The cameraman inside the Channel 13 helicopter zoomed in on the pearl-blue van, its roof torn open, the left side mangled, resting deep inside a rocky fold of the Sierras. It was a warm spring day in Dixon, California, and most of us weren’t aware of the breaking news as we fired up our barbecues or stayed out late on the ballfields. It was only after Mary Davies, the driver, was identified, and then Carissa, her fourteen-year-old daughter, that we turned on our television and computer screens. We watched replays of the early footage: the rescue team rappelling into the ravine; the four bodies, blurred by the media, being extracted from the van. Twenty-four hours later we learned the names of the two other local girls, Erin and Phoebe.

Reporters flocked to town, interviewing anyone who knew Mary. At first, we had only kind words. Lois, her next-door neighbor, described how Mary favored lawn ornaments: cement toadstools, spotted baby deer, grinning gnomes. George, her boss at the packing supply store, said she was a crackerjack employee, able to lift forty pounds even though she barely grazed five foot two. We held a candlelight vigil. We propped flowers, cards, and teddy bears in the gnome garden outside the Davies’ home.

Then the autopsy report came in, and the preliminary toxicology tests revealed a .19 blood-alcohol content, an amount equivalent to five drinks.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Frank, her husband, told the first reporter who called the house. “It isn’t possible. She hardly drinks.” He sobbed, and his teenage son took the phone and hung up.

We talked about it at work, outside the post office, in the checkout line at the IGA. It was inconceivable that Mary Davies, our Mary Davies, would be drunk while driving the girls home from a weekend gymnastics clinic in Reno.

Her daughter was a talented gymnast. Mary was convinced that if Carissa were to spend three days with Olympian Sophia Petrovskii, she’d finally nail her double back tuck, which would move her up a competition level and rank her as the best on the team. The clinic, with a $1,500 price tag, was well worth it, even if she had to put it on a charge card.

So with no awareness of what would be the true cost of that weekend, Mary slipped out of bed Friday morning. It was dark outside. She opened the back door for the dog, a fifteen-year-old Chihuahua, who shivered and refused to move off the rubber doormat. She fed him, made coffee, then checked the dryer to make sure the leotards had dried. At 7, she knocked on her daughter’s door. “Rise and shine.” She lifted the Venetian blinds, letting the sun splash across Carissa’s face.

Her daughter clutched her faded Cinderella comforter and rolled from the light.

Mary ticked off the items in Carissa’s suitcase against her packing list. She added the jewel-colored leotards. Then she looked inside the gym bag to make sure Carissa had her bar grips and plenty of tape.

“Time’s up, sleepy head.” Mary zipped the blue duffle bag, the Dynamo gymnastics team name and logo embroidered on it in gold thread.

The dog had made a mess by the back door. Mary cleaned it up. In the kitchen, her son, a senior at the high school, toasted a waffle.

“If your dad works all weekend, you’ll need to be around to let the dog out.” Mary put the disinfectant back under the sink.

“Maybe I’ll have a party,” he said. “Booze. Dancing girls. Porn movies.”

“No, you won’t.” She smiled because Matthew was not that kind of kid. He was the captain of his school’s QuizBowl team and a team leader for Students Against Drugs and Alcohol. Even as a toddler, he’d pout if Mary poured a glass of wine. More than likely, he’d have his girlfriend over and they’d watch movies and eat popcorn.

“Why not?” Matthew asked. “You and Carissa get to go off to Reno. Isn’t that what people do up there? Go wild?”

“It’s a gymnastics clinic. A working weekend.” The toaster pinged. Mary ran the maple syrup bottle under hot water until the cap came unstuck. She wondered if he was needling her. She had postpartum depression after the births of her children. Drinking wine helped her get through the rest of the day. She wasn’t sure how much he remembered about those years.

Carissa shuffled into the kitchen, still in her pajamas. She swiped a finger through the syrup on Matthew’s plate. “Yum.”

“I bet Sophia Petrovskii doesn’t oversleep or eat sugar.” Mary handed Carissa a bowl of oatmeal with apples and yogurt, which she made for her each morning, because otherwise she’d choose Fruit Loops.

The kitchen-office printer whirred into action, and Frank rushed in, picking up each sheet as it rolled out. He seemed pleased with the results. “Too bad these folks didn’t sign a few days earlier. I could have driven up with you. Maybe caught a show.”

“Another missed opportunity,” Mary said. There had been a lot of those lately. Frank had bought into a solar-panel franchise just as the market was flooded with startups. He was forever chasing after potential customers.

“Yeah, Dad,” Matthew said. “I hear they have naked dancing girls up there.”

“Gross,” Carissa said.

Mary called after her, “Clean clothes on top of your dresser.”

