"Goodbye, Mom," Grace said, as she rushed from her bedroom. She wore baggy, bell-bottomed jeans and a peasant blouse, tie-dyed purple, with leather lacing open at the chest. Lucy stood at the hall mirror frantically working on her own hair. Grace breezed past but Lucy caught her arm.
"Hang on," Lucy said. "Let's have a look."
"Mom," Grace protested, slouching, her back against the wall. "I'm late."
Her breasts bulged from the open blouse, exposing crescents of creamy skin.
"Grace," Lucy said, shaking her head. "I can practically see your nipples."
"Mom, come on. I look fine."
"Boys will think you're easy."
"Boys don't even look at me."
"Oh, I doubt that."
"They don't. And I don't care."
"I fail to see why you won't wear a brassiere. It lifts, it separates. You want your breasts bouncing off your knees when you're my age?"
Grace rolled her eyes. "Just let me go," she said.
"Oh, fine," Lucy said. "Dress like a vagabond, what do I care." She turned back to the mirror. "Look at this mess. My hair's a disaster this morning."
Grace grabbed her schoolbooks from the table and hurried out the door.
She was fifteen.
Perhaps three minutes—no more than five, Lucy would eventually tell the police detective—passed between the time Grace left the house and the moment the school bus driver began honking his horn. Annoyed, Lucy looked out the window. The yellow bus stood implacably in the street at the end of her driveway, a hulking yellow box, its red lights flashing eerily in the morning fog. The horn sounded again.
"What in hell is going on?" Lucy said, aloud. She opened the front door and hurried angrily down the driveway. Nearing the bus, she raised her arms at her sides, as if to say, "What?"
The driver opened a small window and leaned toward her. He had a dark, greasy mustache and long hair. He shouted over the hum of the idling engine. "Your daughter coming to school today?"
"What are you talking about? She's on the bus, isn't she?"
"No, she's not."
Lucy shook her head. "She must be. She came out five minutes ago. Lucy looked back at the porch. She glanced into the open garage where her car, a gold Pontiac Tempest with a black vinyl top, sat dripping oil. "Grace!" she shouted. She looked up and noticed the line of tired, forlorn faces in the bus windows. Someone had drawn a peace sign in the mist covering one of the windows. Lucy put her hands on her hips. "I can't believe this."
"Maybe her boyfriend picked her up?" the driver asked.
Lucy shook her head. "She doesn't have a boyfriend."
The bus driver looked up in his mirror, then back down at Lucy. He chewed his gum urgently. A line of cars had crept up the street from both directions. A man in a blue Chevrolet glared at Lucy over his steering wheel. Someone in one of the cars in the other line began honking his horn.
"Gracey!" Lucy shouted again, her voice urgent and desperate. "Get on this goddamned bus! Stop fooling around."
"I can't wait all day," the driver said.
Lucy looked up at him. She let out a deep breath. "All right," she said to the driver, waving her arm.
The bus roared away in a cloud of exhaust, followed by a string of cars ten or twelve deep.
Lucy marched up the driveway and into the garage. She angrily threw open the car door, expecting to find Grace slumped in the front seat, seeking a ride to school, something she used to do occasionally. Lucy returned to the house, checked the bathroom. Nothing. "Grace?" she said. "Are you in here?" She went back down the hall, opened the door to the girl's bedroom, flipped on the light.
The messiest room in their always cluttered house, it was a disaster: clothes all over the floor, record albums left everywhere out of their jackets, dirty socks and underwear lying where they'd been removed, books strewn about—including Lucy's loaned copy of Valley of the Dolls, which Grace had rejected in favor of Ariel, a book by some suicidal poet her English teacher had turned her on to—pads of drawing paper and colored pencils spilled across the card table Grace used as a desk.
Above the headboard of her twin bed, Grace kept a poster of the Beatles—a larger version of the cover of their latest album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Lucy had given it to Grace as a present on her fourteenth birthday, and she'd played it on the record player repeatedly for months. This new music seemed to be everywhere now, along with these young men and their long hair. Even though Paul was the cute one, Grace had persisted in proclaiming Ringo her favorite, he of the crooked eyes, the large nose, the hangdog expression, the least talent. Ever since she was a little girl, Grace had always liked the puppy no one else wanted to bring home.
