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Don't Try To Find Me

Day 1
Don’t try to find me.
I’ll be okay. I’ll be better.
I love you.

There it is, on the whiteboard affixed to the stainless steel fridge, the board where she usually tells me that we’re out of milk. Today, though, it’s her goodbye note.

No, that’s impossible. My daughter loves me. It says so in her own handwriting. The rest of her message—that must have some other meaning.

I read the lines again, and while I’ve never been the most imaginative woman, I’m no dummy either, and for the life of me, I can’t think of an alternative explanation. My fourteen- year-old daughter is a runaway.

“Marley!” I shout. “Marley, Marley, Marley!”

I hurry through the house, yelling all the way. My voice vacillates between tremulous and strident. I’d kill for an aggrieved, “What?!” in reply. But there’s nothing.

She’s a normal teenager, i.e., moody, maybe, but not depressed. She doesn’t use drugs. She reads. She talks to us, enough.

Normal teenagers don’t run away.

Ergo, she didn’t run away.

I return to the kitchen, to the grocery bag I abandoned. I steady my hand as I put the yogurt she likes in the refrigerator (the yogurt she requested yesterday, on that very whiteboard).

Is this because I failed to stop at the store yesterday, in a recurring bout of forgetfulness? Or because she’s been calling herself fat since we moved here, hence the switch from cookies to yogurt? Could that be it?

There’s no it. Clearly, the note was Marley’s cryptic way of saying she finally made a friend and she won’t be home until dinner. No, later than that. We shouldn’t wait up. She’ll be out having fun—being okay, being better. We don’t need to try to find her because her new friend’s parents will give her a ride home.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Marley’s trying on a new persona. She’s becoming a practical joker, one whose gags needs some refinement. We’ll all laugh about this later.

I sit heavily in one of the wooden kitchen chairs and let my hand trail along the top of the table. It’s made of reclaimed wood from some other old farmhouse, and time and oxidation have given it a beautiful coppery patina. It was a splurge for our new life, in our own restored farmhouse. We’ve only been in that life for five months. And now, it seems, Marley wants out.

No, she doesn’t. Remember how much she liked the idea of moving inland to a small California college town from the suburbs of San Francisco?

The idea. Not the reality.

I dial her cell phone and jump. It’s ringing a few feet from me, resting on top of the refrigerator.

My stomach free-falls. Marley loves her iPhone. It’s her faithful pet, her most loyal companion, especially since the move.

I’ve gone into voice mail. “This is Mom,” I find myself saying, my voice rattling like wind through a pane. “I came home and saw your note. I hope you’re playing a joke. Not that you’ve ever been a practical joker, but you have to start somewhere, right?” I can see her rolling her eyes as she listens. Not that she’s listening. “Come home, Marley. We love you.”

Her iPhone is here. I need to figure out what that means. Maybe she was turning it in as she resigned from the family, the way a retired cop would turn in his badge. Or maybe someone took her . . . someone who forced her to write that note . . . and made her leave the phone behind?

Both those explanations are intolerable. There must be another.

I approach the phone slowly, like it might detonate at any second. That’s how it feels, like something cataclysmic is under way. With trembling fingers, I go online (I can’t do it from my phone, it’s not smart like Marley’s). On the high school website, I check her attendance for the day. She didn’t make it to a single class, even though I dropped her off in front of the school before first period, same as always.

My head tips forward, and my hair— heavy and long and chestnut, same as Marley’s— wisps against my cheeks. She looks like I did at that age. She’s me. And she’s gone.

Most frightening is the fact that it’s without warning. I had no inkling when I dropped her off this morning. There wasn’t some big blowup, so I can’t say, “She’s angry, she needs to cool off, she’ll be right back.” This feels premeditated. Cold.

The tears are right there, at the surface, held back by some invisible dam. I call Paul. He’ll know what to do.

“What’s going on?” he says, trying not to sound annoyed with me. He tries so hard, so often. It never used to be work.

He’s on a special project, he told me earlier this week. He wrote it on the whiteboard, actually. That means I’m only supposed to call in emergencies.

“It’s an emergency,” I say, so we’re clear. I don’t need his attitude.

Well, his barely contained attitude. There’s something about a person always containing himself in regards to you that is more depressing than if he let it fly. I push him to the verge of snapping and then he draws back, a man perpetually at the edge of a cliff.

“Yes?” he says, quick and impatient, like I’m constantly defining things as emergencies.

I never should have married a man with money. A man who’s never been without. From his wealthy family to the management track at a tech company, with no humbling penury in between. But I never could have had this house without him, never had this life. If it wasn’t for Paul, I couldn’t be a part- time social worker at a domestic violence agency, doing my small piece of good in the world, without suffering any loss of personal comfort. Paul makes things possible.

For Marley, too.

“I came home and Marley was gone.” I recite her note from memory, the three lines already forged into my brain.

“High school dramatics,” he pronounces with an enviable (and aggravating) conviction.

“She’s never been dramatic before.”

“Oh sure she has. A few nights ago, she stormed away from the dinner table when I asked her about her math quiz.”

It wasn’t storming. She said, “The quiz went fi ne. Can I be excused?” and then left before we’d given her an answer. She even pushed her chair back in. “I mean dramatic like this.”

“This is an extension of that.”

He’s hyperlogical. It’s why he makes the big bucks. I say nothing, but what I’m thinking is: Something terrible could be happening to her right now. Right this second.

“Are any of her clothes gone?” he asks.

