Betty has traveled to Kansas to reclaim her daughter, who is now five minutes late.
She goes over their meeting place in her head every few minutes to be sure she remembers correctly. Harry’s Diner at Fifth and Points Street. A block from Wareham Theater. This Kansas town is larger than Larkport, the western New York college town where Betty and her late husband, Charles, had raised Sandra.
It has been a few days since Pat Theodore, a skinny man with a handlebar mustache and a turtleneck who calls himself a “deprogrammer,” was able to track down information of Sandra’s whereabouts. A deprogrammer, as though her daughter is a machine and all that needs to happen is to push the right buttons.
The Moonie leadership had to approve the meeting first, and though the cult thought Betty would be “harmless,” Sandra still needed persuading. Even before Sandra fell to the Moonies, she stole cigarettes, drank Charles’s gin, earned As, staged a peace protest against Vietnam, and was so unpredictable that eventually, Betty couldn’t be sure what constituted predictable behavior.
A hand falls on Betty’s shoulder. Before all this, Sandra would have called her ‘Ma.’ Betty turns around. There she is. Her hair, short and dry, brass-blond, and unkempt, and her eyes, far-off.
“Sandra!” Betty’s breath catches in her throat and her nose stings. She’s as unprepared for Sandra as she’s always been. Her instinct is to back away but Sandra grabs Betty’s arms and hugs her. When she pulls away, her daughter smiles, not how she used to, restrained and close-lipped, hiding some big secret, but broadly, now, her teeth bragging.
“Mother!” Sandra says, again, finally, as though begging her mother to talk. Betty wishes she would stop calling her ‘Mother.’ “So what do you think?” Sandra asks.
“You’re so skinny,” Betty says. “And your hair.” Betty reaches her hand up to touch it. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t I look fine? I’m happy, Mother,” Sandra says.
She looks tired. Her nails and cheeks are dirty. Her clothes smell like a hamper.
“You look like you need a shower and a meal,” Betty says, and Sandra acts as though she doesn’t hear. She runs her fingertips across her eyebrow and yawns. Before she would have flipped her mother the bird or told her to screw off. Perhaps the cult has worked the skepticism right out of her.
Betty opens the doors for her daughter, speaks up to the hostess first, and tries to be gentle.
She can’t remember the last time the two went out to dinner together, alone, though their mismatched gazes and constant struggle of who would order first feels familiar. They both order breakfast though it’s afternoon. It was something Charles always did.
“The canal has flooded in parts at home,” Betty starts.
“Where?” Sandra takes a bite.
“Pittsford. The lock broke. The lake is too high, the pressure was too much,” Betty says. “It carried your Uncle Robert’s house right off the foundation.”
“Oh, god,” Sandra says. Betty wonders what her daughter sounds like when she prays, and were Betty listening, could she hear the sudden calm come over her daughter?
“We’ve all been advised to get flood insurance,” Betty says, holding this conversation like a rope from a cliff, and when Sandra doesn’t respond, asks, “So what do you do these days?”
“We have busy schedules.”
Betty knows. Scripture readings. Selling candy or peanuts. Few hours of sleep.
“What do you sell?” Betty asks.
“Flowers. Sometimes cashews,” Sandra says.
“What do you do with the money?”
“Why do you ask? We give it to the team leader. From there it goes to Reverend Moon,” Sandra says.
Betty dabs toast in yolk. “So, have you met anyone nice?”
“They’re all nice,” Sandra says.
“For God’s sake, Sandra. Tell me something. Who do you stay with? Is anyone mean to you? Do you ever miss home?” Betty lists these questions so that Sandra might respond one after another—satisfactorily, giving permission for Betty to leave. Letting her mother know she will be okay.
Sandra takes a long sip of milk and Betty wonders when she last had milk. Then Sandra clears her throat.
Betty watches Sandra like she did when she was just weeks old, to be sure she’d breathe through the night. Sandra folds her napkin and dabs her lips. She scratches at a crumb stuck to the outside of the tumbler.
“Sandra.” Betty snaps her fingers in front of her daughter’s face.
“I stay in the compound, a ranch, not far from here,” Sandra said.
“A compound? Are you at war?” Betty slips into her old habits with Sandra, the angry cuts and quips that had always somehow eased her own pain.
Sandra’s smirk proves she knows what her mother is doing, and for sure, now, Betty understands the church is evil.