Frank tapped the stack of sheets on the counter. “Sorry, gotta run. Early meeting.” He leaned in to kiss Mary, but she pretended not to notice and reached for the syrup cap on the counter. His lips barely brushed her hairline.

Matthew’s eyes flickered with disappointment. Children were like that. They picked up on everything. But Mary was tired. She hadn’t slept well the previous night. Eventually, after taking an Ambien, she fell asleep, only to be awakened a few hours later when the alarm went off. She didn’t have the energy that morning to put on a show.

The phone rang. “Mary?” It was one of the other gymnast’s moms. “Phoebe left her bag at the gym. Can you swing by on your way out of town?”

“No problem,” Mary said, although it was. Phoebe’s mom only remembered Mary’s name when she needed something. Once at the gym, when Mary had said hello, she’d squinted at her, “And who are you again?” After that, when Mary drove Phoebe home from practice, she didn’t bother to remind her to check if she had everything. Little Phoebe became known as Little Airhead.

Mary wrote the name of the Reno hotel down for Frank, gave Matthew twenty dollars for lunch and essentials, filled the dog’s water bowl, double checked that the toaster was unplugged, finished packing her own suitcase, and then called upstairs for Carissa.

Carissa wore her team warm-up jacket and pants. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and the stray hairs secured with metal clips. She handed her mother her blue and gold hair ribbons, and Mary tied them into a neat, secure bow. Carissa had turned fourteen, but she could be mistaken for twelve. Mary was thankful for that. She’d been the first girl in her class to develop breasts. The boys grabbed at them, mooing cow sounds. Her teacher sent home a note, explaining that Mary needed to wear a bra at school. At the time, walking home, Mary believed the kids were snickering because they knew what the teacher wrote. Mary kissed the top of Carissa’s shampooed hair, breathing in the scent of apple blossoms.

The girls lived within ten minutes of each other, but it took over an hour to collect them. Phoebe was still in the shower. Erin attended private school and had gone to her early classes, so Mary had to check in with the school secretary who insisted Erin couldn’t leave without permission from one of her parents.

Mary looked at her watch. “I assure you her mother knows.”

The woman’s hair was short and spiky with punkish platinum tips. She looked over the rim of her black-framed glasses. “We can’t just take your word for it.”

Mary had half a mind to leave Erin behind. It would be one less kid vying for Sophia’s attention. But Carissa could be temperamental. Any change in her routine could throw her into a tizzy. “Can you call her mother then?” Mary asked. “You must have her work number on file.”

Mary sat in the row of seats against the far wall, tapping the heels of her white sneakers against the chair’s wooden legs. The secretary kept glancing over at Mary while she talked on the phone. Even though Mary wore a compression sports bra, her Dynamo team T-shirt fit snug against her chest. It was a dense cotton weave, royal blue with gold lettering, a unisex style with small side slits. She adjusted the collar, the front placket. She rubbed her palms on her jeans.

Later, the secretary was all over the news. She was identified as the last person in town to see Mary. “I should have listened to my instincts. I thought there was something fishy going on. She was nervous. Fidgety. Working in the school office, you learn to spot the ones who have something to hide.”

“What do you think she was hiding?” the reporter asked. “Could she have been drinking?”

The secretary shrugged, leaving us to wonder.

Once underway, the girls had trouble settling down. Each time a car slowed to read the slogans they’d written with liquid chalk marker across the van’s sides—RENO OR BUST! GYMNASTICS RULES! WE FLIP FOR SOPHIA!—they screamed and high-fived. Mary tried to feel exhilarated, too, but she’d eaten only a dry toaster waffle that morning, and with all the delays, her blood sugar had dropped. She felt light-headed. Her eardrums throbbed as they climbed into the Sierra range. To keep occupied, she glanced out the window at wild mustard, which grew along the freeway. In the foothills, blue lupine and yellow star tulip bloomed. It was a brilliant spring day, but as she climbed higher, she dreaded the mountains and deep ravines ahead. She’d never liked heights, but could usually cope long enough to get over a bridge or a steep hill. Above the sounds of the girls’ music, a popular boys’ band, she could hear gears shifting and engines straining as semi-trailers and tour busses chugged up the I-80 grade.

She pulled off in Kingvale and into a gas station. She grabbed a blue paper towel by the pump and mopped her face. A hot flash, she told herself. She was getting to be that age.

Carissa stuck her head out the window. “Can we get some soda?”

“There’s juice and water in the cooler.”

The gas station’s security camera captured Mary entering the convenience store, paying for a Coke and candy bar, and then standing just inside the glass door, watching the pumps as she devoured them. When local and national news stations attempted to recreate Mary’s actions, they played the grainy video with experts commenting. “It’s not unusual for people to have multiple cravings—sugar, caffeine, exercise, even overzealous parenting—which might appear benign individually, but viewed collectively, are significant markers of the addictive personality.”

