"Yo, chica!" Max reached up to high five Alondra as she climbed down from the bus and leapt to the ground. His leather jacket squeaked when he moved and he radiated with spiced cologne. He threw an arm around her shoulders as they made their way toward the school, but she shrugged it off. "What's up, girl? You look down!"
"I have to look down to see you," she muttered bitterly.
"Ouch," he flinched with sarcasm, clutching his chest. "Good one. So what's goin' on?"
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. She swallowed them back and cleared her throat. "Wait until we get to our lockers."
In anticipated silence, the two entered the enclosed halls and passed rows of burnt orange lockers until they reached the end. Their lockers were opposite each other. Each retrieved their books and met in the middle of the hall as students streamed past them on either side.
"So what is going on?" Max demanded.
"My mother is gone," Alondra reached into the pocket of her scarlet jeans for the note and passed it to him. "See? She wrote this. But she promised to not leave without me."
Max scanned the note and gave it back. "Dang, chica."
"Yeah," Alondra agreed. "You can mention this to Danielle, Monica, and Jordan. No one else."
"Got it," he nodded.
"Good," she bypassed him as the bell rang. "I'll see you guys after school."
"What about lunch?" he shouted after her.
"I've got plans!" she called over her shoulder.
The anticipation of their lunch break was agonizing. Alondra was reprimanded twice for texting in class, but when Mrs. Driver threatened to confiscate her phone, she promised to stop. Not one of the texts she sent her mom received a reply, anyway.
At the metallic ring of the bell, she leapt up with her backpack over one shoulder and strode out ahead of her class. As the students poured into the halls behind her, she checked her phone. Upon seeing no reply, she moved in the opposite direction of the sea of classmates to seek out privacy outside the main doors.
There, right against the building, she smeared her sweaty palms on her black shirt. With a deep breath and a rapidly beating heart, she dialed her phone and pressed it to her ear.
"Please, God, help me," she whispered.
There was a scuffle and mariachi music serenaded the background. "Hola! You've reached the Gallo Rojo restaurant. May I help you?"
"Hey, Renée. Has my mom come in to work today?"
"No, we haven't seen her!" Renée answered. "I called the apartment. What time did she leave?"
Alondra breathed faster. "Uh… she didn't. There was a note on the table last night that told Stephen she was leaving, and she hasn't come home since."
"Oh, honey!" Renée cried. "Listen, you call me tonight. I will be home by eight."
"Will do," she answered, pressing a finger into her other ear to hear her over street noise. "Call me if you hear or see anything."
Alondra shoved the phone back in her pocket and pressed her back against the brick building. She slid down until she sat on the ground. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she gasped for breath. She did not bring a lunch and the change in her pocket was reserved for transportation.
Her mother had not gone to work. She had worked there for twenty years.
Could she have not gone in because Stephen would know where to look? No, even if that was the case, she would have called Renée and explained the situation. Renée was fiercely loyal and would never have given Stephen information Lisa did not want him to have.
She could skip class and go to the police station. But the school would call home and Stephen would hear about what she did. Instead, she dialed her phone again and listened to the rings and the sound of Lisa saying, "This is Lisa! Leave a message!"
Alondra checked the time. She would run out soon. Fire truck sirens wailed down the street with flashes of cherry lights. Cab drivers blared their horns at a black car that hesitated to resume after traffic crept onward. A man with drooping pants, who was probably fresh out of high school (assuming he graduated), whistled at her as he sauntered down the street.
The phone beeped with a text. She scrambled to answer it. Her shoulders drooped when she realized it was Danielle.
Danielle: Where are you? Are you okay?
Alondra: Trying to get ahold of my mom.
Danielle: Have you checked social media?
No. Alondra clamored up and sneaked around the school building until she reached the corner. Principal Moore restricted internet access to students because of the distractions it caused, but she could pick up the connections of a restaurant and a book store when she got close enough.
After choosing the book store signal, which was the strongest at the moment, she checked every social media account her mother ever had. The last photos on two accounts were of the two of them with their iced coffee and iced tea two days prior.
"Selfie time!" Lisa had exclaimed while leaning back with her phone in the air. She snapped photos every time the two did something fun together, which was often. Not posting a single thing in two days was unusual.
She checked the other accounts. On one, there was a photo of her mother grinning and surrounded by black curls down to her shoulders. The caption was "Time to work!" and was posted the day before.
One last account. This one had one last status update from the day before, at the end of her work shift: "So done with this B.S."
What could that mean? She could have meant customers at work. But what if she meant with her marriage? But even if it did, her mother would have brought her. But it was May. Could Lisa have wanted her to complete the school year? She could have decided to come back for her. But she would have said something! She and Alondra were the best of friends, always.
Alondra wiped the tears from her eyes as the bell rang. She would have to continue this later.
She received several exasperated looks from her teachers after missing questions and being generally distracted. She wanted to desperately to shout back, "Do you know what's on my mind?! It's bigger than school!" but she had to limit the number of people who knew. Stephen did not need to hear that she was second guessing his declaration that Lisa had left them.
After school, she made her way to the school vending machine at the end of the hall. She put in enough money for a can of sparkling orange juice and picked it up when it rolled into the dispensary at the bottom of the machine. She then inserted earbuds into her ears and started playing "Horses" by Tori Amos on her phone. She had no desire to speak to anyone on her way outside, and this was a reasonable deterrent.
She exited the school and continued up the street until she came to the basketball court she had so much fun at the evening before. She climbed up the concrete steps and onto the court, where Danielle and Jordan and Max were shooting the ball in turn.
