Where is Olivia?
Mark usually leaves for work before I wake up, but, this morning, the house is strangely quiet. I pull on my robe and pad down the hall to Olivia’s room. Standing in the doorway, my breath catches in my throat. Suddenly, I feel like I’m sliding sideways, dizzy, head spinning. The cirrus clouds painted on Olivia’s ceiling seem to mock me with their whimsy. And when I tiptoe softly to her crib, it is empty. My heart begins beating so hard, my body vibrates. Then I think, maybe our nanny, Simone, has taken her to her room.
I walk to the end of the hall and peer into Simone’s bedroom. The bed is neatly made, its beautiful spread, the color of antique lace. The walnut dresser top is bare of Simone’s family photos — the ones that used to smile back at me. There are none of her ornate hair barrettes, scattered on the bed side table where they usually are. And when I walk to her closet, Simone’s colorful dresses, her red boots, her olive green jacket, are gone. I can’t even catch a whiff of her distinctive perfume. I feel frightened by the room’s barrenness— the spare hardwood floors, the nine foot ceilings, the long velvet drapes, pooled like remnants of a discarded gown.
I feel a rush of panic so acute I almost faint. I stumble down the hall, calling for Olivia and crying. The master bedroom, with its window seat, shaded by a large cottonwood tree, is full of shadows. My cries echo in the high ceilinged room and I hurry to escape it’s strange chill. Next door is our study. I rush into the room, with its rooster red walls and floor to ceiling bookshelves. I’ve always loved this room. But my anguished cries for Olivia, bang against the only window, like a senseless bird.
I’m sweating, hair plastered to my head, lips dry. It is as if all moisture is leaving my body. I approach the family room — the last room on this floor. I’m afraid to walk into the big, open space.
I hold my breath and think, a child could get lost in there. She could be sleeping on the wheat colored sofa. She might be awake and babbling. But, of course, after entering the room, I find no one. As I walk past the huge flat screen tv, I catch a glimpse of my own reflection in the black glass. I look like a ghost, hair tangled, frantic, screaming Olivia’s name.
I collapse on the floor and call Mark. He’s in a deposition but I ask that he be interrupted right away. When he gets on the line I can barely speak and he says, “Slow down, Kris What’s going on?”
“Simone is gone and she’s taken the baby.”
“What makes you think that?”
“All her possessions are gone from her bedroom and the crib is empty. Oh, my God!”
Mark says, “I’ll come home. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be there. Kris, call the police.”
After we hang up, I begin wailing, and pacing back and forth. I can’t make the call.
Recriminations teeter like dominoes in my mind. Mark and I were too close. We didn’t want anything to puncture our bubble, not even a child. Long before Olivia was born, we decided to hire a nanny. Are we guilty of being oblivious? We were fools, never considering the consequences of turning our child over to a perfect stranger.
I hear Mark opening the front door and I run to him, falling into his arms and sobbing uncontrollably. He says, “Let me see for myself.” I trail after Mark like a lost dog, as he tours the house.
When we come to Simone’s room, Mark moans, as if he’s in pain. I watch as he opens her dresser drawers, banging them shut when he finds them empty. He tears the covers off her bed and throws them on the floor, something Simone would often do, as if she was too warm and couldn’t stand them. He looks at me and says, “She didn’t even leave a post it note or a god damned hair band!” The tendons in his neck are taut and strained, as if he’s about to burst out of his skin.
We finish our tour, standing before Olivia’s crib, starring at the rabbit patterned blanket and the small, angel mobile hanging above her bed. Mark pulls me close and whispers, “Oh, Christ, what have we done?” I almost push him away. I want him to be the strong, reassuring man he’s always been for me. I want him to tell me everything will be alright. I long to wrap myself in a false vision of the future so I can stop blaming myself.
The next forty eight hours are a waking nightmare. We drive to the local police station and fill out a report. Then, on the six o’clock news, we make an appeal to the public to help us find our baby. We are frantic. It is only in these grueling hours that we realize we know nothing of Simone — nothing of substance. She told us she was from Montenegro and traveled to the U.S. to find work. We’d checked her references and they sounded legitimate. But when we try to contact them to see if they might know of her whereabouts, all of the phone numbers she gave us have been disconnected. We begin to worry she might be planning to leave the country with our child, so the police and immigration authorities put out a warning to watch the airports for a tall, willowy young woman with flaxen hair and a baby with a cap of red curls.
My parents and Mark’s parents and the two of us post a reward of $150,000 for information that might lead to the return of Olivia. The police investigate every lead that comes into their tip line but none of them pan out. Weeks pass, then months. Mark and I are like zombies, walking past each other, unable to face the stark possibility that we may never see Olivia again. Our lovemaking ceases, and our conversations become stilted. It’s as if we’ve become strangers now that we’re without her. She burst our bubble of closeness after all.
Deep down, I feel I’ve failed Olivia. I didn’t love her enough. I didn’t protect her. Early on, she was colicky — crying for hours, squirming out my arms as if she couldn’t stand my touch, her blue eyes, stormy, her pale little arms and legs flailing, her face contorted into a mask of outrage. She rarely slept through the night and seemed to demand attention at every turn. I couldn’t wait to go back to work after my six weeks off.
Mark was more patient with her. But really, it was only in Simone’s arms that Olivia would settle and grow quiet — like a little red haired angel, her limbs limp and trusting, her body snuggled close to Simone’s breast. If either Mark or I picked her up, she would begin crying desperately until she was returned to Simone, who sang to her and rocked her and changed her and fed her.