Frank gave a brief press conference outside the home, countering the accusations. “She was never an alcoholic, an addict.”

Mary’s mother called into a late night radio station and spoke in her gravelly smoker’s voice. “It’s all hogwash. A conspiracy. Someone screwed up big time. And it wasn’t my Mary. She’s the most responsible person I know.” But her mother stopped making impromptu calls after the media learned she owned a bar. Experts speculated on whether Mary became habituated to an alcoholic lifestyle in childhood.

We argued amongst ourselves. Some of us thought Mary was drugged. Others wondered if she were drunk before she even left town. In the gnome garden, where the community established a memorial, flower bouquets rotted. Cards blew away. After a night of rain, the teddy bears lay in a sodden heap.

In the back of the van, the girls finally settled down. They looked almost angelic, the three of them, with their matching blue and gold hair ribbons. Mary had forgotten how high the mountain was—over seven thousand feet—and how small and insignificant the guardrails seemed. As the van crossed the summit and dropped into the shadow side of the Sierra range, she felt the pull of gravity lift her from her seat. Ice-age crevices gave way to shallow valleys. Sagebrush and desert scrub grew along the railing. Mary honked the horn.

They peered out the windows. From a distance, Reno looked like an insignificant rise in a vast brown landscape. The girls perked up as they drove under the city’s arches, which proclaimed Reno as The Biggest Little City in the World. Even so, the sidewalks were mostly deserted. They passed The Nugget, Harrah’s, Eldorado, and the Silver Legacy. Neon crimson and green lights flashed in the daylight. Loudspeakers boomed music into the street. A worker in an orange reflective vest trawled the sidewalk, picking up litter with a long-handled trash grabber.

They had time to check into the hotel, but Mary drove directly to Diamond Star Gymnastics, which was housed inside a brick warehouse that had been gutted to make room for uneven parallel bars, vaults, beams, and a tumble track and pit. The clinic was competitive; only twenty girls were accepted. Even so, the lobby was jammed with parents, siblings, and friends. Mary recognized some of the mothers dressed in their gym’s team colors, but didn’t know anyone well enough to say hello.

Sophia Petrovskii, at five foot four, was tall for a gymnast. She’d competed in the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and was known for her grace and power, especially on the floor and bars. She still wore her signature hairstyle, a ponytail placed high on her head and braided and wrapped to form a cornrow bun. In the 80s, she’d worn glitter makeup, but today her face was clear and scrubbed.

Everyone watched Sophia, noting how she walked toe-to-heel, as if strutting on the balance beam, and how, when she called for the girls’ attention, she raised her left hand in a flourish, twisting her wrist inward, which accentuated the toned muscles in her arm. Her Slavic eyes, even without makeup, were exotic and smoky.

“She’s so beautiful,” Mary whispered as she squeezed her daughter’s shoulder.

Mary had no idea how it would feel to be outstanding. She was pretty, but not beautiful. She had brown hair that had faded over the years. Her eyes were small. Even her name—Mary—was dull.

Years ago, when she enrolled Carissa in tumbling class, and Carissa showed talent, Mary scouted out the best gymnastics school within a sixty-mile radius. Frank teased her about being an overzealous stage mom, but what he didn’t understand, and what Mary understood all too well, was that it was important for a young girl to feel special.

Every parent wanted to stay and watch Sophia work her magic, but she ordered them to leave the building and not return until 9. One mother explained that she’d flown in from Texas and was too exhausted to move. A father became irate, claiming that after the bucks he just shelled out, he sure as hell had a right to watch every damn minute of it.

Mary trudged out with the others, who dispersed in groups to their cars. She stood in the parking lot, unable to decide what to do next. It was a mild day, but the sun was hot, the air thin. She searched for her van, but they all looked the same. She spotted a door, a huge metal roll-up door, along the rear wall of the brick warehouse—and it was open! She circled back and stood by a dumpster that shielded her from Sophia but provided a view of the gym floor.

“You. Over there,” Sophia yelled. “Yes, you. Did you not understand what I told everyone?”

Mary flushed.

“Leave. Now,” Sophia said. “You don’t belong here. Go. Shoo.”

She felt as if a hard rubber dodgeball had struck her in the chest. Carissa was watching, and Mary waved a little conspiratorial goodbye, but Carissa turned away.

There were only two vans left in the parking lot. Hers and an extra-long white rental. She leaned against her car’s blue side panel and called Frank, but it went to voicemail. She tried home, but Matthew didn’t answer either. She didn’t like being reprimanded by Sophia. It made her feel like a dumb child who couldn’t understand directions.