Covering the other walls were Grace's own drawings on paper torn from sketch pads. A few were penciled images of her friends, cute girls with large eyes and straight hair, sketched from their school pictures. Nearly all of the others were pictures of horses done in colored pencil—pairs of horses running through fields, their tails and manes dancing in the wind, mares and foals grazing peacefully at streamside, or lone horses seemingly floating through the sky.
As a young girl, Grace had begged for a horse each birthday and every Christmas, but there was never money for such an extravagance. Buying food, even, had often been difficult. They ate a lot of rice and potatoes, but Grace never complained. Car payments were beyond their means at first so they always rode the bus, and sometimes, in order to make her rent, Lucy had to beg secret checks from her father, who mailed them without her mother's knowledge. In a moment of weakness, Lucy once promised Grace riding lessons, but those never materialized. In time, Grace resigned herself to drawing pictures of horses, which seemed to give her some solace and satisfaction. Of course, Lucy felt guilty about it. She felt most guilty when her own failings caused Grace to make accommodations for the harsh realities of the world too soon, too permanently, for a girl of her age.
Lucy closed the door to Grace's room, went to the kitchen, and sat at the Formica table, still cluttered with last night's supper dishes. Her skirt stuck to the tape, now peeling, which had been holding the stuffing inside her chair. With quivering fingers, she lit a cigarette and examined her nail polish, which had begun to chip. She decided she'd wait until 8:05, until the start of the school day, and then she would call the school to see if Grace had arrived. Perhaps someone she knew had driven by, offered a ride, and—against rules Lucy thought she'd made clear—Grace had accepted. Or perhaps the bus driver was right. Grace was only a sophomore in high school, not yet sixteen, but maybe she did have a secret boyfriend. If this were true, then Grace had lied to her face that morning. It was certainly possible. Over the past few months, it felt at times as if Grace was drifting away from her, borne on an invisible current to some new, secret land. The thought depressed her.
In the meantime, she called Joan, the assistant manager at the beauty parlor, to ask her to open up the store. Lucy managed the shop and it was her habit to arrive first, open the doors, put on the coffee, reorganize the magazines, before the other stylists began arriving at 8:45. Customer appointments didn't begin until nine. Lucy could have delegated that responsibility—"You're the manager, Mom," Grace always told her. "You can do anything"—but she rarely ever did.
At six minutes after eight, Lucy telephoned the high school, identified herself, and asked if her daughter had arrived. The secretary informed her that attendance reports from homeroom classes would not come in until after morning announcements, which would finish in several minutes, so would she kindly call back? Lucy agreed and hung up the telephone. At 8:15, she telephoned again, asked if homeroom attendance reports had come in. They had.
"Grace Thierry," Lucy said. She spelled the last name.
"Absent," the secretary said.
Lucy felt a heavy weight drop into her chest. "Are you sure?"
"Absent," the woman repeated.
Lucy sighed. "That can't be right. She's a straight A student. She wouldn't skip school."
"I have two teenagers. Nothing they do surprises me anymore."
"But this is so unlike her." Lucy felt her voice breaking. She sniffed in her tears and swallowed. "I'm sorry. I'm going to be late for work, and this is frustrating."
"Maybe she's here. We've found kids smooching in janitors' closets and sleeping in the gym bleachers." She laughed. "If we don't find them here, the truancy officer, her name's Gail, Officer Padgett, will get on their trail. She usually finds them. Most of the time they're off somewhere listening to records."
Lucy paced, winding the telephone cord on and off her left index finger. "But has anyone ever not been found?"
"You mean not ever? You mean, have they run away, or something?"
"Or been taken."
"No," the secretary said. She paused, as if thinking it over. "No. Not ever. If someone is truant several consecutive days, their name is turned over to the police department and it can be a serious matter. But we're talking about kids skipping school. If you think maybe your daughter has run away, then that's something you should discuss with the police. I can give you their telephone number if you'd like."
Lucy sighed. "No," she said. "But thank you. You've been very helpful."
"My advice: don't worry. My guess is your daughter will come home when she usually does, pretending she's been at school. Ask her what she learned in school today. That's what my husband does. He says it's one of the few times it's fun to be a parent of teenagers."
Lucy smiled. "I suppose you're right," she said. "Thank you for your time."
