by Marco Etheridge
Rayna sat in front of the mirror removing her makeup and wondered whom she would discover underneath. Would it be the business professional, the good wife, or the mother of two college-aged sons? She swabbed her cheeks with an organic cotton pad, stripping away eighty-dollar-an-ounce foundation. Which of her carefully nurtured personae would appear from under that very expensive mask?
She knew the grey eyes staring back at her, the eyes of Rayna Parks, personal investment manager. A woman who looked out for her clients, got things done and took no prisoners. Rayna ran an oiled wipe across her lips. Even without a blaze of color, she knew how to throw a come-hither pout that put to shame women half her age.
Being sexy enough to keep Samuel interested was an important part of being a forty-eight-year-old wife. Competing with younger women was a given in every marriage. Keeping sexual tension alive was an essential part of her winning strategy. Twenty-five years married, and so far it was working. When Samuel came home from one of his late meetings, he smelled of cigars, not twenty-something interns.
Rayna saw all three of her faces reflected in the mirror, faces she wore well. But there was another reflection hidden beneath the others, one she tried to ignore, the image of Rayna as the dutiful daughter to a widowed mother. And deeper yet, her mother’s stubborn grey eyes, eyes that looked like Rayna’s, but filled with doubt and suspicion.
The beautiful reflection in the mirror twisted into a snarl. Rayna crumpled a makeup-stained pad and threw it at her mother’s eyes. The wad of cotton bounced off the mirror and fell to the glass-topped dressing table.
Silvia Carter, seventy-eight, widowed mother of Rayna Carter, née Parks, and the bane of Rayna’s successful existence. Rayna loved her mother, which went without saying, but the old woman was as hard-headed as a mule.
After the fire, Rayna sat Silvia down for a daughter-mother talk. Silvia could no longer live alone. It was an issue of safety. Rayna stressed how positive the move would be, how much Silvia would enjoy it. It was an independent living facility, one of the best in Boston. It was not a nursing home, nothing like that.
Silvia refused to listen to her only daughter. She just shook her head no, again and again. Rayna was at the end of her rope. After all, the crazy old woman tried to burn down the Boston brownstone, the house Rayna grew up in. The workmen were still repairing the charred kitchen. Rayna kept after her mother, but Silvia’s only response was that she was living independently at home, thank you very much.
Then came the doctors. Rayna had to force her mother to go. They tested Silvia’s cognitive skills, which she thought was silly. They subjected her to scans, which she complained about. In the middle of the doctor’s office, still wearing her paper gown, Silvia threatened a boycott of all clinics if her daughter did not relent.
Lacking a willing patient, the doctors ceased testing and moved on to a preliminary diagnosis. With the recalcitrant Silvia tucked safely away in an examining room, they spoke to Rayna. The doctors talked about the effects of old age, about dementia and moderate decline.
That had been two weeks ago. Rayna agreed with everything the doctors told her. She saw the evidence in her mother’s actions, in her forgetfulness. She saw it in her mother’s stubborn refusal to move to a facility where she would receive proper care and attention. A week slipped by, and Rayna failed to take action. It was one of Rayna’s rare mistakes. Now she was paying the price. Her mother, Silvia Carter, had disappeared.
Seven frantic days passed without a word. Her mother was nowhere to be found. The old woman had simply vanished into thin air. A search of the brownstone revealed no signs of a struggle, no evidence of forced entry. The only items missing were Rayna’s mother, her mother’s purse, at least one suitcase, and the old Mercedes sedan her father had purchased thirty years ago.
The police were all but useless. They agreed that Silvia Carter was gone, but pointed out that Ms. Carter was an adult, implying that she could go where she pleased. Rayna filed a missing person report. From the patronizing tone in the officer’s voice, Rayna was sure the report was forgotten the minute she left the station. If anything was going to be done, she would have to do it herself. Rayna called in a few favors and got the name of a fixer, a man named Charles Schroeder.
