Bette settled onto Jack’s couch with a piping hot mug of tea. I’d managed to scrounge up a seemingly ancient box of chamomile in a cabinet next to Jack’s kitchen sink, pushing past much newer canisters of coffee grounds and hot chocolate. For whatever reason, it seemed like tea was the only beverage that would fit the situation, even if the box was so dusty it might as well have been mummified.
I pulled up a chair across from her and, too shocked to even hide it, looked her up and down. Her dark hair streamed down her shoulders, shot through with strands of silver. She was bundled up in various draped layers to fend off the cold, but even in the warmth of Jack’s apartment, she still shivered so badly her teeth clacked against each other. They sounded like they were made of wood. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Luckily, Jack wasn’t home because he was holed up at the library. The sudden arrival of Celine’s mother would have been a lot to explain. Bette and I sat in silence until a rush of words surged from my mouth, the force of my curiosity enough to shove me forward in my seat.
“What are you doing here? Is Celine OK? Where is she?”
Bette kept her eyes on her mug, then lifted their icy blueness to my face.
“No.” That was all she said.
“No, what? No, she’s not OK?” I started gnawing on my thumbnail, a habit I hadn’t given into since my teenage years.
“She is not OK, no.” Bette set the mug on the table in front of her and tugged at the heavy scarf she’d wrapped around her neck. In another situation, I would have admired the effortlessness that clung to her like a fragrance, touching everything she did. It was like she was steeped in it.
“How did you find me?” I had to ask. Bette didn’t seem like a woman who would pay attention to my social media accounts, or who even knew what social media was. Certainly not enough to track me down in this enormous, winding, hungry city.
“Does it matter?” She waved a hand, clearly expaserated. “My daughter is lost. She’s gone. I need you to help me find her.”
How to tell Bette that I had no idea where Celine was? That she had been an utter, complete mess of a person the past few months? That’s always the kind of thing you hide from a mother, who usually wants to believe that she’s created someone better than herself.
“Where do you think she is?” I asked.
Her mother glanced at me over her mug of tea, which was finally cool enough to bring to her pale, parched lips. Her eyes, suddenly nervous, darted from my face to different spots around the room—the wall clock, the television, an old print of the New York City skyline—before resting on me again.
“She told you about her…past, yes?”
I shook my head. Celine had given me the basics, but I could tell that wasn’t what Bette meant.
“It was never supposed to be like this,” Bette said. She lifted the mug to her mouth and stuck the lip of it between her two, the jutting edge interrupting the flow of her words. She stalled and sipped, the rippling sound of bubbles filling the room. In my tense state, they sounded like tiny explosions. Then, she told me.
It had started with alcohol, when Celine was almost a teenager. Sips of wine at the dinner table had blossomed into an insatiable thirst, a need for liquid fulfillment. That, in turn, had become a dependence on pills, powders, anything that would get her high enough to forget where she came from and who she was.
Sure, her adolescence growing up at boarding school and spending summers in Paris and Brussels sounded like a dream to someone like me from bumfuck Ohio. But to Celine, it had just been evidence that she wasn’t enough for her parents to love, otherwise they would have kept her around for more than the occasional summer. They’d supported her financially, Bette told me, including her venture into the world of fashion design. They’d also funded a very necessary trip to rehab some years back. Recently, they’d realized Celine’s problems were creeping into her life again. Her fashion dreams were flailing, according to her mother, and it was times like these when she fell back into her bad habits. This was news to me. They’d been raging at each other constantly about money, but recently Celine had fallen off the map and stopped communicating with them. That had been enough to get Bette on a plane.
Bette finished her story, the mug of tea left cold and mostly untouched on the coffee table in front of her. Her eyes glazed over and I could practically see a younger Celine, the precocious, wide-eyed girl bursting with charm and an accent to match. “She’s different now,” said Bette, reading my mind.
“How long has this been going on? The most recent issues, I mean?”
