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Gone Tonight



My mother walks through our tiny living room, her eyes sweeping over our old blue couch and coffee table, before she briefly disappears into the galley kitchen.

“I just had them in my hand.” Her voice is tinged with something darker than frustration as she begins another lap.

I should jump up from the couch and help her look for her keys so she isn’t late for her shift at the diner.

But I don’t want her to notice I’ve begun to tremble.

“Check your purse again?” I suggest.

She frowns and reaches into her shoulder bag.

My mother is organized. Methodical. Detail oriented. Her purse isn’t a jumble of crumpled receipts and loose change. Sunglasses in a case, small bills facing the same way in her wallet, cherry ChapStick and hand lotion zipped into her makeup bag—it’s containers within a container.

She shakes her head and walks to the raincoat hanging on a hook by our front door, searching through its pockets.

Maybe her father is absentminded. Perhaps her cousins grew distracted when they approached middle age. It could be something our relatives tease each other about when they gather for holidays.

I don’t know. I’ve never met them.

When I had to create a family tree in the fourth grade, I was able to fill out only two names on a single branch. My mother’s and mine.

My stomach tightens as I watch her bend down and check around the mat by the front door where we put our shoes. She looks even thinner than usual in her uniform of black slacks and matching polo shirt with a red waitressing apron tied around her waist.

She hasn’t been able to eat for the past few days. At night I hear her restless movements through the thin wall that separates our bedrooms.

Tomorrow she has an appointment with a neurologist.

Everyone loses their keys, I tell myself. The neurologist will have a simple explanation for my mother’s strange new symptoms. He’ll prescribe medication and advise her to get more sleep and send us on our way.

But my pulse is accelerating.

I force myself to inhale slow, even breaths. The worst thing I can do is fall apart. My nursing classes taught me about the power the body wields over the mind, and vice versa. Right now I need a steady physiology to assert control.

It works. After a minute, I feel able to stand. I walk over to my mom, thinking hard, then dip my hand into the big pocket of her apron.

Relief crashes over her face as I pull out her keys.

“I’m losing my mi-”

“Could you grab another box if the diner has any?”

I don’t really need more moving boxes. I just couldn’t bear to hear her complete that sentence.

I already have a half-dozen cardboard boxes I pulled out of a recycling bin behind a liquor store. I don’t own many possessions and I pack quickly. I’ve had plenty of practice.

When families move out of houses in the suburbs, neighbors throw going-away parties and the moms get weepy after a few glasses of wine.

People like us, we move on to a new apartment and no one notices.

I’d planned to sort through my books and clothes this morning. But until we see the specialist, everything feels suspended in midair.

My mom rises to her tiptoes to kiss my cheek, then opens the door and is gone, her footsteps growing fainter.

I wait for silence. Then I reach for my phone and call up the list I’m secretly compiling.

Misplacing her keys might not be another piece of evidence. Still, I document it along with today’s date.

Then my eyes roam over the dozen other incidents I’ve recorded of all the things my mother has lost—a twenty-dollar bill, her train of thought, her way home from the drugstore that’s just a mile away.

All happened within the past month.




I’m good at disappearing. We women do it all the time.

We vanish in the eyes of men when we hit our forties. We dive into roles like motherhood and our identities slip away. We disappear at the hands of predators. We’re conditioned to shrink, to drop weight, to take up less physical space in the world.

“Hi, I’m Ruth, and I’ll be your server.”

I spoke that line at least twenty times during my shift today. It’s a safe bet none of the customers I greeted could repeat my name five seconds later.

That’s a good thing. Being inconspicuous suits me.

No one takes notice of me as I walk down the path parallel to the Susquehanna River, watching its surface gently ripple as the current draws it beneath the South Street Bridge. The air feels swollen with moisture and clouds blot the brightness from the day, but I keep on my dark sunglasses.

My feet ache from fetching sunny-side-up platters and club sandwiches and bottomless coffee refills, but I push myself to move faster.

I didn’t tell Catherine I was running an errand on the way home. She may worry if I’m late, especially since I set my phone to airplane mode when I left work so she can’t see my destination.

I climb the curving, split staircase that leads to the library entrance. I push open the front door and follow my routine: I make sure no one I recognize is nearby, then choose the most secluded computer.

The old wooden chair creaks as I settle into it and use my library card to gain access to the internet.

It would be easier if I could borrow Catherine’s MacBook to do my checking—like I used to until I learned about search histories. Who knew computers keep tabs on you even after you shut them down? It’s creepy.

Now I don’t even use my iPhone to google anyone from my past since Catherine and I share a phone plan and I might unknowingly be leaving electronic bread crumbs.

Catherine thinks I don’t miss anyone I left behind. I encourage her to believe this because it means fewer questions. But I ache for my dad and brother. Even if they’ve washed their hands of me. Even if the thought of me conjures disgust in their minds.

After all these years, it’s still hard to breathe as I begin my search.

I look in on my little brother first, connecting with him in the only way I can. Timmy has a Facebook page, but it’s set to private so what I can see is limited. His profile picture shows his two-year-old twins. His daughter has a smile that looks like mischief brewing. His son is a near replica of Timmy when he was young, and I wonder if he’ll live for baseball and ice cream, too.