Danielle thrust the ball into the air. It dropped beside the hoop and crashed against the chain link. Alondra picked it up and shot it back to her.
"Oh my gosh, I am so sorry!" Danielle dropped the basketball and rushed to embrace her. The cherry vanilla perfume she wore was the soothing scent of a familiar friend. "Have you heard anything yet?"
"No," Alondra answered quietly. "And she hasn't posted anything online since yesterday."
"Here, let's sit down," Jordan dropped to the asphalt and crossed his legs. The rest of them circled around and looked to Alondra.
"So what happened, exactly?" Max asked, like a police officer interviewing a witness.
"She was late coming home yesterday," Alondra answered matter-of-factly. "Stephen and I agreed to search for her after a certain time, but he saw a note on the table that said she left. It was definitely her writing, but she always said that when she left him, she would give me notice so I could pack."
"And she never did?" Danielle confirmed.
"No. There was no sign of her leaving."
"Well, you know she would never really leave you permanently," Danielle assured her with a shake of her head. "She must have taken a day or two to cool down."
"Without saying anything?" Alondra said skeptically.
"Look, my dad left us years ago," Jordan broke in. "It sucks, but it does happen."
"But not my mom," Alondra answered firmly.
"Right," he snorted. "Ten years ago, I would have said the same about my dad."
"Dude," Max chastised. "The girl is clearly upset, and you're making it worse."
"No, I want you all to help me figure out what happened," Alondra assured him. "Challenge me. But Jordan, be honest. Your dad was involved in some bad things. So was mine. She would never get into the things that our dads got messed up in."
"What do you think happened?" Danielle asked.
Alondra looked down at her crossed legs. "She either really did abandon us, or someone did something bad to her."
"What about the note?" Jordan asked.
"She either wrote it before she left us, or it could be part of a cover up somehow."
"Who would have…? Oh!" Danielle widened her eyes with realization. "Stephen saw it! You think he could have forged it?"
Alondra shrugged. "It definitely looks like she wrote it. His handwriting is not nearly as nice. But however slim it is, that's the other option."
Her companions stared at her.
"Well," she announced as she got up, "I better go. I have to beat Stephen home so I can look around, see if she brought her purse and phone and all that."
"You be careful!" Danielle admonished her.
"Call if you need anything!" Max offered.
"Hope you find her!" Jordan called.
Pigeons scattered when Alondra leapt down the steps and strode down the street. She waved at two cabs before one pulled aside for her.
The ride home seemed surreal. She was either on her way to a home that her mother abandoned, or a home that contained the murderer of her mother. The realization that those were the two primary possibilities sent a chill down her spine.
She should be scared. But the entire situation seemed too crazy to be real.
As the cab driver stopped ahead of her building, she checked the clock. Good. She should have an hour before Stephen came home.
She paid and thanked the driver, then gathered her backpack and made her way up the steps. She unlocked the door and peered inside. The entire place was silent. She entered and closed and locked the door behind her.
Down the hall and to the right was the room her mother and Stephen slept in. She arrived at the door and pressed her ear against it to make absolute sure he was not home. When she heard nothing, she creaked it open and entered.
The room was made to look old. The sheetrock appeared to have peeled away from exposed brick in several areas. The wood beneath her shoes creaked. The emerald green satin comforter was mangled on the bed. The cream sheets were twisted. She slid open the closet door that was against the wall beside the door.
Shoes everywhere. Stephen used the dresser against the wall at the foot of the bed, and that was all he needed. Lisa used the entire closet because of her rows of shoes, and the purses that dangled on one side. The purse she most often used was gone. Alondra dialed her phone number and listened. It rang, but there was no sound of it in the apartment.
But what about clothes? She moved them aside in each direction. Yesterday, her mother had worn the dress shirt and pants required by the restaurant. These were gone. But she could not think of a single personal article of clothing her mother owned that she did not see in the closet.
She swept aside all the clothes with one arm and leaned into the closet. Behind the purses and scarves should be –
"What are you doing?"
Alondra jerked back out of the closet. Stephen stood in the doorway with crossed arms and a scowl.
She either left on her own accord, or she didn't.
"I-I was looking for this scarf," she withdrew an aqua summer scarf printed with pink roses. "She and I share it. And I miss her already."
He softened ever so slightly and dropped his arms. "All right. Come on out. I'll make pasta."
Alondra carried the scarf out with her and crossed the hall to her room. She set it on the dresser, because Lorelei never bothered to leap onto it, and met him in the kitchen to make dinner.
Come eight o'clock, she was back in her room. Stephen had acted completely normal at dinner. For him, this meant almost complete silence. Then she had cleaned the cat box and showered. She had assignments to do, but first came the most important one – contacting Renée.
Alondra: Hey! You said to call, but I don't want to disturb Stephen.
Renée: Totally fine, honey. Have you heard from her?
Alondra: No. I assume you haven't, either.
Renée: Not yet.
Alondra: She either chose to leave, or something bad happened.
Renée: I know. You know she would never leave you, right?
Alondra: Yes. But she did leave that note. Could we be wrong?
Renée: Honey, I have known your mother for twenty years. No.
Tears stung Alondra's eyes as she typed.
Alondra: So you do believe she's gone.
Renée: I believe she would never leave you.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes closed and stifled a sob. Then, with a deep breath, she continued:
Alondra: Has she said anything to you that would alarm you?
Renée: She said she was tired of Stephen and wanted to leave. But you know that meant with you.
Did she? She certainly thought so. But did she know anymore?
Alondra: I'm going to file a missing person report tomorrow. Keep in touch.
Renée: You, too, honey.