Rayna cursed her reflection, cursed the vanity, and cursed the empty bedroom. She never shirked her responsibilities, not as a wife, not as a mother, and not as an only daughter. It was her job to find her mother, even if Silvia didn’t want to be found. Whenever her mother created a family crisis, it was Rayna who got stuck with damage control. It was so damned unfair, so thoughtless.
Ten years ago, when her father passed, it was Rayna who had made all the funeral arrangements, Rayna who comforted her mother. The business of death wouldn’t wait, and she was all business. Did anyone thank her for that? No, they did not. So much for being the dutiful daughter.
Rayna swept her hand across the glass top. Balls of wadded cotton flew through the air and bounced across the immaculate carpet. As if in response, her cell phone chirped and vibrated, dancing across the glass top of the dressing table. She scooped up the device and thumbed a button. When she spoke, her voice was professional and crisp.
She spun herself away from the mirror as she listened to the caller’s voice.
“Hello, Charles. No, it’s not too late. We agreed you could call any time, day or night.”
The man on the phone was Charles Schroeder, her fixer, the man who could track anyone. Rayna listened to the man’s polite tone, her impatience rising with every well-enunciated syllable.
“Yes, thank you Charles, but you said you finally had some concrete evidence.”
The quiet voice on the other end of the line spoke to her. Rayna, hearing what Charles Schroeder had to say, almost lost her grip on the phone. None of what he was saying made any sense.
“Charles, give me a second, please. You did say Newfoundland, right, as in Newfoundland in Canada? I want to make sure I’m understanding this.”
Rayna did not understand, and Schroeder’s confirmation did not make the situation any clearer.
“How could my mother get all the way to Newfoundland without leaving a trace? For that matter, how the hell could my mother even find Newfoundland? Wait, I’m sorry, Charles. This is a bit of a shock. Yes, please tell me the details.”
The man recited the facts in a clipped, polite voice. There were no outgoing calls from Silvia Carter’s cellular phone. The last tower location for the phone was Boston, with the most likely explanation being that the phone had been switched off.
No credit card purchases had shown up on Ms. Carter’s bank records until today, and none of the purchases occurred in the United States. The first transaction took place four days ago at a gas station east of Quebec. Then two more, each a day apart, one in New Brunswick and the next in Nova Scotia. The last purchase was in the amount of one hundred fourteen dollars and nineteen cents, Canadian, for a one-way ferry passage from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. That ferry had departed two days ago.
Rayna felt an overwhelming desire to not be talking to this man. She needed time to think. Hell, she needed a goddamn map. Where the hell was Newfoundland, exactly?
“Listen, Charles, I need a bit of time to sort this all out. I appreciate your calling. I’ll ring you back in the morning after I’ve had time to process this, okay?”
She laid the phone on the vanity top, waiting for the tinny voice to stop without listening to the words. When the insect voice went still, she killed the call. Leaving her bedroom behind, she entered her well-ordered office.
Rayna brought up the map program on her laptop. Running the cursor over the screen, she charted the route between Boston and Quebec, site of the first credit card fingerprint of her mother’s journey. There was not much civilization between the two cities. Nothing but lakes, mountains, and twisting state highways. Then a glimmer of recognition flashed in Rayna’s memory. She remembered images of her mother and father in hiking gear, posing on granite outcroppings in the White Mountains. Of course, her hippie parents had hiked all over New England. Her mother was following roads she had driven before.
Her cursor tracked the Canadian landscape from Quebec around the tip of Maine and into New Brunswick. She found Nova Scotia and the end of the road at Sydney. Only two days ago, her mother had boarded a ferry at Sydney. The boat carried her to the island of Newfoundland on the far side of Cabot Strait, across more than a hundred miles of open sea.
Rayna felt the beginnings of a grudging respect for her mother. The old woman might be going crazy, but crazy or not, she had driven fifteen-hundred miles in seven days. Not only that, but Silvia had also found her way to Newfoundland, the very easternmost tip of the North American continent. Obviously, her mother had some sort of plan rattling around in her brain, but what was it? Did the old lady think she could drive the Mercedes back to Europe?
