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Nine Days

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They stop telling her things. That's the worst part. As if it wasn't enough that she didn't know what happened to them, where they went or what they've been through. They wouldn't-- or couldn't tell her.

"I'm sorry, mom," Nona had said, once, and maybe she thought that Lotus didn't hear, and maybe it would be better if she hadn't.

But it hurt her still, the apology and the thought that Nona had anything to apologize for. She had fought the urge to sweep her girls into her arms -her dear sweet brave girls- and tell them she was sorry she couldn't have protected them or that any of this had happened in the first place. But there was no doing any of that. Lotus found that her head was still spinning from the police reports and beside that, it didn't really matter as long as her girls were alright.

(And even that is a miracle, she thinks she had heard-or maybe she read it somewhere, that one of the children hadn't made it out, that there hadn't even been a body to collect or any sort of clue as to what went on there. How horrifying, how cruel, how-)

Details don't matter. (Could that have been one of her girls instead?) They're okay. (Who could do such a thing?) They're just a little more quiet now but they're still as close as ever, and look, they're even smiling at each other and everything will be okay.

She wishes she could help them. Lotus was always fierce and strong and she did her best to pass those traits on to her daughters, and maybe it had helped them in whatever they had gone through in just nine days. Nine days is just a little over a week, she thinks, as she walks down the hallway. Such a short amount of time and yet it had been so torturously long, too.

Ennea's dark eyes flicker over to the doorway, startled when Lotus walks into the room. She seems to falter, her shoulders stiff like she doesn’t know where she is or who she’s looking at, and it’s only after Nona whispers something to her that Ennea relaxes and laughs breathlessly, relieved, blinking as though nothing just happened and Lotus enters the room with a forced smile as if she hadn't seen it, hadn't wondered just what had happened to her girls to make them like this, and how can she fix it?

But there's nothing that could mask the fear in Ennea's eyes because she didn't recognize her mother, she just say a figure in the door and all it took was a few words from Nona to bring her back. At least they have each other. But it hurts that they can’t have her, too.

Is it a twin thing, then? Twin-tuition? She had a read a book on it, once, when she was still pregnant and constant mix of scared and excited. Stuff about the bulldog picture being shown to 200,000 people and Sheldrake's theories on telepathy. But what would that have to do with anything?

She’s their mother. They’re supposed to come to her for things like this. When they’re scared or worried, when they wake up from nightmares- it’s supposed to be her. And somehow the girls have filled that gap on their own.

They go to sleep in separate beds. She kisses Ennea goodnight on the bottom bunk and then kisses Nona on the forehead as she’s about to climb onto the top one. But she always finds them sleeping on the bottom bunk together in the morning. One time, she heard Nona climb down to sleep next to Ennea before Lotus had even closed the door all the way.

It’s not that they cuddle. She doesn’t mind that. It’s the fact that they act like it’s a secret, that they have to hide it from her. She sometimes hears their voices through the closed door, one of them (Nona) sharp with panic and then another’s (Ennea) mumbling voice running in a low, soothing current to blunt the edge in her sister’s voice.

More than once, Lotus has pressed her ear on the door, desperate to hear anything, any detail or clue that might help her figure it out. Anything at all that can help her help them. But it’s too hard. The girls are good at this, and sometimes they seem to have entire conversations with each other through a single glance alone.

What they need is stability, so Lotus does her best to make things as normal as possible for them. She makes them go to therapy for a little bit, but all anyone can seem to gather is that the girls, though close and maybe a bit codependent, are coping and dealing with their emotions, and both of them understand that their mother is worried about them.

(Worried isn’t the word for it. She can hardly bear to remember the fear that had gripped her when it became apparent that something was wrong. It was stupid of her. The Ganzfeld Experiment, but they needed the money, and it was supposed to be a science thing, a study, and how could she be so stupid, her girls were gone the hospital didn’t know where they were no one knew where they were the police were too late--)

Lotus would have scoured that entire hospital herself if she could have, if they would stop restraining her and just let her look herself. That’s how it always is, you know? You think you lost something until you ask your mom to look for it, and there it is, plain as day. She just needs to see for herself.

But what do they do? They send her home. (The police will keep you noted, Ma’am.) And do they? Of course not. She can hardly get any details out of them, that’s the police for you, but that isn’t going to stop her.

They just send her home to her apartment, and it’s almost too much, to be standing there in the doorway with their blue backpacks in their rooms, with their shoes kicked off in the doorway. (She always tells them to put their shoes in their room but do they listen? Of course not.)

