The Return
Esther Kang

When her son went missing, she remembered the invasion of the house more than his absence.

Since the day the neighbors had hired them, another investigator came in with another roll of tape to block off an area of interest, deeming it forbidden territory. Last midnight, she had stood in the middle of her black kitchen, gazing at the freezer. She’d been storing a pint of caramel ice cream (stashed way behind the frozen lasagna and potstickers so her son wouldn’t get to them), and considered toeing over the neat card-stock tents that had appeared while she’d been out, propped up to mark what she could only gather were indiscriminate and phantasmic traces of evidence. But she decided too much was at stake. If she left but a print of her toe or a strand of her wiry hair on the floor tiles, she might get written up, and the bored and paranoid neighborhood would celebrate in rapturous gawk at her eviction.

The invasion was a sleight of hand, not of disappearance, but transfiguration. As they continued to gut his laptop and spill the contents of his online messages and his most visited websites into neatly tabbed folders, she caught glimpses of the life that mulled upstairs. Before her, and without even being there, he metamorphosed, and she was the only one caught off guard. The investigators were never surprised, reciting and reinterpreting his habits to each other like a well- rehearsed play. She convinced herself that the person they were looking for was not the one that had left a few nights ago.

The daily and ruthless unearthing of her son’s private life left her dispossessed. Everything about him became known to her in such high contrast in such little time—everything she had wanted to know about him, his crude desires, his rough and violent humor, his mind—that it felt more like they were trying to seduce her to participate in a makeshift illusion rather than facilitate a methodical and federally warranted intervention.

“We’re doing everything we can to find him, I promise.” She promised them she was, too.

But really, the only thing that had changed was that she took a new detour to get from the family room to the kitchen, which involved going out the garage, crossing the lawn outside, then back again through the screen door. Apparently, this leftover path had had nothing to do with his disappearance. Everything else was off-limits, sterilized, and potent.

Now that he was gone, she hardly stayed at home. There were no dinners to make, no timetables to attend. She called old friends with the pretense of rallying sympathy, and on one night she felt especially indulgent, she invited Allen over (“It’s so lonely,” she’d sighed). Even though there was no one else in the house, they began to remove themselves from it; it condemned their pleasure. From the dining room, though untouched, they could not unsee the glaring LEDs the force had set up in the kitchen, so when they did succeed submerging themselves in brief romance, their proximity to the local tragedy quickly sobered them into guilt.

They considered meeting at Allen’s place instead. They considered a motel, a nearby park, his car. The indecision made her gleeful and invincible. They could go anywhere.

As he waited outside in her driveway, she rifled through her wardrobe, resurfacing with silky and lacy stuff. In front of the mirror, the fabric hung loose from bare shoulders and clung to skin, suggesting the contours of her bones and fat. She looked like a gorged fruit about to spoil, harboring too much life.

This was the woman the missing boy was reunited with.

His face was chalky, blank and crumbling. When he saw his mother, her health offended him. There were no misgivings in her embrace or tears; her whole being radiated sincerity. She had a new grace about her, but even when she led her son with a hand to his back up to his room, he could not ignore her new strength.

It dawned on him that his feeling strange at home and back under his mother’s care was not strange at all. The crisp cleanliness of his bed and belongings, the staleness, in light of his mother’s breathiness and flourishing and peace—the stage of his homecoming was perfect and right, but everything else felt weakly scripted.

“I think I’m in love,” he heard her say downstairs.

Removing a folded sheet of card-stock from under his pillow, marked SAMPLE, he listened to the musical hum of his mother’s voice swirling below. He realized while he was gone, she had not been waiting for him. His room had been left untouched; preserved not by grief, or even care, but abandon.