It was well past seven a.m. on a school day when Ruth Woodbine came bustling into the kitchen. Her forehead shiny with sweat, the mother of five stopped short to gather her dark, frizzy hair into a bun, and the elastic band’s snap signaled she was, at last, ready to feed her children and get them out the door. Her hasty attempt to look pulled together included a tailored suit in need of a few more passes of the iron; it pulled across the bust and seat. Pushing out one kid every two years, starting in her mid-thirties, had made her weight go up and up. Now she was too exhausted to manage it or care. Ruth glanced over her shoulder to make sure her children were awake and ready for the walk to the bus.
But only four of them were seated at the table.
“Where’s Daisy?” she asked. The little monsters paid no mind. Too busy acting up. Again.
Her oldest girl teased their shih tzu. She kept showing the dog a red rubber ball, only pretending to throw it. Sad how her ten-year-old took satisfaction in making Keiko jump and bark, denying her the pleasure of play.
The brown-and-white dog lurched when Ruth snatched the ball away from her oldest girl and whacked it against the baseboard, sending crumb-infested dust motes flying along with the dog.
Ben, her youngest boy, strapped into his booster seat, belted out, “Let it go, let it go,” as his stubby legs kicked the table’s underside. Adding to the running-late morning cacophony, eight-year-old Zelda beat her spoon against her glass so hard that the orange juice spilled out. Not that it mattered. Their family table was never not sticky.
Yanking the refrigerator door open, Ruth reached over greasy fast-food bags to grab the milk. One sniff of the carton’s contents and she grimaced. Too bad Nate couldn’t tear himself away from his computer long enough to help out around here or at least go to the store, she thought as she slammed the door shut and glanced at the kids. Spoiled milk hadn’t killed them. Not yet.
Twelve-year-old Josh, still in his pajamas, was seated opposite Briony. His hands pantomimed playing a video game, a life-and-death battle that continued inside her oldest boy’s head during those rare moments when he wasn’t in front of the console in the family room. Autistic, he had limited capacity for speech. Then there was his inability to look directly at anyone.
As Zelda whacked her glass harder, Josh let loose a series of pained mews.
With such force did Ruth wrench the spoon away from her middle daughter that red welts rose on the eight-year-old’s slender arm.
The utensil clattered as Ruth hurled it more at the sink than in it, a sink choked with last night’s dinner dishes. “Stop it, all of you. I don’t have time for this.”
The children quieted as Ruth rationed what was left of the milk into five bowls, then plunked their cereal bowls down on the table. Seeing the clock now showed seven thirty, she cursed under her breath.
Turning toward the hallway, she yelled, “Daisy, come on! School!”
While Ruth waited on her youngest girl, the six-year-old, to join them, she busied herself with her husband’s scrambled eggs, ignoring the grumbles of “ew” and “tastes yucky” that came from the breakfast table as the little ingrates ate their Frosted Flakes. She was about to tell them to shut up when her husband, skinny in his baggy sweatpants and frayed T-shirt, padded into the kitchen, yawning expansively. Nate worked nights. She knew he’d go back to sleep after he walked the kids to the bus. Lucky guy. Ruth had a full day ahead, no less than eight patients lined up. It was her job as a child audiologist that paid most of their bills, not his.
Nate tousled Josh’s hair. “How you doing, buddy?”
The twelve-year-old jerked his head away and returned to the family room off the kitchen where his video game was on pause.
As her oldest left the table, Ruth noticed the seat of Josh’s pajama bottoms was wet. He’d pissed himself. Again. She let out an exasperated sigh as the sound of machine gun fire and explosions started up again.
“Daisy!” Ruth shouted above the din. “Fifteen minutes till the bus!”
She watched as Nate caressed Briony’s hair and kissed her cheek, making noises like a duck. While their oldest girl giggled, Ruth turned her attention to the eggs. They’d burned.
She didn’t notice Nate move on to Zelda or see how slowly her husband ran his fingers through her hair. She didn’t see the care he took as he leaned in to kiss their middle daughter’s face or how he inhaled the still-sweet scent of the eight-year-old’s skin. Ruth didn’t see the glance he made at her, still turned away from the table, from him, as she attempted to salvage his morning meal.