“I haven’t checked,” I admit, heat rushing to my face. Of course I was supposed to look in her room more carefully. I wasn’t just supposed to do a walk-through (a yell-through) and take the note at face value. And of course Paul intuitively knows that. He understands the workings of things. “But her cell phone is here. She left it behind. She never lets it out of her sight.”


“I dropped her off at school this morning, but she didn’t go to any of her classes. That means she’s been gone for hours. I should call the police, right?” The floodgates threaten. Beckon, really. I’ve always liked a good cry. But right now, I need to focus. I need to find Marley.

Though the first thing she said in her note was “Don’t try to find me.” Like a threat of her own. Well, if she thinks I would ever stop looking, ever in this lifetime, she doesn’t know me at all. Or I don’t know her.

“Most runaways come back on their own,” he says with authority.

“So you don’t think I should call the police yet?” I ask. “Just call Trish and Sasha and whoever else from the old neighborhood, see if she’s there?” It sounds strange, “the old neighborhood,” like I’m a gangster. The old neighborhood is five hours away. If that’s her destination, she could have arrived by now.

“Hang on a second.”

I’m on hold, classical music wafting over the line. My eyes are drawn to the fridge, but I can’t let myself look at the note. No thinking about it until Paul comes back with a plan.

So instead, I’m thinking how out of place the stainless steel refrigerator is in the old farmhouse, with all its hardwoods and exposed ceiling beams throughout. But what kind of fridge fits in an old farmhouse anyway? They didn’t exist when this house was built. There were no whiteboards either. What’s a whiteboard made of, anyway?

Funny, where your mind goes at a time like this.

I’m here, inside a time like this. My whole life, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, to fi nd myself inside a time like this. Marrying Paul was supposed to prevent it. He sees every contingency. He prepares for them— dispassionately, rationally. He’s nonreactive yet prepared. What more could you ask for?

I don’t know. But lately, I’ve found myself asking.

Is that it? Did Marley sense that? Did it drive her to—?

“Or what if she didn’t run away?” I ask Pachelbel’s Canon. “What if she was kidnapped?”

Someone could have held a gun on her and ordered her to write that note. Then he might have forced her to leave the phone behind.

There would be no witnesses: We only have neighbors on one side, and they’re a quarter- mile up the road; on the other side is a foreclosed farm. The gunman could have been trailing her for weeks, thinking she’s the perfect victim. She’s pretty; she just doesn’t know it yet. She’s not hot, a fact that causes her some distress and brings me relief. She’s also not fat, though she doesn’t know that either, in her ubiquitous oversized shirts and leggings and Ugg boots. So, this man with the gun, he could have noticed her. Recognized that she’s pretty, and that she doesn’t know it, and that she lives on a nonworking farm with no neighbors in sight. He just had to wait for his opportunity.

“I found an app for this.” Paul’s voice radiates suddenly, jarring me.


“There’s an app for what to do when your child goes missing. There’s a protocol.”

Paul loves protocols. Loves the word itself. It drips from his tongue like honey, quivering amber at the tip like he’s not fully ready to let it go.

There’s an app. Which means that enough children go missing for someone to develop an app, that enough parents are in the position in which Paul and I now find ourselves.

“So you believe me?” I shouldn’t have to ask this question. I’m not a child who makes up stories or cries wolf. Nearly all my lies are of omission.

“I think”— his tone is measured— “that she left a note, and she’ll probably turn up on her own soon, but we should follow the protocol.”

“Do you think that someone might have taken her?” I’m whispering. It’s too awful to vocalize at full volume.

“She left a note, Rach,” he says gently. I haven’t heard him sound like that in a while. It makes the tears flow. Then he laughs suddenly, and I feel stung. “On the app, the first thing is to search under piles of laundry or anywhere the child could hide. Did you check in the hamper?”

When Marley was four, she used to love being in our hamper, ensconced in the dirty clothes. I think she initiated hide-and-seek for that sole purpose. Time and again, I’d lift the lid and she’d pop up like a jack-in-the-box, saying, “It smells like Mommy.” She used to love me, right down to my smell. I remember how it felt to find her and hold her in my arms, that moment of wonder and recognition: This is her. This beautiful girl is actually my daughter.

This is my daughter, too: She lied when she told me not to pick her up after school. She was going to do some research in the library, she explained, and she’d call me when she was finished. But her phone is here in the house, next to the whiteboard where she wrote her good-bye note. It’s contemptuous, a slap in the face to leave the phone she campaigned so hard for (Screw you and your phone!), or it’s a declaration of independence (I don’t need your phone anymore, I’m on my own!).

She set this up. She’s run away. How long was she planning it? For how many days did she look us in the face, knowing she was going to write that note?

She wouldn’t do this to go to a party. She wouldn’t do it to get away for a night. That’s not Marley.

If I know Marley. Right now, I hope I don’t. I hope, fervently, that I’m wrong and this is pure whimsy. She woke up this morning and thought, Let’s see how far I can get before I turn around and go back home. Ten, twelve hours of me gone, and that’ll teach them a lesson.

What lesson? I’m ready to learn.

I’d tell her that, but she left her phone. There’s no way to reach her.

My gut says that she didn’t go back to the old neighborhood, which means that she’s out there, all alone. She’s not streetwise. Anything could happen to her.

But if someone took her, then for sure something’s going to happen to her.

Oh, please, let her be a runaway.

Funny, the things you think.

Don't Try To Find Me
by by Holly Brown