“Months,” Bette said immediately. “Well, years, but she was free of it. Now, I fear it’s returned.” I flashed back, the puzzle pieces all fitting together.
Celine, tumbling down at the gala and taking a waiter with her. Celine, glaring at me in the kitchen on a lazy weekend morning, me overhearing what must have been an angry conversation with her parents, her secret almost discovered. Celine, eyes shiny as marbles, bizarrely offering police officers waffles for checking up on our so-called break-in. Celine, scrambling for excuses about my watch. Celine, hunched over my bag, counting out my cash. Celine, leaving doors unlocked and questions unanswered.
I welled up in disbelief, wanting to deny the facts but knowing that I couldn’t. I could finally connect the dots, and the resulting picture showed me just how blind I had been.
I still wanted to know how Bette had found me, but I knew it wasn’t the time to solve that mystery. “What can I do to help?”
“I was knocking at your apartment all day, but she wasn’t there. Do you know where she might be?”
That’s how I found myself back at my old place, tearing through Celine’s room, looking for any hint of where she spent her time when she wasn’t at the apartment. Of course, she’d mention various places to me when we’d see each other, but I’d never filed those names away for an occasion like this.
I looked through the vintage vanity Celine had so excitedly told me about months ago. I tentatively pulled open the first drawer and found a jumble of jewelry. My heart lurched in my throat and I pawed through it, hunting for and failing to find my watch. Frustrated, I yanked the other drawers open, remembering with each tug how she’d insisted I use it to get ready for the gala where her facade had first slipped and she’d exposed a side of her I’d never expected.
I slumped onto the floor in front of the vanity and grabbed the bronze handle of the one drawer I hadn’t looked in yet. I jerked it open slightly too hard, and it fell into my lap. I could see the wall in the gap it left, and my intuition nudged me. I shoved my hand inside the vanity until I was shoulder-deep, then reached down to the darkness I couldn’t see. My fingers instinctively wrapped around something, and even though I hadn’t gotten a glimpse of it, I knew what it was.
I drew out my hand and stared at the bag stuffed full of pills of all different colors and sizes. I didn’t realize until that moment how reluctant I had been to believe Celine’s mother, but here was the evidence, making my insides feel as liquid and slippery as mercury.
I turned around and silently held up the bag, out of words. Bette’s eyes ran over me frantically, then latched onto it. That was all the confirmation she needed. She let out a sob and clutched the clothes around her, which she’d ripped from Celine’s closet in an urge to find a clue, anything that would lead her to her daughter.
I didn’t know what to do. Should I hug her? Or ignore her display of emotion? I ultimately got up from where I was sitting and walked over to her, reaching a hand out to pat her shoulder. As I did, I saw a flash of black and white next to Bette’s hand. I grabbed it and held up what turned out to be a T-shirt, then read the logo across the front. Of course.
I turned it around so Bette could read it. “I think I know where she is.”
The last few times Celine had been home, well, before the whole stealing thing, she’d mentioned Jimmy’s, a bar downtown. She’d once come home swimming in a huge black and white T-shirt with the bar’s name emblazoned across the front. “The bartender gave it to me for no charge,” she’d told me happily. She sometimes mixed the shirt in with her outfits for a little bit of a surprise, and it always worked.
Celine’s mother and I showed up to Jimmy’s, the address of which I’d found online. We were a ragtag duo with one goal in common.
We walked into the low-lit bar. Bette stood, almost motionless, by the door. I tried to butter up the stoic bartender, who I hoped was the guy Celine had been talking about. At first, he insisted that he didn’t even know who she was. I knew he was lying. He kept touching his nose. Classic tell. It was like he thought we were dealers she owed, and he refused to be a snitch. Finally, I pointed over my shoulder.
“You see that woman over there?”
His eyes flicked to Bette, then back to me.
“That’s her mom,” I said. “Do you see how worried I am? Take that, and multiply it by a hundred. We’re not out to get Celine. We’re out to help her.”
