I am afraid to go home. I’ve been sitting in a Denny’s all night. I’m so confused. My phone keeps dinging and vibrating under the napkin I’ve laid over it, but I’m afraid to look. My last phone call is still haunting me.

Yesterday was an ordinary day. I got up, took a shower, and went to work. My job is pointless. It’s just hours of standing around, selling people things they don’t need, but it pays the bills and there are worse things, you know?

It was a slow day and the younger kids that work there kept trying to sneak off to the back room to check their phones. Fucking technology. I’m old enough to remember when you were free to look people in the eye while you talked or go somewhere without being constantly tethered to your friends and their opinions via electronic signal. But I guess that’s just the new version of walking five miles to school uphill, barefoot, in the snow. Sometimes I just let them get on with it. I figure most of them have enough to deal with. Anyway, it didn’t matter; we were pretty dead.


Bad choice of words.

When I got off work, I called my mom. We were supposed to meet at my place and have our weekly mother daughter ritual. We’d go out to dinner, have a good, long talk about what I’m (not) doing with my life, the grandchildren she doesn’t have, and her worry that I’m selling myself short. I’m happy enough, but she never quite seems to get that. I suspect she thinks I’m lying; no way could anyone ever be happy if they aren’t a world renowned physist doing all sorts of important research. And I can’t tell her that I’d rather be selling ugly clothes for marked up prices than set foot back in a lab of any sort. But I love her. So we go out weekly and I listen to her worry, smile, tell her I love her, and promise to think about going back. Even if I know I’m lying, it makes her happy.

Anyway, I was late leaving the store, so I was just going to ask to meet up with her at the restaurant. I stepped into the mall bathrooms to freshen up and call her. When she answered, she was a little out of breath.

“Hi, sweetie. I’m here. All these stairs! One of these days, I’m going to have a heart attack climbing them.” I grinned at my phone; I like to think of the steep, narrow stairs up to my third floor apartment as my daily workout, no gym membership necessary.

“I hate to disappoint you,” I said, “But I’m not even there. I’m just leaving –”

“What’s that? I swear I can barely hear you over my own heartbeat. Hold on, let me catch my breath.” I heard her gulping down air and the familiar creak of my landing. The building is really a huge, old Victorian renovated into apartments. Mine, on the top floor, is the largest and gets the most sun.

When I rented it, I was in a state of meltdown. I needed to be someplace bright. Someplace cozy. Someplace where nothing is ever going to leap out of the dark. I rented it for the same reason I took on managing the bright store full of ugly clothes and bored kids. It was clean, safe, and perfectly normal.

“Oh thank God,” she said, “thank you for leaving the door open.”

“What?” I felt my fingers convulse on the phone. Even before I spoke, I knew I hadn’t misheard her. And I knew I’d closed and locked my door that morning. “Mom, I’m not even there–”

She was still babbling into the phone about needing to rest before we went, oblivious to my words. Like always, she kept talking on her phone, even though she thought I was a room away. I do it too, sometimes, a holdover from the days when you couldn’t take your phone with you everywhere. “Oh, darling, you’ve gone and forgot to water that palm Aunt Mary left you. Again.”

“Mom!” I shouted. “I’m not even–” I could feel my heartbeating against my ribcage, like it was trying to hammer free so it could run away. I was incapable of doing what my brain insisted I must. Hang up. Call the police. My mom might not be alone in my apartment. But my hand would not obey.

“I hear you, you don’t have to yell.” Despite her assurance she was going to sit down and rest, I know what she’s doing. She’s going to the kitchen to fill a pitcher with water. Because that’s what she does every week. And that meant she was getting deeper into my apartment.

“Mother! Get out of there!” I screamed. Even if it was an ordinary break in, that would be scary enough. But it could be something else. Something worse. And I’ve been waiting, haven’t I? For three years. Ever since I walked away to live in a normal apartment and work with ugly clothes.

There was a sharp intake of breath and then a small moan.