Lucy arrived at work by 9:20, not nearly as late as she'd feared. She endured the silent treatment from her first customer, a 9:15 who wanted her hair dyed the color of Lucille Ball's, a garish orange that did not complement her face or skin tone at all, but she would not be talked out of it. And even though Lucy engaged her subsequent customers in conversation and laughed at their jokes as she gave them permanents and coloring treatments and shag cuts—so many younger women wanted to look like Twiggy—throughout the day, in the back of her mind, always, was the haunting presence of her missing daughter.
Every hour, give or take, Lucy went into the office and called home. She listened as the phone rang and rang, her stomach clenched, urging Grace to pick up. Where could she be? Of course, Lucy worried, sometimes so much her hands started shaking, sometimes almost to distraction. Over the course of the day, her fear was slowly replaced by anger. In the morning, as she watched the clock move toward noon, a small voice inside her kept asking, "Where are you, Grace? Where are you?" But by afternoon, that voice that grown louder and more harsh: "How dare you do something so dishonest, so thoughtless? How dare you, Grace."
It had always been just the two of them, mother and daughter, parent and child. At one time, didn't they share everything with one another? Certainly, they argued, they fought, they cried, but there was always respect. Lucy had done her best. She had always held her head high, pretended not to hear the disapproving whispers when she rushed late into concerts and recitals and other programs without a husband, without having ever been married at all. Her devotion to Grace, she hoped, had always been obvious, to Grace, at least, if not to others. If Grace had wanted to skip school, she needed only to ask and Lucy certainly would have allowed it, would have even provided an alibi. One day of school—what would it hurt? Grace was a marvelous student—smart, creative, responsible. All her teachers said so. It simply didn't make sense that she would sell her relationship with Lucy and her reputation with her teachers so cheaply. To smooch with a boy somewhere or listen to a new record album? It didn't make any sense.
At five-thirty, Lucy left the beauty parlor and headed home, a surge of anxiety bordering on panic growing in her stomach. Nearly everything about being a parent had turned out more difficult than she had imagined, but what she found most difficult was the anxiety. Being a parent meant you spent most of your waking hours worrying. And that had not changed, no matter how old her daughter became. When Grace was a baby, particularly during the most difficult times—when she was sick with a high fever, with croup, with the measles—Lucy sometimes wondered if she should have listened to her parents and allowed Grace to be adopted into a home where should would have had all the advantages. She felt deeply the privations Grace endured living without a father, without enough money, without a steady, stable home. Lucy had devoted her life to Grace, had made nearly every decision since her birth with Grace's welfare in mind, but she often felt overcome by the fear that it hadn't been enough.
Growing up, Grace had never been the kind of girl one would have described as happy. Lucy had few photographs of Grace actually smiling. Even in her school pictures, dating all the way back to kindergarten, the girl had always stared at the camera warily, like one of those starving children in a magazine advertisement to raise money for the poor. If joy came to her at all, it was elusive, tempered by what might have been—something more worthy, or more perfectly imagined. Ice cream tasted delicious, but it melted too fast. Friends—the few she made and kept—were wonderful, until they failed to reciprocate Grace's own fierce loyalty and devotion. Puberty, once longed for, proved to be monumentally overrated.
It wasn't as if Grace were easy company. She could be demanding. Intense was the word preferred by her teachers. Grace was the kind of child who erased writing mistakes with such fury she bore a hole through the paper. She had high expectations, which nearly always left her disappointed. When she entered her teens, she became so taciturn that she wouldn't talk unless the conversation mattered—her word—which made her seem shy on her best days, vain and unapproachable on her worst.
Much of this, Lucy felt, might have been her fault. Because Lucy had to move from one town to the next chasing better paying jobs while working her way through beauticians' correspondence school and trying to be a mother and father all at once, Grace had made few close friends before middle school. Each search for a new apartment came with its own set of horrors. Few landlords would rent to an unmarried woman with a child. Lucy had taken to lying, to saying, "Grace's father is no longer with us," couching their situation in language that could be misconstrued to mean she was a widow. This worked for several years, until Grace was in second grade and she began parroting the phrase herself with teachers and schoolmates, prompting embarrassing, mistaken telephone calls of condolence.
