Pete's Diner, in Chicago on the edge of West Loop, doesn't have a proper sign—just a blue awning that states Good Food! Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, along with a phone number, all hovering above an unassuming white brick exterior.
The police officers and workers and students who frequent it during the day call it Pete's, but Mae doesn't know what to call it. She sits cross-legged against the canary yellow wall, head framed by Chicago memorabilia on both sides, nursing an orange soda and gazing at a mounted television. On the screen, Shelby speaks into a microphone.
“And that's the last time I saw her.”
Soda trickles down Mae's numb throat. She has crushed a napkin into a ball the size of a marble.
A reporter on the TV asks, “If you could say one thing to your friend right now, what would it be?”
Shelby glances at her toes. “I would say... I would say, I'm sorry about getting into a stupid fight. And I would say that I just want us to be friends again, and for things to go back to the way they were.”
The only thing keeping Mae upright is the wall behind her, but it's working and she keeps breathing in and also out.
At the diner counter, an old man tells the waitress refilling his coffee cup to change the channel. “This is depressing.” He shares a newspaper with a friend. It doubles as a place mat: giant pages smeared with coffee and ketchup.
Mae began piecing her story together the moment she left the Rose Hotel. She found a shady spot of sidewalk on which to peer at her phone, and there she read about herself in the news. It had not felt real.
“Missing white girls. The media can't get enough!” the second old man agrees. “Do any of these news stations show real news anymore?” Clearly one of his favorite topics.
“I can check,” the waitress demurs, pouring a cup for herself as well. “This story is so sad, that poor girl.”
Something about the waitress's voice catapults Mae into action. She slips on a pair of sunglasses and shifts about in her seat. An infinitesimal manic glow alights in her chest. They are all looking at her, she realizes. Even if they don't notice her physical self sitting here in this restaurant, they are nevertheless gazing at a static image of Mae flashing across the TV, and it holds their attention. The photo the station chose is the selfie she snapped Saturday night before she left for the party. This version of Mae wears a white dress and strikes an exaggerated pose at once familiar and foreign.
The old man agrees that Mae had been such a pretty girl. “Never mind this story,” his friend says, “If I could come back in another life as anything I wanted, I'd come back as an attractive woman. Now that'd be the life!”
“That's taking it a bit far,” responds the waitress, wiping hands on apron. “It's not all it's cracked up to be.”
“C'mon, Jenn. You know I always tip you high!”
The news pauses for commercials. There is a weather forecast, then a segment about the stadium renovation. Mae feels feverish. A voice between her temples says to go home, go back to Pearville, though she is unsure of what to do once she gets there. She exhales audibly, and the spark in her chest escapes like a firefly and buzzes about strangers. It occurs to Mae that if they recognize her, the story will be about them (about how they noticed the missing teenager in a diner and alerted the authorities) and Mae will have to explain everything, even the parts she doesn't understand. The waitress approaches with purpose. Mae eyes her suspiciously.
“More soda pop, sweetheart?”
“No! The check. I want the check.”
The waitress tallies up her order without making eye contact. Suddenly uncoordinated, Mae fumbles for her wallet, which is somewhere near the bottom of her bag because of course. Makeup and tampons spew all over the booth.
“Take your time, sweetheart. No rush.”
Mae feels conspicuous. The other diners must see her, though she can't bring herself to glance up to confirm. Her fingers morph into fat tentacles that rummage uselessly—unable to grab a wallet; open it; take out four dollars. With great effort, Mae finally plops a five dollar bill onto the table. Head down, bag gathered, she darts out the door in a blind rush.
On the train back home, shuttling under the elevated line and past apartments and tract houses and a decaying factory, Mae reads the comments. More than a few people are already calling the video a hoax, engineered for attention by a girl who clearly loves it. They've linked to her other accounts, to her photo albums and fledgling beauty tutorials, as proof. Still in sunglasses and hunched low in her seat, Mae searches in vain for the gaping hole right in the middle of her own story: the elusive video that would explain it all.
By the time the train pulls into Pearville it's almost five, and sunset threatens from the far end of the sky. Of course it must have rained here, too, though Mae felt like last night's storm pelted from her own private cloud. The pile of bikes wallow in a shallow puddle behind the ticket booth. Mae pulls Lady Go-Go from the jumble and pedals through backyards and alleyways, bumping over gravel and tree branches that jut through unkempt lawns. When she arrives at the high school, though, all is quiet. The news vans have moved on. A neon food wrapper rolls across black pavement like a tumbleweed. So she changes course, rides down the little-used path by the river—the one slackers take when they skip class, and college kids ride down their first summer back home for old time's sake—up and around toward High Street.
The Bradys' cramped backyard is really just a layer of bricks that refuse to be overtaken by tangled grass. A lawn table with an umbrella, unfolded for at least ten years, balances in the center. Back here the ivy is thickest, having long ago won the war against Courtney's shears. Mae quietly rests her bike against the bramble and, on tip toe, follows the creeping vine around the side of the house, toward strange voices.
Courtney stands stiffly on her stoop, her face made up for work, tugging an ill-fitting blouse over her hips. A young camera operator balances a tripod on the sloped front lawn to record an anchor who speaks earnestly into a Channel 11 foam microphone, her purple lipstick the same shade as her jacket. Neighbors who have come outside to watch the action perch on rusty swings and lean over chain link fences, weathered faces jutting from wrinkled necks.
“I last saw my baby girl on Saturday night.” Courtney leans further into the microphone. “Saturday evening, in fact, probably around seven thirty p.m.”
A production assistant assigned to guard the news van scrolls through his phone. Mae watches from the shadows. She's never heard Courtney refer to her as a baby girl. Nothing is as it should be.
“Do you know of any suspicious strangers your daughter may have contacted before Saturday, maybe someone she met online?”
Courtney shakes her head sadly. “If I knew them, they wouldn't be strangers, now would they?”
“What do you think of all the attention this has caused?” The anchor gestures toward the curious neighbors. “The video making its way online, all this coverage?”
There is only one thing Mae can do, and she does it just as Courtney opens her mouth to answer. “Mom? Mom! I'm right here!”
The camera operator, instinctively beginning to pan, stops to clarify. In the unedited version of the video, the anchor can be seen swinging fuchsia arms and mouthing at him to keep going. As the camera slides toward Mae, light follows. She comes into focus. Shoulders square. Back straightens. Face tilts softly to project a more flattering angle.
Sensing an important development, the production assistant stops browsing and presses record on his phone, panning swiftly with the official video camera to capture a teen girl emerge from behind the little old house. The mother covers her mouth in astonishment while the girl, flawless in a bouncing ponytail, confidently strides toward her. Mae throws her arms around Courtney, nearly knocking her over. Neighbors erupt into spontaneous applause. Hands in a frenzy on the sidelines, the anchor narrates. “In an unbelievable turn of events, Mae Brady, the teenage girl missing for two days, has just come home. That's her embracing her mother now. As you can see, her mom is nearly speechless, understandably so. If you're just tuning in now, we're in Pearville, Illinois, where a teen girl has been missing for two days. In a shocking turn, she has just appeared and is being reunited with her mother now. The feeling here can best be described as joy, mixed with relief, mixed with disbelief. As a journalist, you become so accustomed to reporting the worst that happy moments like this hit you even harder. If you just tuned in, we're reporting from Pearville, Illinois.”