“Hey, you,” a woman climbing into the white van called out. “You the only one from your gym?” Other blurry faces peered out from behind the vehicle’s windows.

Mary looked over her shoulder to make sure the woman was speaking to her.

“Come hang with us. The casino has a great buffet, and then we’re going to hit the slot machines. Cha-ching.”

Mary stepped toward her. The woman wasn’t wearing team colors. Crystal studs ran down the outer seams of her jeans. Her red heels sizzled against the asphalt.

Reporters tracked down a girl who attended grade school with Mary. “I don’t think any of us were intentionally mean. We felt sorry for her. Her dad dying. Her mom kind of sketchy.”

“You gotta eat, right?”

Then the news media got hold of a photo of Mary’s mother. She was sixty but looked eighty. Gaunt. Orange skin. Heavy makeup. A mop of bright orange hair.

“Did you see Mary’s mother?” we asked each other. “Oh, my, yes.”

Some of us watching the news coverage felt uncomfortable with these so-called investigative interviews. They even brought on Mary’s first-grade teacher, who recalled that Mary was often teased. “They heard things at home, about the mother. They thought that meant it was okay to be mean.”

The moms helped Mary climb inside the van and waited until she squeezed into an empty space in the third row and buckled her seat belt. They had big smiles. They were Starz gym moms, and they wore a jumble of colors—reds, pinks, aqua, chartreuse. They nicknamed her Dynamo Mary.

They drove with the windows open, and the air lifted Mary’s hair off her shoulders. The perspiration on her neckline evaporated. She leaned back against the headrest. Someone else was driving. Carissa was with Sophia. The tightness in her throat, which she hadn’t been aware of, loosened, and she felt something dislodge and escape from her mouth. Outside, neon bulbs flashed and raced along edges of buildings, up twenty-floor towers, and along hotel balconies.

They used valet parking. When Mary stepped onto the curb, her cell phone buzzed. Frank. “I need to take this.” She held a hand over her other ear to hear.

“I got your call, but you didn’t leave a message. The ride go okay?”

Frank’s voice was flat and monotone, which was why he didn’t do well in sales. Tonight, he sounded solid, reassuring.

“I’m downtown with some of the other mothers,” Mary said. “We’re going out for dinner.”

“It’s good for you to get out,” he said. “You deserve to have fun.”

Mary felt guilty for not telling him she’d charged the Reno clinic fees on the card. She didn’t know how she was going to pay it off or keep him from finding out.

The buffet had every imaginable cuisine. Italian. Asian. Mexican. Moroccan. Mary filled her plate with a little of everything: shrimp, meatballs, Asian noodles, tilapia, guacamole and chips. She ordered a glass of Chardonnay. One would be okay. Besides, all the other women were drinking. She was careful to take tiny sips.

Mary expected they would talk about gymnastics, their girls, Sophia, but they were more interested in the food, which slot machines they wanted to play, and who was going to keep track of time.

“I will,” Mary said. She was good at that. It was agreed they would leave the casino by eight-thirty, and if separated, they would meet at the front door. At first, the women walked together. Mary followed closely behind. She had never seen shoes the color of Elaine’s—like red nail lacquer. A waitress passed with a tray of salty pink margaritas. Elaine stopped her. “My fave.” She handed them out. “We need two more,” she told the waitress.

“Not me,” Mary said.

“Oh, come on,” Elaine said. “Let your hair down.” She stepped sideways and bumped and rolled her hips as if line dancing. The other moms roared.

Mary could taste the margarita—salt, lime, tequila. “I can’t.” She needed to focus on Carissa, the clinic, which was why she was there.

“You’re a poo,” Elaine said. The women, drinks in hand, fanned onto the casino floor.

Mary fell behind. A merry band of young ladies rushed past, the bride-to-be holding onto the rhinestone tiara falling from her hair. A slot machine flashed and dinged while an elderly couple waltzed in celebration. The room was spinning, and Mary leaned a hand against a faux-marble column, feeling a headache coming on. She needed to sit. Stay hydrated. She made her way back to the café, her route recorded on casino floor cameras.

News stations replayed those tapes. We scrutinized them. She appeared disoriented, unsteady. “She’s a flipping drunk,” the technician who’d changed the oil in her van the week before said. “There’s no way her family didn’t know. They’re lying so they don’t get their asses sued.”

Mary sank into a booth and fished in her purse for aspirin. She ordered a glass of wine and a glass of water so she wouldn’t drink it too fast. Her waiter, Julio, was attentive and friendly. He wore a crisp, white dress shirt, black, pleated trousers. A serviette draped across his right forearm. When he returned with a generously-filled glass, she let her hand brush against his arm. “You have an accent. It’s lovely. Where are you from?”