In her favor, Grace seemed unfazed by all the dingy apartments and the new schools. Changes that would have paralyzed other children seemed, if anything, to excite her. Each time she started at a new school, Grace would wander up the sidewalk, clutching her books to her flat chest like a shield, ignoring the chatty girls giggling at the inappropriate length of the knee socks, stretched up clear over her knees, or her ratty thrift-store jumper. Eventually, as she reached the upper grades, Grace turned everything to her advantage by exaggerating her differences, choosing, for example, in fifth grade, to wear socks of two starkly different colors every day, pants instead of skirts, and baseball caps over her uncombed hair. They had squalled over that for weeks—the daughter of a beautician, not even combing her hair!—but Lucy had finally relented.
Grace's teachers, though, uniformly praised her, not only for her intellect, but also, and especially, for her resourcefulness and creativity. "A precocious young lady," one of her art teachers wrote, in fourth grade. "Gifted as no other student I have ever taught." Lucy could no longer remember the assignment, but that year Grace had made a mobile with coat hangers, fishing line, and butterflies cut from recycled greeting cards. What made it particularly noteworthy was that she had arranged the butterflies to hang in the positions of the nine planets in the solar system, matched in size, and a large, yellow flower floating in the center as the sun. When Lucy praised her for this ingenuity, Grace had simply shrugged. "I had to make a mobile for art, and I had to do some sort of project on our solar system for science. I combined them. It was just easier."
Lucy didn't see any lights on when she pulled up the driveway to her house, but that wasn't unusual. She would often find Grace in her bedroom doing homework in the dark, with a record album playing, and a tendril of smoky, sandalwood incense rising from the stand on her dresser.
"Grace!" Lucy said, hopefully, as she burst through the front door. The house was silent. She hurried to the bedroom. Empty.
She paged through the telephone book and found the number of the local police department, reached someone there who put her on the line with a soft-spoken detective named Thompson. He asked a lot of questions, took all of her information, said he would check with Officer Padgett, find out what she knew. He asked if Grace had any friends or boyfriends Lucy could call to ask about her daughter's whereabouts. He seemed to find it unusual that Lucy didn't know of any. Finally, he asked if she'd be home the rest of the evening, and Lucy said she would be.
Detective Thompson said, "She'll come home soon. I've been doing this job a long time, and ninety-nine and nine-tenths of the time in cases like this, the kids are just off somewhere goofing around. But I'll see what I can find out."
"Do you need a picture of her?"
"No." This made Lucy feel relieved. "Let me kick it around a bit. This is a small town. I know all the hiding spots."
Lucy hung up the telephone. She tried not to worry, but she wasn't good at it. Even though it was only beginning to grow dark outside, she turned all the lights on in the house, made it a bright beacon, easily found. She finished her cigarette and lit another, changed out of her work clothes, pulled all the bobby pins out of her hair and let it fall down in a mess around her shoulders. She turned on the television to distract herself, tried to watch the evening news. More violence in Vietnam, young men killed, thousands of pounds of bombs dropping. In Paris, students were rioting about something. Protesters were marching in Chicago. The world was falling apart.
At seven o'clock, tears of fear and worry wetting her face, she dug her address book out of the junk drawer in the kitchen and after several minutes of paralysis, staring at his name, dialed Jean Paul Thierry.
In the summer of 1953, she had gone to France on a three-week program as an American student ambassador. She had met Jean Paul in Paris near the end of her trip. His English was only slightly better than her French then, but somehow they started a conversation among other students in a small, smoky brasserie on the rue Descartes, and later that night she had left with him, shocking her schoolmates and herself. He had driven her around Paris in the smallest car she'd ever been in, pointing at things with a smoking cigarette—the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, smiling at her excitement. Who would not feel enchanted being driven down the Champs Elysees by a beautiful, young Frenchman in a white T-shirt, twenty-two years old, with dark hair and blue eyes, chain-smoking Gitanes? He dropped her at the hotel just before dawn, walked her in, kissed her softly on the lips, promised to return for her late that afternoon, when he got off of work.
And he did. He came the next afternoon, too, and the one after that. He took her to see the Impressionists at the Jeu de Paume, walked with her, hand in hand, through the cavernous halls of the Louvre. He took her to a beautiful mansion filled with sculptures by Rodin, and afterward, on a park bench, as they laughed, he posed with her in imitation of Rodin's "The Kiss." Then on the weekend, three days before her departure for the United States, he drove her out of the city for a night alone together, and she could not resist him.