And more, what about the mystery of the mother’s credit cards and her cell phone? Silvia was a forgetful old thing, but perhaps not as forgetful as Rayna thought. Had she avoided using her credit card on purpose, knowing that doing so would leave a trail? And she had not used her cell phone, had not even turned it on. Was this forgetfulness, or part of a plan?
The whole thing was a mystery, a vexing and troublesome problem. What would people think of a daughter who could not control her own wayward mother? What would her clients think, the people who trusted Rayna to guide and safeguard their investments? If Rayna could not keep track of a wayward old lady, how could she be counted on to manage the affairs of her clients?
One thing was certain. Her mother, Silvia Carter, had run away from Boston. She was in Newfoundland, as far as she could get without boarding a plane or a boat. And before that could happen, Rayna needed to do something. She needed to bring the situation back under her control.
A low rumble vibrated beneath her, cutting off her thoughts. She heard the garage door open, the purr of an engine, and then the garage door closing. Samuel was home, and he was early. Rayna rose from her desk, ran her fingers through her hair, and smoothed her robe.
Halfway down the floating stairway, Rayna looked across the expanse of the living room. Beyond the fieldstone fireplace, across yards of carpeting, she saw Samuel in the gleaming sweep of the kitchen. He flopped his briefcase onto the marble counter of the island and smiled up at her. That goddamn briefcase, always on the island, no matter how many times she told him. She pushed the thought away, but not without a conscious effort.
Samuel’s eyes were on Rayna as she crossed the carpet to the kitchen. Then his arms were open, and she slipped inside them, caught the hello kiss on her cheek, and nuzzled her nose into his neck.
She drew in the scent of him, searching for evidence of an intruder. Rayna’s nose sorted the chronology of her husband’s day. First, the fresh tang of cigar smoke over a trace of whiskey, then the clean animal wool of his suit coat, and beneath that, his cologne, faded to a trace. No foreign perfumes or scents of young bodies.
Rayna felt a shudder of relief pass through her body, strong enough that Samuel sensed it as well. Samuel’s voice rumbled in his chest, and she felt it more than she heard his words.
“Hey now, what’s wrong, Ray?”
She pushed away to look into his handsome face, the face that had always captured her and sometimes frightened her. She tried for a convincing laugh, but it came out as something else.
“Sorry, Sam, not what you need at the end of the day.”
Samuel brushed her cheek, then slid his hand away and half turned, slipping his suit jacket from his shoulders. Rayna caught the jacket and draped it over the back of a tall bar stool. Each movement had the practiced grace of endless repetition.
“I’m guessing you got some news about Silvia?”
“Yes, finally, but it’s not good news.”
Rayna saw the look of concern in her husband’s eyes and was quick to counter it with a wave of her hand.
“No, nothing like that. Not an accident or anything. But you’re not going to believe this. She’s in Newfoundland. She bought a ferry ticket two days ago.”
“Why Newfoundland? Does she know someone there?”
Rayna shook her head, sagging against the marble countertop.
“I have no idea, Sam, none at all.”
“A ferry ticket? Wait, that’s right, Newfoundland is an island. We worked on some investments out there, hydroelectric or something. I remember the Canadian guys made jokes about the Newfies, like hillbilly jokes.”
Rayna threw him an irritated look. The look hit home.
“Right, sorry. Okay, so your mom drives that old Mercedes all the way to the far end of Canada. Shit, I didn’t know the old girl had it in her. That’s got to be two thousand miles.”
“Fifteen hundred, not that it matters. What’s important to me is what I do next.”
Samuel ran a hand over his hair while he snuck a look at the bar.
“What are your options, Ray? Newfoundland is a big island. Do you have any better idea where Silvia is?”
“No, none. But we could call the police, the Mounties, or whatever they’re called. File a report or something. She has to turn up somewhere. And then I fly up there and drive her back to Boston.”