Not every mother has eyes in the back of her head. Or wants to see.
As Nate trudged over to his place at the breakfast bar, his hand brushed against the chair that should, by now, be occupied by Daisy. Settling into the bar stool, he smoothed his walrus mustache, badly in need of a trim, and woke up his laptop’s screen. When Ruth brought over the charred eggs, his eyes raked across the mess of unopened bills and half-completed homework scattered across the breakfast bar and said, “Anyone seen my wallet?”
“No.” Ruth placed her hands on her hips. “Will you go get her? She can’t miss the bus.”
Nate shot up before his wife could even stop talking. Kicking aside tossed-off backpacks and forgotten toys, he made his way down the hallway to Daisy’s room.
While Ruth looked on, Nate halted at the last open doorway. She listened as he said, “Come on now, Daze. Time for school.”
Not entering, he scratched his head. “Where you at?” It wasn’t long before his wife’s clipped footsteps came down the hallway, accompanied by an agitated Keiko, for the dog must have sensed its mistress’s mood.
With a push past her husband, Ruth entered Daisy’s room. The bed was empty.
Ruth wheeled on Nate. “Where is she?”
Drawn by Keiko’s bark, Briony and Zelda crowded into the doorway.
Nate offered to check the kids’ bathroom. As he squeezed past Zelda and Briony, Ruth ordered the girls to check their rooms along with their brothers’.
As she waited, Ruth saw something else was missing besides her daughter.
When Nate and the girls returned with shrugs and shaking heads, she pointed out Daisy’s comforter was gone. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something else was missing besides that. Ruth gave Nate a stare that shouted, Don’t just stand there; do something.
“Bet she slept in the car again,” Nate replied sheepishly as he headed back to the kitchen, speaking loud now as if to remind his wife he was still the man of the house, even if he wasn’t the breadwinner. “Don’t panic. I’ll check the garage.”
They followed, pressed against his back, only to stop in the kitchen to watch him leave through the laundry room, the dog trailing after. Ruth checked on Josh. No surprise he was impervious to her agitation and concern. She could barely hear over the rat-a-tat-tat, kaboom! of that idiotic video game as Nate called out for Daisy. She had a mind to run over and kick the damn screen in, but the dread of her son’s reaction stopped her. The games kept Josh occupied so she didn’t have to.
Instead, Ruth tapped her foot. “Well?” she shouted toward the laundry room and the garage beyond.
It was a few seconds before Nate shouted back that no, Daisy wasn’t in the car. He’d check out front. Ruth listened as the overhead garage door ground and squeaked as it opened, then ordered Briony and Zelda to search the backyard in case Daisy had let the dog out to pee in the middle of the night. She knew there was no way she could have wandered off. The backyard, surrounded by a six-foot-high fence, had a gate that was always padlocked.
Ben rocked back and forth in his booster seat to the point where he was about to topple over. She let him loose, and he settled on the couch beside his older brother, who never, not once, took his eyes off his video game despite the mounting family crisis.
Breathless, Briony and Zelda came back inside to say Daisy wasn’t out back.
“Don’t panic, my ass,” Ruth muttered as she reached for the landline portable on the breakfast bar. She punched 911. Struggling to hear as it rang, she had to stick her finger in her ear to block out the racket from Josh’s game. More to escape from the noise than anything, Ruth trotted back to Daisy’s bedroom. Maybe her youngest daughter was the one playing games. Wouldn’t be the first time. Ruth did a mad search, rifling through clothes in the closet. No Daisy. She poked her head under the bed. Nope. Not there either.
“Nine one one, what is your emergency?” came the voice of the dispatcher as Ruth hoisted herself up off the floor with a grunt. The sight of the curtains moving made her draw in a sharp breath. The window was open. But how could that be? They blasted the air-conditioning day and night.
Ruth jerked the curtain back. Yes, the window was open, but only by a few inches. Not enough for a six-year-old to crawl out.
The dispatcher’s voice came back more insistent. “Nine one one, do you need police, fire, or medical assistance?”
Shoving the window all the way up, Ruth leaned out, seeing the mesh bug screen had been removed and was now leaning against the side of the house.
She shouted into the phone, “Somebody took my daughter!”