They left Paris in the morning in a soft rain, and he went West across the countryside, between rows of plane trees, past picturesque country houses, crumbling stone buildings and charred wooden bridges that had been bombed during the war. When Jean Paul placed his hand on her knee, electric charges surged up her legs and exploded in a warm heat in her lower belly, up her arms, into her neck. After four years of high school French, she could pick up only occasional words—he spoke so fast—but what he was saying to her didn't really matter.
When the rain let up, he pulled over into a field near a large oak tree and lowered the fabric roof of his little car. The sun poured in, and the air smelled like rain and freshly mowed grass. Behind the seat he had placed in a woven basket a bottle of wine, two glasses, some Camembert cheese, and a baguette. After letting down the top of the car, Jean Paul opened the wine, a warm, soft red that made Lucy's face flush. He spread the cheese on slices of bread and they ate and drank and laughed. They kissed in the car for a long time, his hands wandering down to her breasts, where his gentleness left him, but only briefly. If it weren't for the dark clouds and the light rain that began again, they might have shed their clothes right then. But Jean Paul held a hand out, shrugged, and then smiled as he pulled the fabric top back up on his car.
They drove the rest of the way to Mont St. Michel and arrived in late afternoon. From the distance, it looked to Lucy like some medieval fortress rising out of the sea grass. A large flock of sheep and a few horses grazed the fields and salt marsh along the roadside. As they approached the island, Lucy could see how the Atlantic encircled it on three sides, could make out the church spires that soared at the very top. It was unlike anything she had ever seen. She had read about Mont St. Michel in her French classes, certainly. Henry Adams had written an entire book about it. But she never expected it to be so beautiful, so otherworldly.
Jean Paul parked the car. They took their small satchels of clothing from the tiny trunk and walked all the way to the top, moving along narrow, cobblestone streets and stone stairways worn smooth by the feet of millions. He held her hand and never let go. Once at the top, they entered a small, elegant hotel with worn limestone floors, wispy antique furniture, and faded tapestries of pasture scenes—grazing sheep, innocent-looking shepherd boys—hanging from the walls. Lucy's stomach churned as Jean Paul spoke with the clerk behind the desk, who took his colorful money, then smiled politely at Lucy as he slid the heavy room key, tied with a small sash of braided gold ribbon, across the counter.
Lucy felt like an actress in the movies. They were in the hotel room only long enough to place their bags on the floor when their mouths came together, their bodies wet and hungry and anxious. They fell on the bed laughing, pulled awkwardly at one another's clothes. Jean Paul kissed her everywhere, even on her feet, and when they made love—for Lucy, the first time—it hurt so much that she cried out, so much that she didn't think she could continue. But Jean Paul grew gentle, dried her tears with his fingertips, slowed down. He rolled over so she was on top of him and could control everything, and the pain went away, became a pleasure unlike anything to which she might compare it.
They made love twice more that evening, and though Lucy grew sore, she did not want it to stop. Can this really be me? Lucy thought, as Jean Paul grunted and sighed, the taste of his cigarettes in her mouth, the rough stubble of his whiskers burning against her cheeks, her shoulders, her stomach, her legs. She could not believe what this man did to her, but she let him do it, closed her eyes and let her body go, felt everything with an intensity that made her teary and breathless. She touched his penis, held it in her hand as if she were gripping a hammer, looked at it closely, even—once—kissed the end softly, smelled the saltiness of his sex. Jean Paul seemed devoid of shyness or insecurity—he walked around the room naked, his uncircumcised penis, in a nest of thick black hair, flopping against his thighs—and somehow that confidence passed to Lucy. She had never been naked with a man before, had never been touched where he touched her, kissed where he kissed her, had never done anything close to this.
Of course it had all ended badly. Two days later, he could not meet for her departing flight, so they had no proper goodbye. Promised daily letters and weekly telephone calls dwindled, then stopped altogether. When Lucy missed her period, when her breasts grew tender and she began waking in the morning with a surge of nausea, she realized she'd made a mistake that would not easily be undone, could not, in 1953, legally be undone at all.