When Sandra was a baby, they lived in “Diaper Alley,” the barracks-style housing between the railroad tracks and the university, where the roofs leaked and trains rocked the building. Sandra spent weeks with night terrors.
In the night, when Betty would stare at Sandra’s pinched, teary face in the dimness coming through the windows, Charles would mutter something about Berlin, and roll away from Sandra’s cries. Betty had pleaded with Charles to relieve her for just one five minute walk, one moment to steal a cigarette, or to have a drink with an old friend, anything to feel herself again, to consider the secretary school or biology courses she’d abandoned to be a mother, and she’d begun to grieve the self she’d never known. Charles had laughed at Betty for crying over borrowed troubles—a tragic life she hadn’t lived—when there were real losses stored in his mind. She felt silly having to justify her sadness, competing with a war veteran to feel anything at all. Her doctor had prescribed her Valium, which she hid in her underwear drawer and took on the sly.
One night, Betty woke to squealing and cracking and the smell of something burning. Charles had been on the roof setting off firecrackers, but ran up a poplar to hide. There was steam about the building and the police had to coax Charles down from the tree. Sandra, in Betty’s arms, had been too young to be anything other than hungry or fussy. Betty watched her husband fall clumsily from the poplar and felt no edge of her seat or nor quickening in her gut.
Charles came home two hours later in a cast, and Betty was relieved when he got into bed without speaking. All the stirring woke the baby, and it wasn’t long before Sandra began to cry, as Betty knew she would. She asked Charles, “Is it possible that you’ve passed combat fatigue to your daughter?”
Betty watches life outside the diner window. Every town seems a replica of another. Larkport might be smaller, but it has everything this place has—diners, the theater, salons, cobblers, Moonies. Sandra didn’t have it rough. Parents die. So, Charles died belatedly in a house fire—their house, on fire. He’d always made it clear to Betty that he was on borrowed time he didn’t believe he deserved. The fire had just been a belated end from the war that he should have died in.
“Sandra, do you even remember what it’s like at home?”
“Mother, the house is gone. Daddy is gone. Where is home now?” Sandra asks.
“Come back to Larkport, Sandra,” Betty says.
“I’m happy here, Mother. I’m God’s soldier. We are all happy and safe.”
“What a crock!” Betty moves closer to the diner window and the warmth of the sun, watching Sandra ruffle her hair with her hand and the dust speckle in a beam of light. “Why did you leave?” Betty asks.
“God called me,” Sandra says, trance-like.
“That just isn’t true, and you know it,” Betty says, playing the game the deprogrammer described to her: to act as though her daughter is under some spell. How easy it has been for Sandra to turn to the cult without Charles and his madness alive to make her feel normal.
“He calls all of us at some point,” Sandra says, growing insistent. Betty’s reminded of Sandra’s teen years, when all a mother could do was wrong, when Sandra wanted more and more things and less discussion about the things she wanted. When Charles’ career in gruesome forensic photography propelled him further into post-trauma and Sandra took advantage of the emotional turmoil. When Betty felt caught between competing terrors, and acted as though she could wait it out.
“Oh yeah? And how did he call you?” Betty asks.
“Did you leave because your father died?” Betty asks. Some days, when Sandra was growing up, Betty had to create her own trouble with her daughter just to feel anything.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Sandra says, pushing her plate away.
That’s it? Betty thinks. Ridiculous?
The second half of this reunion, this “deprogramming” is, by suggestion of Mr. Theodore, something neutral, something where the two can just be in the same space together. Betty knows she’s messed up Mr.Theodore’s first step royally. Sandra only grunts when Betty asks if she’s ready to go.
On Fifth Street, a man guides a shopping cart toward Betty and Sandra. He wears a sack around his waist and is oddly buoyant—maybe a Moonie! Betty waits for Sandra to say something or react, to give a hint that this man is one of her kind, but she doesn’t engage him.
At home, the Mayor of Larkport has made a motion to block the cult members from soliciting, an action taken to prevent any more college students from being lured in. The man has lost something besides an incisor tooth and his hairline, Betty thinks. His face is young for all this loss, making him look like a confused baby.
After he passes, Sandra stops and turns to watch him.
“Do you know him?” Betty asks.
“Who?” Sandra says, watching the man wheel his cart around a corner.
“That man. Who was he?”
“Let’s go to the movie,” Sandra says.
“Are you in danger, Sandra?” Betty asks. She worries that if Sandra leaves the church, the congregation will torment and stalk her.