I stare at Tim—he must’ve shed his childhood nickname—wondering how he met his wife and what he tells her about me. If he mentions me at all.

I search for my father next. There’s nothing new, just a few grainy photos I’ve seen countless times, and in those it’s hard to make out his face clearly.

Still, I soak him in, trying to conjure the sound of his voice—husky yet tender—when he tucked me in at night, and the way he would rest his cool palm on my forehead when I had a fever as if he could pull the sickness out of me.

What I would give to feel his arms wrap around me one more time and inhale the warm, woodsy scent of the Old Spice he wore.

When I left my parents’ house as a teenager with nothing but a few changes of clothes, a little money, and a gold watch, I knew they would be relieved I was gone and would never try to find me.

One thing kept me from collapsing and giving up: the baby growing inside me.

I may no longer be a daughter or a sister, but I am—and will always be—a mother.

Catherine and I have each other. We’ve never needed anyone else.

The final person I check on is my old boyfriend, James Bates.

There’s nothing new on James either. He never married, which I have mixed feelings about.

There aren’t any recent photos of James, so I’ve constructed an age progression image in my mind: his sandy-colored hair is close-cropped now, graying at the temples. The lean frame he had at nineteen is thicker, and lines bracket his mouth. All this only adds to his appeal.

Late at night is when I think about James the most. When I can’t sleep, even though the time my shift will start is drawing closer. I try to imagine what James is doing at that exact same moment, nearly a hundred miles away.

I always come to the same conclusion: He’s lying in bed in the darkness, just like me.

I wonder if he’s thinking about me, too.

A heavy crack erupts beside me, the noise exploding through the air.

I leap to my feet, twisting toward the sound.

“Sorry.” The teenager who dropped a stack of hardback books onto the table next to me shrugs.

“You need to be more careful!” My voice is loud and harsh. Heads swivel in my direction.

I’m no longer invisible.

Which means I need to leave the library as fast as I can.




The doctor rises from a chair behind his desk as we enter his office. I’m not sure what I expected, but it isn’t this: a small, sterile room with mud-dull carpet and a schoolhouse-style clock hung on the beige wall. But the diplomas displayed on his bookshelf are from good schools, and I’ve checked him out. He’s the best neurologist around.

He walks around his desk, not avoiding our eyes but not smiling either. I can’t read a verdict in his expression. He’s good at navigating this fraught moment, but then he must have a lot of practice.

“I’m Alan Chen,” he introduces himself.

“Nice to meet you,” my mother replies. “I’m Ruth Sterling, and this”—she touches my shoulder—“is my daughter, Catherine.”

I step forward to shake his hand as his eyes widen in surprise behind his glasses.

Now our roles have shifted and I’m the one who has had practice navigating this uncomfortable moment. Dr. Chen urges us to sit down and offers us water, but all the while I can see him doing the mental math.

My mother has a few silver strands glittering like tinsel in her chocolate-brown hair and slightly crimped skin around her big hazel eyes. She looks her age—forty-two. I look older than my twenty-four years, and I’m told I act it, too. That’s probably because smiling isn’t a reflex for me the way it’s expected to be for young women.

Dr. Chen recovers quicker than most. By the time he is back in his chair, opening the chart on his desk, his expression is inscrutable again.

He jumps right in: “Ruth, can you tell me about some of the symptoms you’re experiencing?”

I’m certain that information is already documented in his folder in the pages of paperwork my mother filled out, along with the results of the blood test from her primary physician that ruled out possibilities like a vitamin B12 deficiency and Lyme disease.

“At first it was little things.” The material of my mother’s slacks rustles as she crosses her legs. “Dumb stuff that happens to everyone. It just started happening more often to me. Like I couldn’t remember the word I wanted. Forgot to unplug the iron. That kind of thing.”

“And you noticed an increase in these sorts of events how long ago?” Dr. Chen prompts.

The silence stretches out. A red button on the doctor’s desk phone begins to flash, but he ignores it. A strange current is humming through the air. It feels electric.

I’m about to break in with the answer—a month ago—when my mom opens her mouth and beats me to it.

“Maybe four months ago.” Her voice is almost a whisper.

I suck in a quick breath and whip my head to the side to look at her. Her expression is calm, but her hands are restless. She’s toying with the delicate topaz ring she always wears, spinning it in circles around her finger.

Dr. Chen jots a note on one of the papers in his file. “And it’s getting worse?”

My mother nods.

I pull my iPhone out of my purse and call up my list.

5/07: Put sunglasses in kitchen drawer.

5/10: Called ice cubes “water squares.”

5/12: Forgot what month it was.

Dr. Chen asks my mom a few more questions, then closes his folder. “There are some tests we can run.…”

My throat is so tight I have to clear it before I can speak. “Cognitive tests, or do we go straight to brain imaging?”

My mother leans forward and even now—standing alone in the path of what must feel like a great onrushing cement wall—pride fills her voice. “Catherine’s going to be a nurse. She just graduated cum laude and she’s about to start work at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She’s moving to Baltimore in two weeks.”

Copyright © 2023 by Sarah Pekkanen

Gone Tonight
by by Sarah Pekkanen