The morning began with the air horn alarm on Jessica’s phone. She blinked bleary eyes as she tried to bring herself to raise a hand to shut it off. Jessica felt like it took more time to come back to consciousness each morning, sleep dragging her deeper and deeper under every night since…
Every night since Lucy disappeared.
The tears came every morning when she remembered what had happened. She could not bring herself to accept it had happened. That this hell of a life had become her truth.
“Damn it,” she whispered, wiping her cheeks surreptitiously. Mike’s shoulder loomed behind her and she felt no movement from her husband’s side. She reached for her phone to quiet the alarm. Still no sign of him waking. Or at least of him acknowledging her awareness. He hadn’t spoken to her in three days. Why would today be any different?
Jessica climbed out of the bed, the smell of the musty sheets following her. They hadn’t been changed in weeks. Who cared? Still drying the tears from her face she walked to the bathroom, pausing at the vanity mirror. She didn’t recognize the person staring back. She was thin, sickly thin, her bones protruding and her skin yellowing. She barely ate, her stomach stayed tied in knots constantly. Her husband had also lost a lot of weight. Their nightly family dinners with second helpings of roast chicken were a thing of the past. No matter what happened from this point forward their lives would never be the same.
She had deep circles of purple under her eyes, bruise like and suspicious. Sleep was the one thing Jessica could still do since Lucy vanished. It was her only escape, her time travel to the life she had had before. But she still never rested. Her body ached with the strain of her wishing and the dreams left their marks on her body and her psyche the same as starving.
Jessica had been pretty once. She was far enough removed from her pride now to admit it. And the creature who returned her stare from the mirror world was decidedly not pretty. She lacked Jessica’s smile with the slight overbite, her bright green eyes the color of Spring grass, and her effervescence that allowed her to draw a smile from the most disgruntled resident at the nursing home where she worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide.
No longer. In fact, she looked like she should be a resident at the home herself, emaciated,brows thick with weeks of untamed growth, hair thinning and laying limp over her bony shoulders.
She sighed, glancing away from the red veined, red rimmed eyes that did actually belong to her. She proceeded to go through the motions of getting ready for work, showering, brushing her teeth, and pulling her light blue scrubs on. It took her ten minutes. Jessica could remember a time she would be in the shower for an hour, grooming, styling, applying various creams, and performing a full glam makeup routine. She had taken pride in her appearance, she wanted to look good for her husband, and prove that marriage and motherhood did not a lazy woman make.
Another thing that had gone out the window on that cool, summer night, along with her five-year-old daughter.
She walked through her bedroom, Mike had not moved, but he lay awake, his eyes open, fixed and un-moving on the wall. Unlike Jessica he had not returned to work in the weeks since the police first filed the missing child report. He spent most days at the police station, waiting, watching, coming home at the end of each work day, shoulders sagging a little more.
He talked about the case constantly, obsessed over it. In his evening hours he created his own wall of hints and leads, a timeline of the evening before, a bullet list of every potentially odd thing he’d seen the night before when he returned from work that evening, the last day he’d gone to work.
Jessica listened but wished he would just shut up. Every time he said Lucy’s name a piece of her shattered, she wasn’t sure how many pieces of her were left un-smashed. For the thousandth time that morning she wondered if people really ever died from heartbreak. And would it take her or Mike first.
Jessica left the house, carefully locking the door behind her. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk that led to her driveway, eyes deliberately avoiding the front of the house where her daughter’s window looked out from. There was a black garbage bag over it, though the glass was not broken.
The drive to her workplace was not long, she worked a couple of neighborhoods over from her own, some days when the weather was nice she would walk. Lucy’s daycare was in the same neighborhood and Jessica could remember walking with her daughter along the street in the early morning sun, laughing and pointing out all the dogs in the area.
She arrived at the nursing home half an hour before her shift was due to start but she clocked in anyway. They were always short staffed and needed the extra help.
“Hey, Jess,” another CNA, Judith, ran up to her side, eyes wide with sympathy and possibly alarm at Jessica’s condition. “How are you? How’s Mike?”
Jessica shrugged, her pain was too obvious to politely brush off Judith’s question.
“Well, I am glad you’re here. Carl has been an ass all morning and you are the only one who can handle him like this.”