One Larkport Republic article reported that a former Reverend Moon follower a town over placed his head on an Amtrak railway just before the train barreled through. Betty hasn’t been able stop herself from reading reports, from watching news documentaries. Reverend Moon won a Guinness World Record for the most marriages in one ceremony. She saw it on television.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is the only movie playing that Betty has any desire to see. In the still of the dark theater before the movie begins, Betty’s already exhausted like the deprogrammer said she would be. He said it wouldn’t be easy, but that she has to fight for what she wants, and doesn’t she, after all, want more than anything, for her daughter to come home? And doesn’t she? Does she?
“I wish you’d come home, Sandra.”
“Do you?” Sandra asks.
The film’s opening credits show news clippings of a kidnapping—a fiction about the Lindbergh baby. The scenes are sporadic and dark and hardly make any sense to Betty, yet her nose burns as if she’s about to cry.
Betty stares for a moment at the flash of the screen on Sandra’s cheeks. If Betty doesn’t know any better, Sandra looks normal, and to everyone seated beyond their two seats, what’s actually happening is not happening at all.
When Betty told Sandra how Charles died, she tried to bend the facts, the brutality of it, but emphasized that Charles had probably died from the smoke fumes, not from the skin-melting, organ-burning, perishing of home. When it happened, Sandra had been in class at the university and Betty had been shopping for groceries at Star Market. Betty imagined Charles sat in his large leather chair watching the local news. The cigarette Charles had every afternoon dipped, suddenly igniting against the couch or the rug. He hadn’t suffered at all, Betty told Sandra, though she’d known better.
“I’m going to the girls’ room,” Sandra says.
A moment after Sandra leaves, Betty follows her and stands outside the stall, where inside, Sandra cries and recites scripture.
“May it be brought together again,” she says.
For lack of a better place, Betty looks in the mirror, surprised to see herself as entirely composed, her sensible skirt and buttoned blouse against the smells of antiseptic and toilet, the smoke from burnt popcorn. In the corner of the mirror someone has written ‘I’m Watching You’ in raspberry-colored lipstick.
“Who?” Betty says out loud.
“Mom?” Sandra asks. Betty imagines her, shivering, on the other side of the door, but doesn’t move.
“Sandra?” Betty asks. She starts to ask when she’d become so separate from her daughter, but then it occurs to her that her daughter has finally let her go.
“I’m okay,” Sandra says, and continues praying. “When we are alone, we are never lonely.” This is not a voice Betty knows.
When Charles died, the house had burnt from the inside out so quickly no thanks to the hoards of photographs, obsolete textbooks, and the kindling that made up their lives. The fire department couldn’t get it under control and officials kept worrying that Sandra had been inside.
“I’ll wait for you out here, and then we’ll go get some water and fresh air.” Betty takes deep breaths, and grasps the pill bottle in her purse. A crop of gray bugs speckle the sink counter like stealth fighters.
“No. Let’s go finish the movie,” Sandra says.
When they return to the theater, Betty has lost all sense of where the film left off. On the screen, the train is stalled and snow clouds the scene beyond the windows.
Betty watches Sandra’s eyes and cheeks flinch; it’s as though Sandra’s mind’s gone haywire. On the screen, Lauren Bacall has a cigarette in a train car; her arm rests on the chair and the smoke trails upward. The thought creeps up without warning that Betty wishes Sandra had been home with Charles that day in the fire.
Betty grabs Sandra’s hand, warm and calloused, and whispers, “I’ll bring you back to the compound. I’ll give you money.”
Sandra excuses herself to the bathroom, and Betty counts to ten, slowly, giving Sandra time to make up her mind to do whatever awful thing she will do next. The deprogrammer would tell Betty she’s earned her position as a mother without a child, and by the time Betty cuts through the air of burnt butter and corn, Sandra slams the glass doors to the theater behind her and steps out onto the sidewalk. She darts like a squirrel into traffic, and Betty stands behind the glass, watching. Horns ring out against the buildings. Her daughter runs down an embankment, her head disappearing beneath the horizon.
After the stoplight changes and traffic clears, Betty steps out of the theater, onto the street, and crosses. Her deliverance comes in the last place she saw her daughter in motion, and there is nothing but trees, even when she sits on the ground and looks up.
Sarah Cedeño’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Redactions Journal of Prose and Poetics, Literary Mama and elsewhere. She lives in Brockport, NY with her husband and two sons, and teaches writing at the College at Brockport and Rochester’s Writers & Books.