A girl could get swept away. She had been eighteen, three years older than Grace was now. She had been accepted into college, had intended to become a high school French teacher. But things could happen that lead you out beyond the fences, into open fields where you are not safe from anything. Lucy knew that. You could experience something unforgettably beautiful and ruin your life, or change its direction unalterably. She had vowed not to let it happen to her daughter. She had not realized, until now, the naiveté of making such a vow.
Her heart began beating harder as she dialed the telephone, wondered if the international code for France was still the same. It had been so long since she'd spoken to Jean Paul. Years.
The telephone rang, six, seven, eight times. Then it stopped, was interrupted by a soft, sleepy voice: "Allo?" Him?
"Hello? Jean Paul?"
"Allo?" A pause. "Il est deux heures du matin!"
Lucy began crying. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't remember any French. Can you please speak in English?"
"In English?" It sounded like Eeeng—leeeesh. "Who is there, please?"
"Jean Paul, I'm so sorry. This is Lucy."
"Lucy?" A long pause. Her heart fell. He did not recognize her voice. "It is two hours in the morning. Who is there?"
"Lucy," she said, again. "Lucy Fisher. The mother of your daughter, Grace."
"Ah!" he said. "Oh, Lucy! I am sorry. I did not recognize you. Yes. Of course. Are you here at the airport?"
"Oh no," she said. "No. Jean Paul. I'm calling from the United States. From Wisconsin."
He laughed. "We are six hours before you, yes? You forget?"
"Yes," Lucy said. "I forgot. I'm sorry." She covered her mouth, stifled a sob.
"It's Grace," she said, and the details of the day spilled from her mouth. She told him everything. Jean Paul listened patiently.
"Ah," Jean Paul said, finally. "And you think Grace is on her way here, maybe?"
The thought startled Lucy. She had never even considered this. Why would Grace want to see Jean Paul? She had never met him, had only seen pictures. Certainly, he regularly sent her presents on Christmas and her birthdays. He had done that, which was more than Lucy ever expected. But beyond that, he was not part of Grace's life.
"No," Lucy said. "I don't think she's going to France."
"That's good," Jean Paul responded. "Now is not a good time. The students are going crazy. People are burning cars in the street."
"I think maybe someone's taken her," Lucy said.
"Taken her? What do you mean?"
"I don't know." she said. "I have no idea. But Grace has never done anything like this before. It's not like her to just disappear."
"She's a beautiful, young girl." Jean Paul chuckled. "She is at the age of love, yes? She is probably in the movie house right now, kissing so long her lips are sore."
Lucy shook her head. "No," she said. "If you saw her—Grace doesn't even comb her hair. She can't be with a boy."
Jean Paul didn't respond immediately. "How do you know?" he said, at last. "She is not a little girl. She might keep such things to herself now."
Lucy blew up. "How can you presume to know anything about her?" she said. "You're six thousand miles away."
He said, softly, "Lucy. I am sorry. Of course. You are with her every day. I only know what she says in her letters—"
"Her what?" The words burst from Lucy's mouth.
"What are you talking about? What letters?"
"We are writing each other almost every month. Since she started taking French in the eighth year."
"Eighth grade," Lucy corrected him.
"Yes. Her French is getting better."
"Do you write her back?"
Lucy swallowed back her panic. "Why don't I see any of your letters?"
"I don't know. It is not a secret I am keeping. I tell her to say hello to you. Each time."
The school bus dropped Grace off nearly an hour and a half before Lucy got home from work. Lucy realized how easily Grace could retrieve and hide Jean Paul's letters. Lucy paused to consider this information.
"In her letters," Lucy asked, finally, feeling betrayed, resentful, "does she say anything about a boyfriend?"
Jean Paul sighed. "She made me promise never to tell, but you are so worried about her, I will share it. She is in love. With someone she calls 'A'."
"'A'," Lucy repeated.
"Yes. Just the letter. Someone she adores."
Adores, Lucy thought. She rolled her eyes. The French were so melodramatic.
"She keeps a lock of A's hair under her mattress," Jean Paul added. "Tied in a purple ribbon."
Lucy fell into a chair. She felt dazed. Exhausted. Her fingers quivered against the telephone. She struggled to think of something to say. She wanted to drop the telephone, rush into Grace's bedroom, and flip the mattress.
Jean Paul said, generously, "Lucy. Do not be angry. It is easier for her to tell me such things. I am just words on paper. A stranger, almost. So there is no risk."