The bartender sighed, then told me to go a few blocks up and turn right, down an alley. Great. As if the night couldn’t get any more perfect.
“Halfway down, on the right, you’ll see a black door. No sign, no nothing,” he said, uncrossing his arms. He looked around and made sure no one was watching us before knocking out a pattern on the bar. I wanted to scream in exasperation. People seriously did this kind of thing? Had knocking passwords to creepy unmarked doors? Apparently, yes. I made him repeat the password to make sure I got it, then we left.
Instead of the hulking bouncer I’d imagined, no one was guarding the red door. Bette and I paused in front of it, gearing up for what we would find. I rapped out a staccato string of beats on the door. Nothing. I tried again, pounding this time. I heard locks shifting and it finally creaked open, revealing a set of dank stairs surrounded by brick walls that were so tightly packed together, they seemed to breathe. I looked around for whoever had opened the door, but saw no one. There had to be some hidden room off the staircase that I couldn’t see.
We felt our way down the stairs, which were barely lit, reaching our hands out on either side to get to the bottom. We ended up in some kind of filthy basement apartment, which was full of people in various stages of intoxication. The room was hazy, plumes of smoke curling up from cigarettes and joints. Still, it was easy to spot Celine. She sat on a couch in the middle of what, at first glance, looked like a grotesque pile of limbs. People were passed out all around, and on top of her, so her upper half just peeked out of the bodies.
As if on cue, but without noticing us, Celine leaned forward, struggling to get where she wanted to be because of a wayward leg on her lap. She pressed the side of her nose hard and inhaled the line of powder on the table in front of her. I’d never done more than puff feebly on a joint a few times.
I threw a glance over my shoulder at Bette. The despair from earlier in the day was gone. She set herself. Her jaw flexed, she threw her shoulders back, and her hands clenched at her sides. Then she walked over to where Celine had thrown herself back, waiting for whatever high to hit. Bette put her fingers to Celine’s neck and made sure her daughter was alive and breathing. Celine’s eyes flew open, and with a sudden force that made me gasp, she slapped Bette’s hand away.
Bette reacted just as quickly and locked Celine’s arm into a vise grip, then hauled her up. Celine tried to shove her off, arms and elbows flying. Tears ran down her face as they screamed at each other in rapid-fire French. I never knew a beautiful language could sound so ugly. This was like a terrifying, real-world version of the movie scene where a parent goes to a house party to find their kid, who’s usually just doing keg stands, not snorting coke.
I rushed over, worried for both of their safeties, but didn’t have any idea what to do. I grabbed Celine’s other arm, which was swinging wildly. Her muscles twitched and jerked under my fingers, but I held on. All of a sudden, the fight went out of her. She looked from me to Bette and her body sagged, her tiny head lolling about like a broken doll’s. She just sobbed. Most of the people who had been sleeping on her barely stirred. A few looked up at us and rolled their eyes, then shifted into a more comfortable position in Celine’s absence.
Bette swayed, buckling under the weight of her daughter and her fear. I wrapped Celine’s arm around my shoulders so I could support more of her. She was crumpling, folding in on herself. She threw her head back and wailed through her tears. The bones in her neck stood out in stark relief, nubby and frightening.
We struggled up the stairs and out into the frigid air. No one tried to stop us. Bette held Celine up while I flagged a cab, snow mixing with tears on my face. A taxi pulled up and sent a puddle of charcoal slush cascading over my boots.
I opened the door, then motioned for Bette to get in. I helped her maneuver Celine onto the cracked leather interior. She was still crying, but was now eerily silent. The driver watched us in his rearview mirror, but said nothing. I finally climbed in, then gave him our address.
I pulled Celine’s jean-clad bottom half into my lap and stifled a gasp. Winter clothes had hidden how thin she’d gotten, worryingly so even given her petite stature. If I was cold, she had to be freezing. I rubbed her legs, which felt as fragile as a sparrow’s, as we raced uptown.