police had asked, and she had said yes. What else was she going to say? A towing service had already taken her car and the police cruiser both.
“You shouldn’t have given your consent for them to search your car,” Craig said, as if he knew her thoughts. “Why would they need to? They could plant drugs or something.”
“Dad. They’re not going to do that. Get real.”
“They hate us. Or me, rather.”
“I didn’t have much choice. I was at fault, Dad.”
“You don’t…you don’t need those weapons and gear. And saying it’s to hunt down Mom’s kidnappers. You can’t say stuff like that to the police. They don’t like people trying to do their job. It’s dangerous, Mariah. I’m amazed they didn’t arrest you.”
“The police don’t like us anyway.”
“They don’t like me,” Craig said. “They feel sorry for you. Especially Broussard.”
Sometimes Mariah had seen Broussard, in his own car, driving slowly past their home. Like he wanted to stop. Or simply put eyes on her father. It had been Broussard who, summoned to the scene by an officer because the Dunnings were involved and Mariah had claimed to be chasing her missing mother, had stopped to get the stranded Craig at the nearby mall and brought him back to the scene. Mariah imagined it had been an awkward few minutes together in the car for the two men. Her father had not shared any details.
Craig poured iced tea for them both, and Mariah took hers with a shaking hand. She had to ask. “Did you see her?” Mariah asked. She hoped he’d say, Yes, she did look like Mom. I see how you thought what you thought.
“No, honey, I did not.” Craig sounded tired. Not angry. Not annoyed. Just exhausted.
“Did you see the blue Honda?”
“Well, the police saw it, but they didn’t see the driver.” Craig’s voice went soft. “It was probably just an innocent woman who panicked when you chased after her.”
It was Mom, Mariah wanted to say, but she didn’t. He didn’t believe her. No one did. They sat in silence for a minute.
“I wonder if the mall has parking lot security tapes.” Mariah’s tone had calmed, become thoughtful. “I could ask.”
Craig took a deep breath. “Mariah, stop right now. You are not calling the mall and asking them to review security tapes. They will ban you from going back there. You drove recklessly, you damaged a police car, and the only reason the cops didn’t arrest you and haul you off to jail is because they felt bad for you.”
Mariah didn’t like these words, so she ignored them. “I really thought it was Mom. I did.”
“I know you think you did, sweetheart. I know. What I wouldn’t give to see her…” His deep voice cracked, and he took a deep breath. “Can we please talk about what all you had in your car? Wrist ties and guns and a Taser? Who are you planning to kidnap?” His gaunt face was pale with worry.
Mariah set her tea down. “I told you, I legally bought the guns and the gear.”
“Why would you have an armory in your car, sweetheart?”
“I have to be prepared for when I find Mom in case bad people have her. Dad, it’s OK, I took classes on how to use this stuff.”
He sat across from her, took her hands in his. “Classes?”
“And I watched online videos.”
“Honey, you are not some sort of bounty hunter or movie detective. Mariah, this stops now. You can’t do this to yourself. Or to me.” His voice cracked.
“The police quit looking,” she said. “Someone has to find Mom. Find out what happened to her.”
“I love you so much. But you didn’t see your mom today,” he said. “Do you understand that, Mariah? That woman wasn’t your mom. This is…this is your grief playing tricks on your mind.”
Her voice shook. “Even if…I still have to know what happened to her. I have to know who took her from us.” She fought to keep her voice steady. “I have to know.”
“No, you don’t! I mean…not like this. We just have to keep the faith the police will find her someday. But you, you stay out of it.”
Mariah took a deep breath. “Dad, I never got the chance to fix things with her. I…”
“I don’t know how to make this right for you. I wish I did. I wish I could make people understand how hard this is for us. More than anything.”
Because of Lakehaven,Mariah thought. Because of so many people who had been sure her father had killed her mother, somehow made her body vanish. Although there was no evidence. No proof. And no other suspects in their circle of friends and acquaintances. Only the low, ceaseless whisper of innuendo and hearsay against her father. But that constant drip was poison enough to nearly kill a man, leave him a shell. Beth Dunning had never reappeared—not on a credit history, not with a phone call, not on a security camera. She had stepped out of the world.