“Cuba.”

Her head filled with images of white sand, azure water, turquoise bungalows. “How does one get from Cuba to Reno?”

“My parents sent me to live with my sister. Better schools. More opportunities.”

Mary understood that. As a child, she dreamed of living with another family, a family with a home, not just an apartment above a bar.

Mo, who had ordered a beer at her mother’s bar every day for over forty years, remembered, “That’s right, Joyce had a kid. Always sat in the back booth, coloring, doing homework. They grow up fast. One day a scrawny kid, the next, a girl with a full rack.”

Julio brought a complimentary plate of fried plantains with powdered sugar sprinkled on top. “Not quite as good as my sister’s. But not too bad.”

She took a bite. It was soft and sweet and luscious. She wasn’t sure why Julio’s kindness made her sad. She felt far from home, far from Frank and Matthew, from Carissa, as if the drive over the Sierra Mountains had unmoored her. She hoped the clinic would invigorate Carissa. Her daughter was talented, but lazy. Already, some of the less gifted girls who worked harder were gaining tricks on her. Instead of it spurring her on, Carissa pretended like she didn’t care.

The Starz mothers were late showing up at the casino door. Elaine had won three-hundred dollars and vowed to come back and double it. She rose up on her toes and clicked the heels of her red shoes, three times. “I’m feeling the magic,” she said.

Mary curled her toes, imagining how it would feel to be the girl who got to wear the red shoes.

At the gym, the girls were pulling on gym pants and warm-up jackets. A sizeable group of parents had managed to get back in to watch. It wasn’t fair. She’d followed all the rules. She overheard, “I can’t believe Barbs got rid of her noodle arms,” and “Lisa almost—almost—made her one-and-a-quarter twist.”

“What did I miss?” Mary asked Carissa. “Did you get your double back tuck?”

Carissa glared. “Will you quit asking me that?”

At the hotel, Mary checked into two adjoining rooms. The girls wanted to go down to the hot tub. They changed into bathing suits. Mary sat at a table under the shadow of a palm tree and drank from a bottle of spring water. The air was soft. Fronds rustled overhead. She closed her eyes, lulled into almost believing she was in Cuba. When she opened them, she didn’t see Carissa. She stood, searching to see if she had slipped underwater, but thank God, there she was, shrouded in thick steam, nose just above the water, pressing her back against a jet spray.

After the girls settled into their room for the night, Mary turned on the TV and adjusted the volume. She looked out the window. Above downtown Reno, a bowl of colored light hugged the sky. She thought about calling Frank, but instead texted Matthew. “How’s the dog?” She waited a minute, and he sent back, “Pd in hs 2x.” She texted, “Hahaha. Is Laurel over?” Nothing. She texted again. “What movie u watching?” She waited, but didn’t hear back.

 

She woke with a mild headache. She thought it might be the altitude. She’d never shaken the pressure against her eardrums from when she crossed the I-80 pass. She knocked on the girls’ door. “Get a move on.” Twenty minutes later they were in the lobby choosing from the complimentary breakfast selection. Mary spotted Elaine and the other Starz moms.

“We’re going to start at the Silver Legacy this morning, then work our way down Virginia Street. You in?” Elaine asked.

Carissa leaned in to listen. Mary handed her an apple.

“I don’t think so,” Mary said. “That was enough excitement last night.”

“But it was so much fun.” Elaine whispered confidentially, “Sometimes we moms have to let loose.”

“I really can’t.” Mary walked away, nudging Carissa to keep her moving.

“What was that about?” Carissa peeled the sticker off the apple. “Did you go somewhere with those moms?”

She didn’t like Carissa’s tone. “Just to dinner.”

“I heard those Starz moms are kind of wild.”

“Where would you hear a thing like that?”

Carissa shrugged. “The girls talk. They say the moms go out and get drunk during meets and stuff. Sometimes they forget to come back.”

“Well, that’s not what I did.”

“You were late. You’re never late.” She bit into the apple. Its red skin snapped.

Mary dumped her paper coffee cup in the trash. “Hurry up. Get your friends. We’re leaving.”

At Carissa’s age, Mary was helping at the bar, stacking beer cases in the storage room, rolling the trash out at night. Carissa had no idea how lucky she was to have a mother who always put her first.

They were among the first to arrive at the gym. Sophia announced that parents had to leave, no exceptions. They grumbled. A few pretended not to understand her Russian accent. She promised to allow them to watch the last hour on Sunday. “Eleven. Tomorrow. You go now. Only then I let you watch.”

Mary left as part of the herd. Outside, the parents separated into groups according to their daughters’ team affiliation. The Starz moms were gone. She felt like she was still the last kid on the playground to be chosen for a team.

