Here it is! My NYCM Flash Fiction 2017 Round 1 entry! My prompt was: Drama/A cybercafé/A snail.
Just a warning, grab a box of tissues.
On the day of her disappearance, all they found of Janie was her favorite necklace. Five hundred twenty-eight days later, Karen’s life still revolves around a singular purpose — finding her daughter.
I checked your room this morning. Of course you weren’t there, but I could still see you sitting on your bed, scrolling through Instagram and counting your new likes and follows. That last picture you posted… the one at the beach, with your arms held out wide… it’s still getting comments. Your necklace is on your nightstand. You always said it reminded you to slow down and enjoy life. It reminds me of the day life stopped. The day all they could find of you was a snail shell on a silver chain.
“Karen, it’s time to go home.” David’s deep voice startled me, and I moved the mouse to minimize my document.
“I’m working.” On the screen, a browser showed open tabs: news outlets, forums, and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
A green mug appeared on the desk beside me. The barista delivered my double-shot, double-foam, extra hot latte in silence. I hadn’t placed an order; she knew my routine.
“This isn’t healthy.” David’s words lacked emotion. “Come home.”
The barista set a cup next to an elderly man who grinned up at her before returning to his game of mahjong.
“How many times do you think Janie delivered coffee like that? How many men smiled at her?”
“You accusing retirees now?” David shook his head.
I felt a familiar sense of helplessness. We always told Janie to be careful of strangers online. This café was literally a place where internet strangers gathered to meet. “Any of her customers could have been watching, waiting for the right moment. What if–”
“You have to stop these what-ifs.” David grabbed the chair from the next station and sat close enough to rest a hand on my shoulder. I pulled away from him, but he moved with me. “It’s making you paranoid.”
I looked into his brown eyes. His dead expression held no compassion. I sat up straight. “At least I still care. What are you doing to find Janie? Jack shit. That’s what.”
A group of kids in the corner stopped their game and stared at me, open-mouthed. The elderly man glanced up briefly before returning his attention to his screen.
“Lower your voice. We can talk about this at home.”
I took a hard swallow of coffee, feeling the hot liquid mix with bile that rose up from my stomach. My voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Go hang out at the bar, David. I have research to finish here.”
David snatched the mouse and clicked open my document.
“Research,” he scoffed. “Your letters won’t bring her back, Karen. Nothing you do here is bringing her back.”
“And you getting drunk every night is?”
David’s chair crashed into the station behind us as he stood. “If you’re not going to come home now, just… don’t bother.”
He dug into his coat pocket and plopped its contents next to the mouse. I felt numb as he shoved through the door. He might finally make good on his daily promise; this could be the last time I’d see him if I didn’t get up. Didn’t abandon my search. Didn’t go home.
I thought about our house and how the once-vibrant greens and blues of my living room seemed to fade to monochrome a little more each day. The only room that still held color was Janie’s. Her lavender and teal walls and bright white furniture were decorated with a rainbow of shells and stones she’d collected from the beach. I slept in her room most nights, careful not to disturb her neatly made bed. She’d never been one to leave a mess, even as a little girl. I could still smell the oils she’d dab on her wrists. Her incense burner held a half-blackened cone. All I had to do was lay on her bed, and I could feel her beside me. I sang her to sleep each night, despite David’s insistence that the only one hearing my voice was me.
I watched David as he passed by the café storefront without so much as a backward glance.
Looking down at the desk, I saw what he’d placed there–a small, whitewashed snail shell on a silver chain. Janie’s slow and easy life wrapped up in its spiral. Janie’s hollow disappearance reflected in its emptiness.
I hadn’t cried in over a year. At that moment, hot anger mixed with the grief that poured down my cheeks.
My hand moved of its own accord to the chain, and I placed the pendant around my neck. A heaviness formed in my legs, doubled by the weight inside my chest. Forums, news stories, and official websites sat open on my screen, partially covered by today’s letter to the ghost of my daughter.
My trembling fingers found the shell. I saw Janie in my mind, her arms outstretched, face framed in sunlight as I snapped the picture that would punctuate our life as a family. If only she’d come home with us instead of waiting to watch the sunset. If only I’d stayed with her.
I looked back out the window, but David was gone.
Maybe I was paranoid. It had been well over a year. I’d lost count of the customers who I’d watched at the café, and I was no closer to finding Janie.
David would be on his way to the bar. If I caught up to him, we could talk things through like we used to. I closed my session and gathered my coat and purse.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a man step close to the barista as she took his order. She smiled, going through her practiced motions. She didn’t seem to notice how his eyes followed her movements.
My hand went to the shell at my neck. So many strangers. Any one of them could have watched my daughter like that.
I couldn’t leave Janie. Not again.
I sat down and returned to my screen.