Before her life cracked, Maggie had a theory about youngest children: they were either precocious, always trying to catch up to the older sibs, or—and this was the more likely scenario—a little immature. Maggie herself had been the former, smoking pot for the first time when she was twelve with her two older brothers in the garage, Sean demonstrating how to hold the smoke in her lungs. But Viv was very much the latter. Even though she was one of the tallest girls in fifth grade, all legs, a colt, she had that baby face. She had that baby voice. A voice so high and squeaky that a drunk on the bus had once said to Maggie, “That kid sounds like a character in a cartoon.”
So when Viv wanted to walk to Crescent Street alone, the neighborhood commercial strip, Maggie thought this grasp for independence was a good thing. When Maggie was ten, she’d ridden her bike all over town by herself. Of course that was Tulsa, barely a city, but still.
Viv was so young for her age. Just a year before, they’d finally broken the news about Santa Claus, and only because Viv had asked directly, and Maggie had promised John that under such circumstances she would tell. (After a certain early point John was no fan of the Santa Claus charade. Maggie had to leave the Santa trail of evidence all by herself, taking bites out of the cookies left for Santa and sips from his cup of milk and nibbles from the baby carrots Viv plated for the reindeer). Despite asking, Viv had cried, been truly heartbroken by the news, at least in that feeble, faint way Maggie used to think of hearts breaking.
So when Viv wanted to walk to Crescent Street by herself, naturally Maggie said yes: it was all of seven blocks, and safe, and daylight. The danger she considered was cars. “Make sure you look both ways when you cross the street,” she said, and Viv nodded, pocketing the $5 Maggie had given her—she was going to buy a popsicle at the grocery store. Really it was just an excuse to take a walk by herself.
The truth is, Maggie felt a kind of lurch, a squeeze in her chest. But she imagined she was being over-protective. Kids needed to take risks, to test themselves; so John always said. Maggie thought of being ten in Oklahoma, zipping around everywhere in her bike, the basket decorated with yellow plastic daisies.
She fastened her Swatch watch on Viv’s wrist. “Be home by five thirty.” John would not approve of a popsicle so close to dinner, she thought that too.
“Be home by five thirty”: those are the last words Maggie spoke to her daughter. When Viv was at the door, Maggie almost called her back and sent Sophie with her, but Sophie was finishing her Spanish homework.
Their neighborhood had once been seedy but was now gentrified, like everything in San Francisco. When people talked about dangers, it was the coyote on the hill killing cats. Allegedly there was a crack house, though Maggie could never remember where it was supposed to be.
Braising Brussels sprouts, Maggie kept looking at her bare wrist.
When they talked to the police later, all Maggie could remember about what Viv was wearing was that borrowed blue Swatch watch. Everything else was blank, irradiated. It was Sophie who recalled dark leggings and a long-sleeved shirt with a unicorn.
The police took notes. There were two of them; the female cop was kind. She had brown freckles, like someone had sprinkled cocoa powder on her cheeks. “We’ll find her,” she said, though she must have known better than to make promises.
In those earlier days when tragedy was a thing observed from a distance, to take sips of—the kid in Sophie’s gymnastics class who had spinal meningitis and never woke up, the young, pregnant art teacher who was mugged and lost her baby—somewhere in those days, Maggie had read that most lost children were never found. She remembered this when she read it again, during sleepless Googling nights.
That cop should have known better, but she may have been a mother too, and she may have, despite her better judgement, wanted to offer Maggie something. Maggie must have scraped her, like a shard of glass.
Because it is that police officer, Louise Hennessy, who calls Maggie three years later to tell her the news. It’s just Maggie and Sophie living in the house now: John moved out over a year ago, their marriage collateral damage in the wake of Viv vanishing, along with Maggie’s drinking and Sophie’s eating problems, everything blighted and burnt.
Holding the phone, Maggie reminds herself that she said to John, and Sophie, and others too, plenty of witnesses, that not knowing is the worst. That anything is better than not knowing. But as Louise Hennessy tells her, so gently, “Yes, I’m afraid, we are sure,” and something about dental records, Maggie wails, learning that there is still more pain to bear here. People talk about “hitting bottom,” especially in AA. But Maggie feels not as if she is falling but flying, a runaway kite shredding in the sky.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.