She had twelve hours before she picked up the girls. Back at the hotel, she peeked inside the girls’ room. They’d tossed the clothes they’d worn yesterday onto the floor. They hadn’t unpacked. She found hangers. Phoebe, of course, brought expensive, inappropriate clothes. A sequined mini dress. A padded bra. A sheer white blouse with satin ribbons that tied peasant-style across the bust. She turned it inside out, looking for the label. She ran her fingertip along the seams. She had taught herself to sew in high school. She’d snitch a popular girl’s skirt or blouse from their locker during gym class and stuff it in her purse and take it home to copy. On Phoebe’s blouse, she picked at an end knob, testing the seam’s strength. She nibbled at it, wetting the hem and threads with her tongue. She could taste the subtle residue from the pricy Victoria’s Secret line of soap. Phoebe was a rich kid. A spoiled kid. Her teeth clamped down on the seam, and she tore into it.

In her room, she stuffed the blouse into the wastebasket and covered it with pages she ripped from Reno Lifestyle. She opened a can of Coke from the mini-bar. She ate a bag of M&M’s. She flopped on the bed and turned on the TV. Reno news and weather. She looked at her watch—eleven more hours. She pulled the blanket up around her neck and stared at the textured ceiling. If she squinted, the peaks and ridges looked like cheekbones, the pockmarks like accusatory eyes. Mary reached into her purse and swallowed an Ambien. She needed to rest, to sleep. The ceiling fan hummed and clicked and moaned, but shortly, she grew accustomed to its predictable sounds.

She woke six hours later, her headache gone. The afternoon sun hovered above the mountains, and the casino lights—the reds, greens, blues, and purples—were beginning to infuse the sky. She felt a tingling rift of electricity along the back of her tongue. What harm could it do to experience Reno? If she were lucky, she might win back the clinic fees she’d charged on the card.

She’d only packed jeans and Dynamo T-shirts, which were icky. She fished the peasant blouse out of the basket. She’d brought her mini-travel sewing kit, and it took only a few stitches to fix the seam.

It felt wrong, perverse, to slip the blouse over her head and drape the featherweight fabric against her skin, but it sent waves of icy shivers through her. She looked in the mirror. If she didn’t tie the ribbons, it almost fit. Underneath, her thick-strapped sports bra looked like a cropped black tee. She took a few side steps, bumping and swiveling her hips. She was no poo.

Outside her door, she tucked her key into the side pocket of her purse. She checked her cell phone. It was 4:36 p.m. The battery was low, but she could recharge when she got back.

Security cameras picked her up entering the casino. More than a few people who knew her muttered, “Whoa! Is that Mary?”

Inside, elderly people shuffled behind walkers. Men wearing billed hats and scuffed work boots gambled. Mary withdrew $100 from an ATM machine and headed for the blackjack tables, where she exchanged cash for chips. She’d played cards as a kid. Lucky Mary, a few regulars at the bar called her, although they had probably let her win.

She bet ten bucks. The dealer shuffled. She checked her hand. She tapped the table for another card. Over the next hour, she lost and won some. Eventually, she discovered the rhythm and quirks of the other players. She ordered the house special, a Pink Cadillac Margarita.

A man slid onto the stool beside her. He glanced at her growing pile of chips. “Can I get a lucky lady another one of those pretty drinks?”

He watched her play. He reminded her of Julio, except older. He wore a dress shirt and black slacks. He had thick, dark hair. A peppery mustache. His hands were clean, yet calloused, and he said he worked as an airplane mechanic at Fallon Station. She touched his hand to thank him for the second, maybe third drink, pausing to let her fingers graze the creases. She imagined him scrubbing them with pumice stone.

A few days later, the bar waitress was interviewed. She thought she remembered serving Mary five or six margaritas.

“Didn’t that seem excessive?” the reporter asked.

“This is Reno,” she said. “Everyone drinks.”

The man—his name was Leo—held Mary’s elbow as they navigated the labyrinth of gaming tables and slot machines, looking to cash out her chips. He was compact, muscular, and he guided her as if they were gliding across a dance floor. She knew it was growing late, but she didn’t want to look down at her watch. She felt pleasantly woozy. Her shoulders and hips swayed.

“Dynamo!”

Mary squealed, “Elaine! I want your shoes.” She sunk to her knees. She tapped them. Hard as shellac. “I’ll give you a hundred bucks. Please! Pretty please!”

“Trade,” Elaine said. “My feet are killing me.”

The women plopped down on the burgundy and gold carpeting and yanked off their shoes. Although the casino cameras didn’t catch it, a cell phone video surfaced. Elaine rubbed her feet. Mary clutched the red shoes to her chest. If not for their size and clothing, they looked like children, oblivious to the throng of adults around them.