Carl was nonverbal and bedridden. But he could be as mean as any of the more agile residents. He resisted baths, flailing his arms and throwing punches at the nurse aides. He had always had more of a soft spot for Jessica, a pretty face had a way of breaking down barriers. He was generally her resident during her shifts, in charge of his baths, changing his clothes, and getting him to take his myriad array of meds.
“I got him,” Jessica assured her.
“Thanks, he cold-clocked Anastasia an hour ago, nobody has tried to go near him since. He definitely needs a diaper change. Let us know when you are ready and we’ll send help.” Judith smiled at her again, trying to be kind and left, hustling away to tend to another resident who was screaming about needing to pee.
Jessica sympathized more with Carl in the recent weeks, he had every right to be pissed at the world, robbed of things precious to his humanity. He had been a Vietnam veteran, lost a leg overseas, the other badly damaged and eventually needing to be amputated as well. His nonverbal status was most likely psychological, his doctor had informed them when he was admitted. He hadn’t talked since he had lost his first leg. Likely he would never recover his speech.
Since Lucy had been stolen from her Jessica had been plenty pissed herself. At the kidnapper, at the police, at Mike, and at herself. She wanted to hit somebody constantly too. But she pushed open Carl’s room door and grunted a greeting to the obstinate old man instead.
He grunted back, eyes narrowing at her in recognition. He preferred her company over the other CNAs but he still had never smiled at her. It had bothered her before but not anymore. It was comforting to not feel pressured to smile back at someone. It was weird that during tragedy people smiled at you so much more, when you felt least like smiling yourself.
She sat beside him and patted his arm. He had bruises on his wrist. She raised an eyebrow at him and then looked at the door.
He grunted in admission. He had hit Anastasia then, and hard from the size of the blue splotch spreading over his thin, sun-browned skin. Jessica shook her head and pulled her blood pressure cuff from her pocket. She checked it, making sure his morning antics did not require additional meds to offset the excitement. It was normal, normal at least for a vet with PTSD who couldn’t walk or speak.
She pushed the cuff back in her pocket and leaned back in the chair, momentarily enjoying the solitude that only two people with shattered souls can share.
A food tray sat to the side of the hospital bed with Carl’s untouched breakfast on it. A juice box had been overturned from the tumult of the morning. A covered tray, dense with humidity, blurring the lines of the scrambled eggs and turkey sausage inside. A slightly burnt piece of toast with a corner nibbled off sat on the edge of the tray with an open milk carton beside it. On the back, Jessica’s only child stared back at her.
My name is Lucy.
Have you seen me?
Height: 3 ft 2 in
Weight: 39 lbs
Hair Color: Red
Eye Color: Green
Last seen: Highland Avenue, Park City, Kansas.
Missing Since: 09/08/2017
Carl’s wrinkled hand grasping Jessica’s was the only thing that could have brought her back from the chaos of her mind at that moment. She was thankful she had been sitting, her legs were shaking, every part of her body was shaking. Hot tears pooled in her eyes, stinging them before they overflowed onto her cheeks. She gripped Carl’s hand with every thing she had in her and bent over him, sobbing. His other hand rested on her shoulder and he waited, eyebrows drawn in the same grimace they always exhibited.
She cried hard and like a strong summer storm, it blew out of her quickly, leaving her soaked and limp. She sat up slowly, now her eyes could not avoid those of her daughter’s, her last school photo, the only school photo she had ever taken. She just started kindergarten that year. Lucy had been so excited to take school pictures. She had been absolutely delighted when her mother had shown her the dated ones of her and Mike, goofy toothless grins smiling out of sepia toned photographs.
She wore a gray and yellow striped sleeveless dress with a white lace trimmed cardigan over top. Jessica had braided her hair that morning, both waking up half an hour early to accomplish the look. She had plaited her red locks into three braids and pulled them together in a high ponytail in the back.
How could Jessica have known that would be her last school picture? That it would be the picture the police would request to distribute on social media and the news? That it would be plastered all over the Missing Persons boards at Walmart and rest stops?
“I’m…here,” a gravelly voice crashed into Jessica’s ear and she jerked her head back. Carl was still frowning at her but his grip on her hand was strong and sure.
“I’m here,” he repeated.
It wasn’t enough. But Jessica tightened her hand on his and did something she hadn’t since before she walked into her daughter’s room that night all those weeks ago, pulled by an instinct unlike anything she had felt before and found her daughter’s Doc McStuffins sheets cold and vacant. She forced herself to smile.