I watched Simone with Olivia, thinking I would be able to detect the particular gift she had with her. Was it Simone’s singing, her touch, her laugh? I tried to emulate her but Olivia seemed indifferent to me. When I looked into her eyes she would look away from me, as if there was something more interesting, elsewhere in the room. I asked Mark, “How do you think you’re doing with Olivia?”
He said, “She cries when I speak. I think my bass voice frightens her.” We wondered if we’d made a mistake bringing Simone into our lives. On the one hand, her presence allowed us to pretend we were still in our pre-baby days — kissing whenever we were in close proximity to one another, sleeping late after making love, stroking one another’s arms or backs, as if we were starved for touch — Olivia existing a little outside our closed circle. On the other hand, we’d chosen to have a child, to start a family, and we felt responsible for parenting her. We loved her.
Despite the fact that Simone’s presence was something of an obstacle between us and Olivia, we convinced ourselves that everything was alright. Secretly, I had begun to think of her as Simone’s child, which created a distinct kind of pain, a feeling of failure, a sense that my child preferred someone else.
As the days unfurl, there is nothing. Maybe she is hiding in plain sight, what then? I count the weeks since Olivia’s disappearance, breathless with the span of time. I can’t sleep or eat or concentrate at work. I’m consumed with the question...where is Olivia? I wonder, is she being taken care of? Is she safe? Is she alive?
One evening, over dinner, Mark says, “ We don’t need your income. You can quit teaching, if you like.” But I am proud of the fact that I have a tenured position in English. I love my students and colleagues. I feel like I come alive around them. So I look at Mark and shake my head. “I can’t imagine being at loose ends. My mind is already consumed with guilt. I need to stay occupied.”
I decide to take up running. For an hour each morning, I run along Lake Michigan, which is three blocks from our house. I watch the sun rise over the lake, wiping shadows from the ground. I listen to the meditative huff, huff of my breath and think about my pregnancy — how ecstatic I was during the entire nine months, and how disappointed I felt once our baby arrived, her full throttle crying, disrupting my peace.
On my morning runs, my mind ricochets back and forth, debating why we had a child in the first place. We'd had a beautiful life. We were content. What were we looking for beyond our quiet Sunday afternoons, lying in our double hammock, reading the New York Times, bodies nestled against one another like two caterpillars on a leaf?
What motivated us to embark on the adventure of parenting? What had we expected?
Mark seems to feel restless too. He begins spending time at the local shooting range. I ask, “What’s prompted this interest in guns?”
He says, “We were the victims of a crime. We need protection.”
I want to tell him it’s a little late for that, and besides, a gun wouldn’t have done us any good. There hasn’t even been a ransom demand. Our reward money is gathering dust in the bedroom safe.
After Olivia’s disappearance — because this is how we think of our lives — before and after she disappears; we travel to Jerusalem and the wailing wall. We visit the tombs in Egypt. We fly to India and tour the Taj Mahal. We become preoccupied with death and symbols of death, memorials and graves and historical legends of loved ones lost. Each time we travel, we look for Simone among the crowds of people. We never see anyone like her and we return home, used up and wrung out. The very thought of Olivia has the power to upend us.
One night in April, months after her disappearance, Mark turns to me and says, “Do you think they sold Olivia on the black market?”
“Christ! Don’t even say that!” But the thought has occurred to me too.
Then slowly, inexorably, something creeps into my consciousness. The relationship with Mark begins to feel suffocating. Sometimes at night, after he’s fallen asleep, I get up from the bed and walk to the bathroom, closing the door behind me. There, I hyperventilate, scarcely able to breathe.
On a hot summer day in July, two years after Mark’s and my divorce, I see her — Simone. She is moving through the crowd ahead of me and I am so stunned I stand stock still on the pavement, people bump into me and move around me. Someone says, “Lady, what are you doing?”
I want to run after her. And then I see Mark, beside her. He is holding her hand. My heart is hammering in my chest and I wonder if I’m hallucinating — seeing something I feared but never knew consciously. And where is Olivia? Do they have her? What does their being together mean? Has Mark known all along where she is? Each thought whizzes by in horrifying detail. I have to catch them.
I begin pushing through the crowd, getting closer and closer. I smack Mark on the back and when he turns to look at me I see it isn’t Mark at all but a stranger who is the same height and build, but older. And the woman beside him isn’t Simone, just a lovely girl, much younger than the man. I apologize profusely and walk away as fast as I can, so they don’t see my tears.
This morning I awoke from a dream of Mark and lay in bed for a time, reflecting on our early years together. There was such a sense of innocence and wonder — a deep sense of living in a world of our own and a feeling that each day was a revelation. I wonder, if Olivia hadn’t been taken, would we still be together?
I look over at Stuart, lying beside me, a man I’ve been married to now for two decades. He is a good man — sturdy, wise. And then, as often happens in the morning, I think of Olivia. She hovers like a ghost, just out of reach. It is a horrible thing to wonder what might have been. It is like a disease that eats you up and hollows you out.
I still have her little yellow dress, folded neatly, nestled in lavender, in my top dresser drawer. Whenever I see it, I think it belongs there, among my filmy, most intimate things.
Johanna Nauraine has been a serious student of fiction for decades. Her self help articles were published in Chicago Life Magazine. She is a retired psychotherapist who lives on the shores of Lake Michigan. Her first novel is being represented for publication by Mark Gottlieb, of Trident Media. Her next novel is in process.
Her flash fiction is going to be published in Pure Slush - Vol. 9, Anthology on Loss, February, 2024; Witcraft, February, 2024 and Bright Flash Literary Review, first week of January.