Sneakers tied, Elaine trotted off. Mary stood. Her weight shifted forward as her heels lifted. Leo rested a hand on her back. As she walked, her feet corkscrewing deeper into the pointy shoes, she wondered again about the time. But hadn’t she waited for Carissa and her friends a zillion times? Just once, they could wait for her. She raised her hand and pirouetted toward a waitress. “One more round, please.”

Leo’s hand drifted down and lingered near her butt. Frank had never been demonstrative. They’d married their junior year at Chico State. He was studying engineering. She was undeclared. They were friends. Just friends. She was drunk the night he told her he had a crush on her.

She cashed out her chips. Music from inside the dance lounge filtered out into the casino. Her red shoes tapped against the floor. As a young girl, she had always wanted to dance. She used to practice in her bedroom in front of the mirror on the back door. Just one dance, then she’d leave. She raced toward the dance lounge, pulling Leo along. She shimmied, letting the blouse slip further off her shoulders. Her hips found the beat. She stepped, one-two-three, toe-to-heel, following the dancers live-projected onto a screen. The video camera panned to her, and she swayed in sync with the twenty-foot projection of herself. Strobe lights pulsed with music. Leo took her hand and stepped back. Her feet followed. She twirled under his arm. Starting at the soles of her feet, she felt her body elongate. Her calves, her thighs, arms, fingers, tingled as the screen projection of herself morphed into towering rays of red and purple light.

She was curious how it would feel to kiss Leo. His bottom lip was pink, full. She nibbled at her own, thinking about this. His eyes were liquid amber when he smiled. She reached behind his neck and pulled his face towards her. His mouth was hard, a bit off center. Her ankles wobbled. Laughing, she fell into him. She was just playing; it didn’t mean anything. She moved sideways, her red shoes clicking against the hardwood floor.

The last video recording of Mary, the last time any of us would see her, was of her exiting the casino at 9 p.m. with a man who had yet to be identified. She was barefoot and weaving. They bumped hips as they attempted to walk straight. She was shorter than we all remembered. Almost child-size. She swung the glossy red shoes from her hand.

“Why doesn’t the man come forward and explain?”

“Maybe he’s married.”

“Maybe he doesn’t know what happened.”

It didn’t seem fair. We’d followed the story for weeks. Still, that three-hour gap between exiting the casino and her stumbling into the hotel lobby was unaccounted for. We would never know.

A few reporters continued to stake out the Davies’ home long after the autopsy, working another angle of the story. “Don’t you have something you want to say to Phoebe and Erin’s parents?” they yelled, catching a glimpse of Frank or Matthew driving into the garage.

Father and son retreated further inside their locked home, not even venturing out to clean up the headless gnomes and broken-backed does in the vandalized garden. Eventually, those reporters faded away, too.

When Mary woke later that night, she was inside a car, a late model with red vinyl upholstery and a large back seat. She had fallen asleep on top of a man with dark hair and a gray mustache. His belt was unbuckled. His pants unzipped.

She sat up. The blouse she wore was sticky and stained with a crusty pink mix. Thank God her pants were snapped. She looked at her watch. 11 p.m. Shit. She pushed open the car door.

“Hey,” the man said, reaching for her. “Not so quick. We haven’t finished.”

She shoved him. In the parking lot, she tried to orient herself. She had no idea where she was. She started running, not sure in what direction to go. She had to find Carissa.

“Your shoes,” he yelled after her.

Although we never learned what actually took place with the mystery man, we could well imagine. Opinion shifted, and we felt sorry for Frank and his son. After all, they were victims; she had fooled them, too. Our community church organized a cleanup day, and we removed the memorial and mowed and trimmed their lawn.

Somehow Mary found her way back to the hotel room. When she woke up, her hair was damp as if she’d washed it before climbing into bed. Her toes were bruised, her feet cut. She reached for her cell phone. Dead. She plugged it into the recharger. She’d missed twelve calls. Shit.

She had only sketchy memories of the previous night. She remembered playing blackjack at the casino, but other events were vague. A man with a silver-streaked mustache. Elaine’s red shoes. Kissing. Oh, shit. Red car. Oh, shit, shit. Directions. Right. No, left. “You’re way over on the other side of town, Little Missy. Let me give you a ride.” Then nothing, no memory, until a vaporous image of Carissa standing just outside the pillow of steam by the hot tub surfaced in her mind.

A knock at the door. “Mom. Open up.”

Mary didn’t know how Carissa got back from the gym. She didn’t know what to say to her. She shoved her arms inside the sleeves of her robe. She peered out from behind the door. Carissa was dressed for gymnastics practice. Her hair ribbons neatly tied in a bow.