She just stands there with the door open and stares and stares, and she can’t even take a step into the apartment because it would be all wrong to be coming home without her girls. It’s just wrong to be home without them in it, she always complains about the noise and that she never has the place to herself, never has time to clean, but now she does. She has plenty of time. And plenty of silence.

She sees the dust on the TV screen. She was going to make them do it over the weekend. Lotus was finally going to tackle her messy closet, so full of things she’s been meaning to get to, and her girls would clean the TV set and do their chores, and that would be their Saturday.

Instead, the Saturday includes Lotus sinking into the soft leather couch, feeling wooden and hollow and foggy, staring at her dusty TV and waiting for the phone to ring or for someone to knock on the door. Something. She just needs something to break the silence.

She can’t feel anything except for an alternating mix of fear and exhaustion. One moment she’s too tired to think, too tired of thinking, feeling how her back hurts because she’s been slouching for hours but somehow can’t get up. She’s just sitting and staring at the walls and her stupid TV, thinking that maybe she should get up and eat something, call the police back, her girls could be in trouble and she’s just sitting there.

But she can’t, she’s paralyzed, and then in the next moment the fear has her by the gut, an icy grip on her insides and snaking up her throat, twisting around her windpipe until her breath comes short and fast.

It’s not a specific fear. There’s so little she knows about what could be going on that there’s no images for her mind to provide to scare her with. Maybe it’s better this way. She can’t even begin to imagine what they’re going through right now. The blind, breathless fear has chased all of her thoughts out of her, leaving her so frazzled she can barely speak.

Is that why she wants so dearly to know just what happened to them when they’re finally returned to her, just to put a name to this feeling that she has, this feeling that keeps her up at night? But that’s selfish, so she puts it behind her and puts all her energy into investigating instead. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. And she wouldn’t ask her girls to tell her anything they’re not ready to. Even after they’re safely back with her, she maintains that rule.

But it’s hard. Whoever has done this has covered their tracks. And the police can’t (or won’t) do anything to help her. It’s like they think she’s got her happy ending, like she should be satisfied with this. She wishes distantly that she could know any of the other parents that this has happened to, so that they could at least try to do this together. There’s strength in numbers, right?

But wishing only does so much, and her worries are still right in front of her, glancing uneasily at closed doors, always checking to see if they’re locked. The door to the bathroom creaks loudly, just another thing she needs to get fixed, and she watches as both her girls stiffen up at the sound. She oils it that night, when they’re both asleep. She wonders if they notice.

It’s fascinating to watch them, sometimes, the way Ennea passes the DS charger to her sister and Nona takes it without looking up, and then glancing it in surprise. Then the light on the device flicks to red. The two share a laugh, like Ennea had realized that the DS needed to be charged before both Nona and the device itself.

What could have happened to make them like this? They were close before, but not like this. It’s a little mystifying.

But those are the good parts of whatever experience they’d been through. The bad parts come at times where she can’t see them, but she knows they had happened by their red rimmed eyes, by their near panic at having to go back to school and only having lunch together.

She gets them cell phones for their birthday in January. She wants them to be able to call her if they need her, or to call the police if they ever found themselves in trouble again. She wonders if things would have been different if she had just done simple something like that months ago.

Her daughter’s birthdays always make her emotional, and this year’s is no exception. If anything, she’s more teary eyed than usual, but she keeps a smile on for both her girls and if anyone notices, than no one says anything.

Her winter babies, that's what she used to call them. They're here to celebrate another birthday, and the feeling is indescribable, just how lucky she is that everything turned out alright. She’s so thankful, she’d prayed to any god that would listen just to have them back safely with her, and here they are.

She remembers when they were born. It was right after New Year’s. The nurse had talked about starting the year off right, but Lotus had been too tired to listen, and all she wanted to do was hold her girls safely to her. Her choked, warbling voice had found it’s way out through her occasional sob, just so overwhelmed and crying happy tears, looking down at her girls and having to be gently reminded to tell the nurse their names so they could fill out the birth certificate.

The memory brings a rush of emotions with it, as always. She remembers finding out she was pregnant at nineteen, getting married just to appease his parents, and then getting divorced before her term was even up. One baby, Ichiro thought he could handle, but two was too much. Two college funds, two mouths to feed, two more pairs of shoes to buy. He couldn’t handle it so he quit.

