Edith had thought that living across the intersection from Joanna would make the transition easier. It hadn’t been that long since she had moved out – after so many years with the luxury of having her always within reach, how could she not worry? A mother was entitled to worry. Jo was a grown woman, she should be free to make her own decisions, even mistakes. But a young lady didn’t have maturity handed to her wholesale when she turned eighteen. A mother was entitled to worry. She checked the window again.
The lights in Joanna’s bedroom were off. It was almost six-thirty in the evening, and the bats were coming out from under the overpass, purple shadows dancing in the orange dusk. It had been seven hours since Joanna had stormed out on she and Tom at the counselor’s office, and her silence was becoming concerning. Jo had been looking forward to the Turkey Vulture Festival in the morning, smiling face pasted all over Facebook in frumpy, boyish work clothes, building models and floats – it wouldn’t be like her to stay out late, not tonight.
It was possible that she’d just decided to go to bed early. It would be a busy day. Edith expected to be late to work, herself, but her JoJo would always come first.
She thought about calling. If Joanna was asleep, no doubt she wouldn’t be pleased, getting up to stop her old mother fretting over her. She was overreacting. A text or two couldn’t go amiss, though – not now that she finally had her smartphone almost figured out.
See you at 7, she said, drawing her spectacles down her nose with narrowed eyes. Then, for good measure, she sent off a quick love you, babygirl, and inserted a kiss emoji. Proud of her accomplishment, she shut the shades again and determined to have an early night herself, for a change. She put the lens caps back on the binoculars, picked up her glass of wine, and shuffled down the hall to draw a warm bath.
But at 6:30AM the lights across the street still hadn’t come on. The sky faded from bruised blue to bleached lilac. The bats returned. A city truck rattled up the hill collecting trash, drifted off around the corner coughing diesel fumes. Nothing stirred in the windows, and neither Jo nor that boy’s cars had come or gone. Edith reached for her phone and sent another text.
Wake up, sweetie : ^ )
She put her phone in the pocket of her bathrobe and left the bedroom to take her curlers out. Halfway through the process she stopped to check that she didn’t have it set on silent. It was 6:45 when she toed her shoes on, debating whether she ought to walk over to get her out of bed.
But the girl had called her smothering. She really ought not to. No pestering her out of bed like she was still thirteen and didn’t want to get up for ballet. If Joanna was going to be late, perhaps she simply ought to let her. Dr. Gutierrez kept telling her that she couldn’t protect Jo from everything, that she ought to give up some control. She was just overreacting again.
She called Joanna’s cell at 6:49.
No answer. The phone rang out, and her voicemail kicked on. You’ve reached J.R. McAllen, leave a message at the tone and I’ll get back to you. So formal, you’d never think it was her personal line at all. Her voice sounded low and brusque, none of the sweet soft-spokenness she had left home with. And that was the real worry.
It was that boy. She was almost sure of it now.
Cyrus had seemed so good for her, at first. Oh, it had been a shock, certainly, and she had been skeptical, but she had grown up in a different time. He really had come across as a lovely young man – polite, articulate, and devoted to her daughter – but perhaps if Joanna’s happiness hadn’t meant so much to her, she would have distrusted his eyes from the beginning. He had an earnest smile, but those eyes were shrewd, somehow distant. All honey when he looked at Jo, yet Edith had always felt a nagging sense of cold scrutiny when they turned on her.
She dithered in the hall at 6:55, fiddling indecisively with her keys. She had counted on arriving at the laundromat late, but even if they left this minute, they would be pushing it. Her phone was a grim, dead weight in her purse, whose contents she catalogued again in the hallway.
It was the discrepancy in how Cyrus regarded them that had first bothered her. Don’t look at how a man treats you, her mother had always said – look at how he treats someone when he’s got nothing to gain. One knew what kind of husband that sort would turn out to be. But Jo had finally, finally found a fellow she could be happy with – it had been too good to interfere.
Too good to be true.
Edith gnawed at her lip as she got into the car, watching the sun break in earnest over the horizon, shooting ribbons of color into the clouds like dye in water. She turned the key in the ignition – then she sat, idling, inside and out.
The changes had been so positive over the first few months. Joanna had come out of her shell in a way Edith had nearly despaired of seeing again after the incident in the walk-in closet when she was fourteen. She had begun to smile, laugh, engage with the world again. Edith had been holding out her hand for so long, yet somehow Jo had taken Cyrus’ after just a few short months. She was going with him to music festivals and street art exhibitions and the corner 7-11 at midnight under buzzing fluorescent lights. Her little girl had abandoned her, but it was good. Oh, she had wanted so badly for it to be good.
She had to leave. That nasty bitch who owned the laundry would snatch at any excuse to fire her, oh yes she would, with her ugly flannel shirts and bad haircut. If she was so much as a moment later than she ought to be-
Edith snatched her keys from the ignition and got out of the car, short heels clicking with conviction toward the crosswalk. Normally, she told herself, she would let it go. She would let Joanna miss her festival if she was going to, but after the fiasco at Dr. Gutierrez’s office, she simply couldn’t give her daughter the benefit of the doubt. She needed to see her, to be sure.
She hitched her skirts as she mounted the steps to the apartment door. She rang the buzzer once, a few times more, then rapped sharply on the door with her fist. Straining her ear against it, she thought she could hear shuffling somewhere inside, a drawer opening, utensils rattling around, but no one came to the door.
“Joanna?” Edith raised her voice, wincing at the echo down the quiet street, amplified between the apartment buildings. “Jo, dear, you’re going to be late!” No answer. Something that sounded like a dialing phone, murmuring. A sense of nameless dread.
A jogger had stopped on the sidewalk to stare, and she drew her head away from the door, smiling nervously. She waved a hand, which the jogger did not return, but as she stepped back off the landing the young man slowly turned away and resumed a trotting pace.
What could she do? Short of breaking into the house, she could hardly force Joanna to see her. The things Jo might be hiding had stopped being her right to ferret out when she turned eighteen. She couldn’t remove the door to her room to be sure that she wasn’t hurting herself inside. Edith had heard her tell the doctor that she didn’t need to do those things anymore. She wanted to believe it, but she remembered how the girl could lie.
What would be worse? Opening the door to unseasonably long sleeves, or a black eye?