Arlene Thomas sat in her country-inspired kitchen in Little Rock, Arkansas, poring over her handwritten recipe books. It was her daughter, Lucy’s, fourteenth birthday, and she was having a difficult time deciding which cake she’d bake. Normally, she’d ask her kids what they wanted, but she couldn’t bring herself to walk up the stairs to Lucy’s bedroom. Lucy had been kidnapped ten years ago.
In the end, Arlene decided on a simple red velvet cake. At four years old, that was Lucy’s favorite because it reminded her of the strawberry patch from her pre-school. Now at fourteen, Arlene imagined that Lucy was trapped away somewhere being fed her favorite cake each year. Maybe she wouldn’t make red velvet after all; a simple vanilla would have to do.
After she had mixed all the ingredients and put the cake in the oven, she went to the closet in the hallway and retrieved a photo album. She sat at the dining room table and filled her mind with memories of Lucy.
Everyone else in the house knew Arlene’s routine each year, and they gave her her space. They didn’t understand it; to them, Lucy had been simply a figment of their imagination, merely a visitor from another plane of existence. To Arlene, Lucy had taken over her mind and was her whole world.
“Phillip! Kids! Dinner time,” Arlene called up the stairs.
Normally, there would be the scurry of shoes, murmurs of delight. Tonight, however, Arlene had to call everyone down a few times, but she hardly noticed; her mind was fixated on Lucy today.
They all sat at the dinner table with the cake an intruding guest that took up too much of the table. Nobody knew what to say. It had been ten years of this silly tradition.
Arlene broke the silence. “Now, let’s say grace and one nice thing about Lucy since it’s her birthday.”
Her three other children, Grace, Robin, and Neil, exchanged furtive glances before they closed their eyes and their mom said the blessings for the food.
“Hmm,” Arlene said, looking around at her family. “I’m not sure what to say about Lucy. I suppose she was always a happy child. Grace?”
Grace sat there frozen, unblinking. “If I had to say one good thing about Lucy, it’s that she is great at playing hide and seek.”
Everyone’s forks clattered on their plates; Arlene flinched, and everyone except Grace looked at her.
“Grace,” Phillip said. “That’s uncalled for. Apologize to your mother right now.”
“Why should I? She makes this whole big deal out of Lucy’s birthday. I mean, we don’t even know if she’s still alive.” She turned to Arlene. “She’s gone. Accept it. Stop being a mom to a dead girl and start being one to your other children. Do you even see us anymore? Or are we more of a ghost than Lucy is?”
Grace threw her silverware on the plate and pushed herself from the table in one fluid motion. Phillip folded his napkin and chased after his eldest daughter while Robin and Neil sat in silence. Arlene sat stunned, still processing what had just transpired. After a moment, she wiped her mouth even though she hadn’t taken a bite, excused herself from the table, and slunk to her master bedroom.
Fifteen minutes had passed, but to Arlene it seemed like a lifetime. Her children were turning against her, never mind that Grace was sixteen and hormonal, but she had clearly crossed some major boundaries. She heard everyone gasp and heard her blood pulsate in her temples. From under the comforter, she had barely heard Phillip come into the bedroom, defeated and exhausted. He exhaled as he sat down, and Arlene felt the bed shift and curled into a tighter ball.
“What the hell was that, Arlene?”
“What do you mean? We do this every year. How was I supposed to know Grace was going to freak out on me this year?”
“I’m not talking about Grace’s actions. I’ve already had a discussion with her about that. I’m talking about you and this little ritual thing you have going on to fuel this fantasy of yours.”
“That she is still alive somewhere. That she will just magically reappear in our lives and everything will go back to the way it was.”
Arlene turned to face Phillip, her husband for almost twenty years. “I can’t believe you just said that. I don’t even know you anymore.”
“I don’t know you anymore, Arlene. You have three beautiful children here, alive, in this house, waiting for you to be their mother. Grace. Grace, she’s sixteen. She’s going through…changes, and so is Robin. Sure, Robin misses her sister; they were twins, for Christ’s sake, but we’ve moved on. It’s time you start living in the present and leave the past where it belongs. What happened happened, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. It doesn’t make it any less sad or tragic. She was my daughter, too, you know. I miss her too, but I know that if she were still alive, she’d have come home by now. It has been ten years. A lot has happened in that time that you have missed out on. I mean, Neil isn’t a baby anymore, and you’re still intent on treating him like a toddler. He’s ten years old and a smart boy. I just don’t understand, Arlene, and I don’t think I want to. I just want you to snap out of this funk and bring yourself to life again.”
“How dare you?” she whispered, a feeble argument.
Arlene sat dumbfounded. How could he say these hurtful things to her? Forget her daughter? Never. Sure, Lucy wasn’t four years old anymore, but she also wasn’t dead. And her other children? They would never understand what she was going through until they had their own children one day. She was a damn good mother, too. Maybe she wasn’t always present for them, but she was going through her own things too. Raising three kids without the constant help from Phillip was demanding work. She couldn’t possibly devote all her time to all of them, and sometimes someone suffered because of it, but how could he claim that was her fault?
“I don’t know what to do with you anymore,” Phillip said, lying down on the bed facing away from her.
It was just as well. She didn’t want to see his face either, couldn’t see his face. He wasn’t the same man she had married twenty years ago.
She felt him shift in the bed, and heard him sigh. “Please get some therapy or something. It is destroying what family we have left.”
His and Grace’s words replayed in her head on a loop long after she heard his telltale snores that let her know he had let things go and fell asleep. She couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow Phillip was right and that she was living in some fantasy delusional world where nothing bad ever happened. She slipped quietly out of bed and padded to the living room where she turned on the television, and she watched the local news channel for the first time in ten years.