Perhaps it was the way he said "reeeesk," or her exhaustion after a long, fearful day, or relief that kidnapping was now unlikely, given this new bit of news, but Lucy began laughing. Her shoulders started shaking, her head fell forward, and she laughed, almost hysterically. All she had to do, she realized now, was check the list of absent students and find the boy whose name started with A—an Andrew or Alex or Allan—and she would find her daughter. Better yet, Lucy thought, just to be safe: round up all the A's, and then line them up along the wall in the gym and shoot them.
She and Jean Paul talked for another ten minutes, and in that time, the sweetness of long ago began to glow again inside of her. He had lived with a woman for nine years, had a child with her, a son, now six years old. But they'd broken it off, and he now lived alone. He still ran a small movie house in Paris, near the Sorbonne, but it was doing poorly. He no longer liked de Gaulle. He loved America, he said, but could never live there. Before they hung up, he invited Lucy to Paris, said to come with Grace for a visit over the holidays. Lucy thanked him for the gesture, said there was no way they could afford the airfare.
She cried when she hung up the telephone. She didn't know why, but she was exhausted, sick with worry, overcome by thoughts of Jean Paul. She wiped her face on a dishtowel, then went into Grace's bedroom, dropped to her knees along the bed, lifted the mattress. Even though she expected it, she was still surprised to find the hair. On the box spring, beneath where Grace's heart would be if she slept on her stomach, was a rope of braided, blonde hair, as thick as her little finger, maybe seven inches long, tied on both ends with a bit of purple ribbon. So, Lucy thought, 'A' has hair like the Beatles. No surprise there. She lowered the mattress, returned the blankets to their previous mess.
The rest of that evening, Lucy felt lost. As she picked at a salad for her supper, she told herself when she finished eating it, Grace would arrive at the door. As she ran the water in the bathtub, she thought, Grace will be home when the tub is full. Twenty-five minutes later, she told herself Grace would walk in the door when all the water had drained from the tub. None of her strategies worked. At nine-thirty, she combed out her hair, turned out the lights, crawled under the covers of her bed. She closed her eyes, but knew she would not sleep. Deep inside her remained the fear she still carried for Grace, a fear which would not dissolve until her daughter walked safely back into her house.
Then at ten minutes past ten, the telephone rang, and Lucy leaped out of bed to answer. Detective Thompson.
"Mrs. Fisher, good news. We've got Grace and her friend here at the station," he said. "You can come down and pick her up."
Tears filled Lucy's eyes. Inside her, she felt as if this simple happiness, the safety of her beloved child, was all she would ever need. "Is she all right?" Lucy asked.
"She's fine," Detective Thompson said.
Lucy felt overwhelmed by the depth, the intensity, of her gratitude. "Thank you." she said, almost shouting into the telephone. "Thank you."
"No problem," the detective answered. "Glad everything worked out. We'll see you in a little while."
Driving back home, with Grace safely in the car beside her, Lucy kept looking over at her daughter. Her heart pounded so furiously inside her chest she could feel her own pulse surging throughout her body. Grace sat with her head against the far window, crying softly, pausing to wipe the tears from her cheeks with the tips of her fingers.
"I just want to understand," Lucy said.
"You couldn't possibly," said Grace.
When Lucy arrived at the police station, she was led to Detective Thompson, a balding man, shorter and older than she'd imagined. He chain-smoked and wore a rumpled blue sport coat that needed a good pressing. He explained that they'd found Grace and her friend near Neshkoro, a small town about ten miles away. They were hiding inside a barn that housed several valuable Arabian horses. The farmer had discovered them there. The police arrested them for trespassing, but the farmer decided not to press charges. The horses had been exquisitely groomed, their manes and tails braided. Grace had brushed them for so many hours that their coats were as smooth as Chinese silk.
The stolen car was another matter. Grace and her friend had pulled the car into the barn to hide it. Apparently they had listened to the radio most of the day, because when they tried to leave, the car wouldn't start. The battery could not turn over the engine.
"Grace stole a car?" Lucy asked, nearly in shock.
The detective shook his head. No, it hadn't been Grace. Her friend had stolen the car. The mother's car. She had reported it missing that morning.
"He stole his mother's car?" Lucy said. "What's this delinquent's name? Alex? Andrew? I know it starts with an A. I'll find out if you can't tell me. Any boy who steals his own mother's car is not going to spend any more time with my daughter."