“Let me fix us a late lunch,” Mariah said. They’d abandoned their meals at the food court. Craig usually cooked; he was much better at it than Mariah. But she wanted to do something nice for him.
“No, I’ll fix it. You want a grilled cheese?”
She nodded and hugged him, and to Mariah he felt like skin and bones underneath the jeans and the Lakehaven basketball booster club shirt, faded in the years since she had played on the team. I’m sorry, Dad, she thought to herself.
Craig turned away and padded over to the refrigerator. He got out butter and sliced cheddar, set a pan on the stove, and began to assemble a cheese sandwich, melting butter in the skillet. “This feels like a point of no return. We can’t do this again. You could have hurt yourself badly. You could have hurt a police officer. Or an innocent person. Do you think this town would ever forgive us for anything more? I’m not going back to people throwing rocks at the house or spray painted threats in the middle of the night. I’m not putting you through that again.”
The phrases KILLER LIVES HEREand WHERE IS BETH, CRAIG?had been painted in bright red on their garage door. She would never forget. Some of the neighbors had helped them clean it up—but she could see the doubt in their faces. “Dad…”
“I think we need to have a service for your mom,” he said. “We have to wait for her to be missing seven years to have her declared legally dead.” Craig bit his lip. “But…maybe we go ahead and have a memorial of some sort. We let her go.”
“No.” She shook her head.
He met her gaze, and there was a steadiness there she hadn’t seen from him in a long time. “This grief…Fine, it can ruin me. But it cannot ruin you. You have to move forward with your life. What if your clients hear about today?”
“How would anyone hear?” Mariah was a freelance web designer. She only had three steady clients, the largest one a hip clothing boutique, which did a high volume of online sales.
“People talk on social media. They’re a damn lynch mob. Maybe someone recorded your scene at the mall on their phone. Or took a picture of you being put in the police cruiser. Maybe someone posts it. You think there wasn’t someone from Lakehaven in that food court? And the police blotter, they post that in the town paper. It’ll be on the Lakehaven news website.” His voice cracked. “This can’t happen. Not everyone looking at you this way…”
She had no answer to this. She thought of the teenager with a raised smartphone, aimed at her. People were so ready to record the awful moments for someone else. She could imagine the status posting: Girl hallucinates seeing missing mother in food court, ends up in car crash with cops.Surely no one would be that cruel. Then surely, she knew, they would.
“I could go see a therapist,” she said quietly. “If you want me to. You said so to the cops.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary.” Craig eased the hot sandwich out of the pan, put it on a plate, and cut it into three equal strips, just how Mariah liked it. He handed her the plate and started making a sandwich for himself. Not looking at her, wanting, she thought, for the conversation to be over. Any time she’d mentioned talking to someone professional, a grief counselor, a psychiatrist, he’d resisted. Now he had lied to the police. She could go herself. She was an adult. But if he didn’t like it, it felt like a betrayal. She thought he must worry about what she would say about him: Everyone thinks my dad is guilty, and I don’t, but…what if…
She sat down with the sandwich, but it had no taste; the butter and cheese and soft bread just felt like grease in her mouth. “I mean, I’m surprised you don’t want me to talk to a therapist.”
“All it does is make people miserable. We have to learn how to deal with grief on our own,” Craig said. “And I want you to stop this idea of finding whoever took your mom. The police, it’s their job, leave it alone. Promise me you’ll stop.”
He waited. She wanted to say, The idea of finding Mom is my therapy. It’s the only thing that makes me feel better. Instead she said, “I promise.”
And then a vicious little voice, borne of hurt and pain and sadness, said in the back corner of her brain, Why doesn’t Dad want you to see a therapist or find out the truth? Why?
And she strangled that little voice in her mind, quickly, before it could speak its poison again.