“Mom?” I was gripping the phone so tight the edges were cutting into my fingers and I was shaking so hard I had to go into a stall and sit down on the toilet. “Mom, answer me.” My voice was catching in my throat.

She gave a little breathy sob. “Oh no. Oh baby. Nononono….” I heard her phone hit the floor. I heard lots of noises, like someone scrambling on hands and knees over linoleum. I heard my mother wailing and screaming for help. I heard a distant door bang open and someone running up the stairs – my downstairs neighbor, Mike. A decent guy, always asks me out when he’s drunk, but not in a creepy way.

“Hello? What’s wrong?” he called from the front door. Mom just went on screaming and I was straining to hear, incapable of saying or doing anything, frozen in fear of what was going on. I heard him run through the living room, into my kitchen. “What’s…. OH MY GOD!” His yell makes me start to cry. There is something in it so startled I can’t help myself. It triggers one of my panic attacks. The ones no amount of pills, meditation, or hypnotherapy can stop.

“My baby, my baby,” my mother was weeping in the background. “What have you done, Annie? What have you done!”

“I’m here, I’m here!” I cried back, but Mom’s phone has been forgotten.

I heard Mike’s voice under hers, trembling with near panic, but still under control. “Ambulance.” I catch the word as Mom takes another deep, screamy breath.

“My baby! My baby is dead!” She wailed again and I buckled under those words, sobbing with her, the panic coming in waves as I tucked myself into a ball, close to breaking. Not as close as three years ago. But close enough.

“A lot of blood,” Mike says, closer to Mom’s phone than her. “Heart rate dropping. Ann D—” He’s an EMT I remember. He was getting hold of himself and he was going to fix this, He was going to save Annie. The thought only twisted my panic tighter; Annie is me. But I was in an ugly mall bathroom with fake plants and bleach smells. So who the hell was my mother screaming over on my kitchen floor?

I heard someone pick up the phone. “Hello?” Mike’s voice was still shaking, but he was regaining control.

“Mike, it’s me! It’s Ann! What is happening?” I was crying, choking on my tears. I heard him breathing for a couple seconds. “Hello?” There was a soft click, cutting my mother’s panicked voice off instantly.

I got a hold of myself, I had to; I was so worried about Mom. For some reason, Mike hanging up on me let me get some semblence of control. I called Mom’s phone. No one answered. I called again and it went straight to voicemail. I called 911. The operator didn’t understand me and, when I finally got her to listen,, she scolded me for pranking an emergency line. Then she hung up.

I got to my car and drove home, my fingers convulsing on the steering wheel as I watched my apartment building swarming with police. They took someone out on a stretcher, but I was too far away to see a face. My mom came out, her face a mess of smeared make up and tears. I wanted to run to her. But there was a man with her. Not Mike. A different man.

I’d only ever seen him at a distance. At the end of hallways, slipping behind doors that snapped shut and locked when they were released to keep the wrong people out… and other things in. He’d almost always been there on RED days, watching from high windows, writing on his little clipboard. The sight of him was terrifying. And it locked me up so that, by the time I realized there were too many witnesses, that they could touch me here, he was gone. With my mother.

I called every hospital in the area. No Ann, Annie, or Annabelle D— has been admitted anywhere. Mom’s phone just keeps going to voicemail. Dad’s too, not that I thought he’d know anything; he calls me once a year on my birthday and hasn’t spoken to Mom since the divorce was final. I don’t have friends anymore; I left them behind with my old life.

Then the texts started. They had Mom’s name on them, but calling her phone only sent me to voicemail again. “Where are you?” they keep asking. “Didn’t we have plans?” And I’m really scared. I’m scared to answer. I’m scared not to. I’m scared to even consider what might have happened to her.

I found this Denny’s and I’ve been here all night, drinking cup after cup of bad coffee and trying to get up enough nerve to answer those messages, trying to convince myself it’s safe to turn the phone over. That nothing can see me through the camera on it. But I don’t really believe that.

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