A number of years ago a mother and her daughter were in their home. The mother was busy with something. She was washing dishes, perhaps.
“Mom!” came the voice of the daughter.
They had a standing rule that the daughter could not simply yell at the mother from across the house. The mother ignored the voice.
“Mom,” the voice said.
“Don’t yell at me. If you need something, come to me and ask me,” the mother said and went to wipe the table down.
“Mom,” the voice said again.
The mother put down the wash rag and went to the back of the house, following the voice. The mother didn’t stomp, but she let her feet fall heavier than was necessary. She went back to the room. The daughter wasn’t there.
“Where are you?” the mother said.
“Right here. I need help with this leotard,” the daughter said.
She wasn’t there. The mother opened the closet. No one there.
“Where are you?” the mother said, her voice rising like bubbles in water.
“I’m right here. But I’m not modest, and I can’t get this leotard on right,” the girl said as the mother attempted to follow where the voice was coming from. It wasn’t in the closet, it wasn’t in the room. She checked the bathroom. She checked her own room. It wasn’t anywhere. Her daughter wasn’t anywhere.
“Well,” the daughter’s voice said. “I guess I can do it myself.”
“I’ll help you. I just have to know where you are,” the mother said.
“Whatever,” the daughter said.
The mother searched the house, pounded the walls, sought the daughter into the night, but could not find her. She fell asleep in the daughter’s room, pillow damp with tears.
The next morning she awoke to her daughter’s voice. She went downstairs, following the voice.
“Mom!” the voice said. “Where are you?”
“I’m right here. I’m coming. Are you in the kitchen?” the mother said.
“Are you going to make me breakfast before school?” the girl asked.
“Sure! Yes!” she said. She ran to the kitchen. The daughter wasn’t there. The woman collapsed at the table.
“I guess I’ll make it myself,” the daughter said.
There was a knock at the door. The mother went to answer it, but heard her daughter’s voice there, already outside. The mother looked out the front window and saw her daughter’s friend, the girl she normally walked to school with, walking by herself but appearing to be in conversation.
The woman called in sick to work and stayed home. She cleaned the house and watched the clock. At the time her daughter usually arrived home, she ran to the door, opened it to find no one there. She went outside, sat on the lawn. As she sat their she saw her daughter’s friend approach, alone, on the sidewalk, stop in front of the house, say “Goodbye!”, and walk on.
She watched all of this in wonder and then recovered herself enough to call out to the friend. She rushed out to the sidewalk.
“Who were you talking to?” she nearly shouted.
“Just Trina,” the girl said. Trina was the woman’s daughter.
“You’ve seen her?” the woman said.
“Yes! She just went right up to the house, just now. She said she was going inside for a cheese stick.”
The woman did not know what to say. The girl waved goodbye and left.
The woman and her daughter went on like this all through highschool. She did not see her daughter, but would sometimes hear her voice in the house. She would attend school plays in which the girl had a part. Sit in the stands for volleyball and basketball games. Accept congratulations from other parents at debates and for awards and graduations and her daughter’s other accomplishments. But she saw nothing of the girl or her feats and handled other parents’ compliments with a dazed expression.
This was true for the girls’ wedding. She witnessed a ceremony between a groom and thin air. She heard a thicker, matured voice like her daughter’s say, “I do.” She saw the groom dip a specter down for a kiss. She declined to toast at the reception. She didn’t know what she’d say.
She turned these things over in her mind, late at night. Why? she’d think. I must have done something. There must have been something I did to deserve it. If only I knew what I’ve done. Then she’d fall asleep.
A few years later she opened a letter bearing her daughter’s new name. Her hands shook. She removed a photograph. A hollied border read “Greetings, from the three of us!”
She knew that she should see her daughter, her daughter’s husband, and her tiny granddaughter smiling and happy for the camera. She saw only an out-of-focus clump of evergreens, meant to be the background, standing in as the subject in a subjectless photo. She looked for a while at the picture then stood up and walked to the kitchen and stuck the picture to the refrigerator with a magnet.