Rayna watched the change in her husband’s face, the set of his jaw that meant he was about to push back. Sam could push when he needed to, even knowing the consequences.
“Ray, I know you’re worried about your mother, but let’s look at this thing. As far as we know, she took off from Boston and drove on her own to Newfoundland. I think you have to give Silvia some credit for that. I’m not sure chasing after her is the best idea. Maybe let her work this out of her system. I mean, she can’t stay in Canada forever, not without a visa or something.”
Rayna shook her head and snorted. Hearing Sam’s words of praise, she could not deny the tinge of pride she felt for her mother. At the same time, she wanted the whole problem over and done with, now, today. The notion that they might have to live with this for weeks or months was almost more than she could bear.
This time it was Rayna who looked to the bar.
“Goddamn it Sam, I do not need this shit right now.”
She slapped her hand against the cold marble, careful not to chip a nail.
“What I need is a drink, and not just one.”
Sam squeezed her shoulder and walked to the bar.
* * *
Rayna had just finished a phone consultation and was making notes regarding the client’s portfolio. The weak sun of a spring afternoon was slanting through the windows of her office. Samuel was at his firm in the city, and the house was quiet.
When the phone on her desk rang, Rayna assumed it was the client calling back with another request. She pressed the speakerphone button and answered with her polished business voice.
“Rayna Parks, how can I help you?”
There was a hesitation, two heartbeats of silence. Then a quiet voice found her.
“Hello, Dear. It’s your mother.”
Rayna’s hesitation was longer, a pause of surprise and then anger.
“Mother. Where are you?”
Her mother’s voice when she answered seemed happy, which only served to stoke Rayna’s ire.
“Why, I’m in Canada, Rayna, in Newfoundland. I’m staying in a little town called Gander. It’s the sweetest place. Do you know…”
Rayna did not try to curb the sharpness in her voice as she cut her mother off.
“Do you realize we’ve been worried sick about you? Do you have any idea how much trouble your little escapade has caused? You disappeared without a word. No note, no phone call, nothing. I’ve been frantic.”
“Now Rayna, really, I think you’re overreacting. After all, you wanted to move me out of my own home. We disagreed about that, so I thought a little time away might be good for the both of us.”
Rayna could not believe her ears. Instead of apologizing, as she damn well should be, Silvia was laying the blame on her, as if her own daughter were some kind of ogre.
“Now you listen to me, Mother. This has to stop. You tell me where you’re staying, and I will book the next flight. As soon as I get there, I’ll drive you back to Boston, and we then can be done with this ridiculous episode.”
Her mother’s reply retained the cheerful tone that had always maddened Rayna.
“No, Dear, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I like it here. The people are very friendly and the hotel I’m staying at is homey and comfortable. It’s called the Albatross. Isn’t that adorable?”
Rayna reached for a pen and notepad. She scrawled the words Gander and Albatross. Then she laughed a bitter laugh. Of course, an albatross, a curse to hang around someone’s neck. In this case, a daughter’s neck.
“Is something funny, Rayna?”
“No, Mother, there is nothing funny at all. I fail to see the humor in any of this.”
“I see. I suppose that’s true that none of this is really funny. But Rayna, you must understand. You want me to give up my home, the only home I’ve known for fifty years. Do you have the slightest notion of how proud your father was when he bought the brownstone? Do you have any idea how hard we worked to renovate that old place? It was in a sorry state when he bought it, but that was all we could afford. It took two years of work, evenings, weekends, all the free time we had. By the time you were born, it was finally a fit place to live. And now you want me to just up and leave it. And my answer is no. I won’t do it. I’d rather stay here in Gander.”
There was steel in her mother’s voice, a sharp edge hidden behind the cheerfulness. Rayna remembered hearing that same edge when she was a little girl. She found herself at a loss for words. Then a question popped out before she could think.
“Mom, why Newfoundland? Why Gander? Do you know someone there?”