"Alice," Detective Thompson said. He pursed his lips.
"Alice?" Lucy repeated.
The detective nodded. He leaned toward Lucy and lowered his voice. Grace and Alice had been found asleep, lying on a horse blanket in the straw, with another blanket thrown over them. Moreover, he said, inside the car the police had found several Polaroids. The girls had taken pictures of one another sitting on one of the horses, wearing only underpants. He removed an envelope from inside the jacket pocket, slid it across the desk to Lucy.
Lucy's mouth went dry. She suddenly felt hot and flushed. She concentrated on each breath. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She heard a high-pitched ringing in her ears, felt as if she were under a hot sun in a boat, rocking on open water. She felt for the floor with the bottom of her feet. For the moment, she was afraid of what sound, what words, might come from her mouth if she tried to speak. She was afraid that she might not be able to speak at all. The detective's voice seemed far away, bubbling up from a deep well, from under water.
Lucy felt as if she might faint. She wiped her forehead with the palm of her hand. The room had stopped spinning.
"Is that everything?" Lucy said, standing up suddenly.
"Well. Yes, ma'am," he answered.
Lucy grabbed the envelope of pictures from his desk, tucked them into her purse. "Thank you for finding my daughter."
"You're welcome," he answered. He held out one arm. "They're down here. Right this way." He motioned to a brightly lit hallway with walls painted a pale, institutional gray. After a few steps, Lucy paused. She turned back toward the detective. "Her father's French," Lucy said.
"Grace's father," she smiled. "He's French." It wasn't much, but it felt good to say it.
The detective nodded, waited for more. Lucy turned away.
Now what Lucy remembered most, what she could not get out of her mind, was seeing Grace and Alice say goodbye. Alice was not the rough, gum-chewing, hard-talking delinquent Lucy had expected. Petite and pretty, she seemed not much taller than five feet, Lucy guessed, and flat-chested, with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles over the bridge of her nose. She wore faded blue jeans ripped open at both knees, leather sandals, and a large, baggy T-shirt, perhaps her father's, that reached over her thighs.
Before leaving with her mother, Grace had stood and turned to Alice, and the two of them had pressed their foreheads together, wrapped skinny arms around shoulders, clenched in an awkward embrace. Grace wiped at Alice's tears with her fingertips. They stood looking at each other, crying, until Grace turned to leave with her mother.
Lucy pulled into the driveway and turned off the ignition but did not move to get out of the car.
"I'm sorry," Grace said, softly.
"Gracey." Lucy sighed. "I was so goddamn worried. I used up my whole heart today over you. You have no idea."
"I said I'm sorry." Grace repeated.
Lucy leaned across the car. She pulled Grace's head against her mouth, kissed her daughter so hard she bloodied her own lip. She tasted blood on her tongue. A pungent odor drifted from Grace's body, a smell that blended the sweetness of hay with Grace's sweat and the musky scent of horses.
"What did Jean Paul say?" Grace asked. "Did he tell you?"
Lucy opened her mouth to answer, but stopped. She stared at her daughter's beautiful face, barely distinguishable in the darkness. Of course. Grace had known exactly what to do. It made Lucy feel both angry and somewhat pleased to be known so well by her daughter. The revelation that Grace liked another girl had been tempered, smoothed of its sharpest edges, by Lucy's sheer joy at seeing Grace found alive and well.
"You're grounded," Lucy said.
"How long?" Grace said.
"Long enough." Lucy opened her purse, pulled out the envelope of pictures, placed them on her daughter's lap. "You should have these."
Grace leaned into her mother, and Lucy put an arm around her shoulders. She held her daughter as she used to when Grace was young and sad about something, but she knew the days she could provide the kind of comfort Grace needed were growing shorter. The daughter who left the house that morning had disappeared. Someone else had come back, someone beautiful and brave who would demand more of the world than it was ready to give.
Lucy pinched her eyes closed. The life Grace had chosen—the life which had chosen Grace—was not the life Lucy would have picked for her, but Lucy smiled as she realized, with painful recognition and some joy, that she and Grace would always have this in common: in their hearts they would carry the pain of loving something they could not fully have, and the pureness of the memory that first planted it there.
Title graphic: "Fillies" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.