“You look like shit,” Carissa said.

“Don’t say that.”

“I hate you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“We’re walking to the gym.” Erin and Phoebe stood behind her.

“You girls can’t go alone.”

“We walked by ourselves last night. It was dark. Scary. You didn’t have your cell phone on.”

Mary leaned her head against the door and tried to think, but her thoughts were foggy, fragmented. She spoke slowly, deliberately, trying to sound in control. “We check out this morning. Your bags ready?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She tapped her forehead against the door. “I’ll be at the gym at eleven. I’ll be there to watch.”

“Whatever.”

Mary had to find a way to explain last night to Carissa. But how? She could tell her she had the flu. She could say she overslept. She tried to put the pieces together from last night’s image of Carissa standing beside the hot tub. They had talked. She could see herself doing it, wearing that horrible blouse, but she couldn’t remember the words. It was as if she were a hologram projection of herself.

She drank a glass of water. Seconds later, she threw up in the toilet bowl. She sank to the floor. More than anything, she wanted to be home with Frank, listening to the fax machine whir into action, printing out a signed contract for a complete home solar system. Matthew would be awake, poking through the refrigerator. Carissa would be sleeping under her pink Cinderella comforter. The dog shivering by the back door.

She stood. She turned on the sink faucet. She splashed her face. She had to drive herself and the girls over the mountains. She couldn’t let anyone know that she was hungover. She sipped on water she cupped into her hand. She threw up again.

Hair of the dog. A man at her mother’s bar used to say this when ordering his first drink of the day, “A little hair of the dog, please.”

Mary did not want to be like those people. She had learned in high school to imitate the way other girls acted and dressed. She got good grades and received a college scholarship, but once there, she still didn’t fit in, either. Her roommate was from Walnut Creek. The students in her classes all spoke better, were more confident, came from real families. All she wanted to do was go home and work at the bar with people she knew. When she got pregnant her junior year, it seemed like a solution. She could become someone else. Someone’s mother.

She opened a can of Coke and a mini bottle of vodka and poured them 50-50 into a glass. It tasted like the hotel staff had watered down the bottles of vodka. She used to help her mother dilute the bar bottles on the bottom shelf. She made another drink.

The cleaning crew worked their way down the hall and knocked on Mary’s door.

“Not yet.”

It was noon. She wanted to reserve the rooms for one more night, but what would she tell Carissa, Phoebe, and Erin, their parents? They’d want to know why.

Somehow, she got the bags stuffed into the van. Somehow, she climbed into the driver’s seat and turned the key.

Carissa and the girls were standing outside the gym. Carissa was crying as she climbed into the van. “You’re late. What is wrong with you? You’re not my mother.”

“Don’t say that.”

In the back seat, the girls fell silent.

Mary felt nauseous. She sipped from the bottle of water she’d placed in the drink tray. Just a few more hours, and she’d be home. The weekend would eventually fade away. She headed up I-80.

At 1:30 p.m., a dispatcher received a 911 call. “There’s a woman driving really slow. Kids in the car. She’s all over the dividing line. Oh, my God. She almost hit the guardrail.”

“Where are you, Ma’am,” the operator asked.

“I’m looking for a sign.”

Mary felt the full weight of the alcohol hit her bloodstream. She didn’t dare glance at her rearview or side mirror, but if she had she would have seen the cars slowing down around her and the riders looking inside the van.

Phoebe talked into her cell phone. “Mommy, Carissa’s mom is acting funny. I’m scared.”

“Don’t say that.” Mary looked over her shoulder. “Hang up. It’s okay.” She swerved. A car beeped. Carissa screamed.

Mary overcorrected, but managed to straighten the van. She was sweating, dizzy. She fumbled with the window switch. Air. She needed air.

She couldn’t read the road signs. The words jumped and jumbled. “Girls,” she said, “Help me. I don’t feel well. I need to find an exit ramp.”

Carissa unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned through the console. “Up there, Mom. See?”

As Mary reached back and grasped Carissa’s hand, the front right wheel caught on a patch of gravel. The van fishtailed. She spun the steering wheel and stomped on the brake, but the tires lost traction.

The van was filled with the sounds of screaming, but Mary heard only a whistle, a sharp whine, like air escaping a balloon. Anything not strapped down—gym bags, suitcases, coolers—whirled about the van, colliding. Carissa tumbled past, her tucked body rebounding through the cramped space. As they continued to drop, the walls caving in around them, Mary caught a glimpse of sky, a deep blue color only visible at very high altitudes. She wanted to point this out to Carissa, to whisper to her not to worry about foolish things, like double back tucks or noodle arms—because she was perfect just the way she was—but as Mary reached for her daughter, she was pinned back by the centrifugal force of the fall.

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