“No, Dear, but surely you remember? Twenty years ago, when that awful nine-eleven tragedy happened, the authorities grounded all the airliners. You do remember, don’t you? You were pregnant with Tom.”
“I remember nine-eleven, Mom. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Gander has a big airport, a stopover for the transatlantic flights that need to refuel. All the planes in the sky that terrible day were forced to land. Several dozen of them ended up stranded here in Gander. There were thousands of marooned travelers, almost more than the whole population of the town. And do you know what happened? The townspeople opened their schools, their homes, and they took those stranded passengers in. I thought to myself if this little town could show so much kindness to thousands of strangers, surely they could find room for one old lady. That is why I’m here, and that is why I’m staying here.”
As Rayna tried to sort through the jumble of her mother’s words, a wave of fear and anger washed over her. She envisioned armed Mounties charging the Albatross Hotel, handcuffing her mother’s bony wrists. Or better, black Suburbans screech up to the hotel, disgorging a platoon of black-hatted hunks in tight black uniforms. The heroes snatch Silva, tag her, bag her, and deliver the old witch back to Boston.
And as quickly as it came, the anger vanished. Her fear fell away like a sandcastle pulled down by the tide. Images of Silvia in handcuffs are replaced by a long stairway and a polished banister. Rayna is riding the banister as if it were a pony. Mom is smiling at her, holding her shoulders. Ready, Rayna, are you Ready? Rayna bobs her head, giggling, and Mom counts one, two, three.
Rayna is flying, sliding backward, shrieking. She sees her mom’s face getting smaller and higher. Little Rayna slides and slides, while Mom flies far above her head. Then Dad’s big hands catch her from behind. Dad swings her off the banister with his hairy arms, and everyone is laughing and safe.
The sound of laughter faded. Rayna heard another voice, an older voice.
“Rayna, Dear, are you still there.”
The tinny voice of her aging mother pushed through the speakerphone. Rayna’s eyes strayed to the last light angling in the window, the same sun that was setting over Newfoundland.
“Rayna, are you all right? Hello?”
Rayna blinked her eyes, a hypnotist’s volunteer suddenly awakened from a trance.
“Sorry, Mom. Yes, I’m here.”
“I had better go now. I’m using the lobby phone and someone else is waiting.”
“That’s okay, Mom, I understand. Oh, and Mom? One more thing.”
“What’s that, Rayna?”
“You can turn your cellphone back on. And try to answer it when I call you, okay?”
“Yes, Dear, I’ll do that.”
“Thanks, Mom, and thanks for calling. I love you.”
“And I love you, my beautiful daughter. Bye now.”
The phone line clicked, and the speaker began beeping. Rayna reached for the device and killed it with the press of a button. She leaned back in her office chair, her hands fallen to her lap.
The room was silent. A rectangle of sunset climbed the office wall. Rayna watched the glow as it faded to orange, watched it rise to the junction between ceiling and wall. When the sunset displaced the shadows on the ceiling, Rayna reached for her cellphone.
Her thumbs flew over the keys. She tapped out a text to Samuel, informing him that tonight he would be taking his beautiful wife out for a long dinner at their favorite restaurant in the city. Any late meetings he might have would, of course, have to be canceled. Dinner at eight, and she would meet him there.
Rayna rose from her desk, walked out of her office, and down the carpeted hallway. She unbuttoned her blouse as she walked. Entering the bedroom she shared with Samuel, she threw the blouse onto the bed. Seating herself at her vanity, Rayna slid a switch hidden beneath the glass. A soft glow of light fell from either side of the mirror.
Rayna sat in front of the mirror, shook out her hair, and looked at the woman staring back at her. She smiled, and the woman smiled in return. Then Rayna turned, checked her profile, and began applying her makeup for the evening.
Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than eighty reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. Marco’s volume of collected flash fiction, “Broken Luggage,” is available worldwide. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor and layout grunt for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch.
Author website: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/