But Lotus was no quitter. She had known before she had even met her babies that she was ready to fight for them. She would give them everything she had, and so she could do it alone, and she did. It was exhausting, but it was rewarding, to see their first smiles, to feel them pull her hair, to watch them discover the world.

Lotus was alone raising them, but if there was one small mercy in the world, it was that they would always have each other. Lotus’ only living family member was her grandmother, who lived across the country. Though they couldn’t see each other, her grandma had given her so many tips on raising children and had sent over any money she could manage. Lotus had cried the first time she received it, she had been resigning herself to buying diapers over a wrist splint that she also desperately needed. But with her grandmother’s money, she could do both. She could survive.

Lotus never allows herself to forget, but she makes her peace with it. It won’t do her girls any good to see their mother obsessing over it. It won’t do them any good to have to rehash their own traumas because their mother wants answers that she isn’t necessarily owed.

She just has to put the past behind her, and keep a smile on her face. After all this, it should be easy.

In the years that follow, her life consists of three things: work, her girls and their wellbeing, and trying to find her way back into dating. Her girls are in their senior year of high school. They’re both looking at colleges, and though something in her chest aches when they daydream about studying abroad, she’s proud of them nonetheless.

She comes home one day and it’s snowing, and she sees her girls in the living room with the furniture polish in one hand and a dirty sock in the other, cleaning the TV screen and the set and the wooden surface it rests on.

They look up when she comes in, startled, before smiling sheepishly at each other.

“Oh,” Ennea says, blinking, “you’re home early.”

Nona sticks her tongue out at her sister. “Told you her date was gonna be a bust. That guy didn’t even bring her flowers like the last one did. No class.”

Ennea rolls her eyes. “Be nice,” she scolds. “Though,” she adds, after a moment, “if he stood her up, I guess we don’t have to be nice. Did he show, mom?”

Lotus blinks at them, her mouth not moving for a moment. She had been so captured by their synchronized movements, how easily the conversation flows between them, that she had almost forgotten that she was standing in the room as well.

She clamps her mouth shut and shrugs. “Yeah, and it was alright. We just didn’t have that much in common.”

“Ah, well,” Nona says, cheerfully, “there’s always the next one.”

Lotus smiles, warmed by her optimism, and begins peeling off her coat. “What are you girls up to?”

“Um,” Ennea looks down, as if just now noticing the cleaning supplies in her hand. “We were just cleaning the living room. We were trying to do it before you got home, to surprise you.”

“We know you always hate it when the TV gets dusty,” Nona clarifies, watching carefully for her mother’s reaction when Lotus’s face goes blank instead of pleased, as they had been expecting. The sisters share a glance.

But Lotus isn’t thinking about that. She’s thinking about how dusty that TV had been the day they disappeared, and how they had never gotten around to cleaning it. When they were gone she couldn’t make herself, and when they returned she couldn’t ask them to. She must have ended up doing it herself, but she can’t remember.

How strange. It seems so foreign to her now, the space between their disappearance and return, and the new year. And then they had just found a new routine, until it became the new normal. Time had strung them along, and pulled their small family back together, and they settled into a new rhythm as the years progressed.

How could she have forgotten that breathless fear that had ruled over her? How could she forget those sleepless nights, the worry that bore so far into her head that she could barely stand to eat or even think at all, to do anything except look at that dusty TV and think about how her daughters were nowhere to be found?

She had been ready to give her life for them, anything she had, and just like that they could be taken from her grasp without her even knowing about it. If anything had happened to them, she wouldn’t have been there to protect them. It was out of her hands. And there was the dark, dusty TV, showing her nothing except her own pale face in the reflection and the silence that filled the room, devoid of laughter or bickering or idle chatter. So silent, so still, so unlike the home she had come to know. And it might be that way forever. Where were her girls? Were they scared? Were they together? Were they-


Ennea’s voice breaks her from her thoughts. She had always been the more perceptive of the two, but her lack of reaction was apparent to them all as the moment stretches on. Lotus takes a deep breath, and hangs her coat, and tries to think of something to say in the space in between. 

Lotus lets the breath out and wanders into the living room, gathering her daughters into a hug and holding them close. They might not get it, but they hug her back, tucking their chins in the crook of each side of her neck, a perfect fit, like they were meant to be there. And of course they were.

“Thank you for cleaning,” Lotus says, because it seems like a good place to start. They used to be so short that she had to bend down to hug them, and now she hardly has to. “I appreciate it. You’re both so thoughtful and it caught me off guard. But I’m so lucky to have you two here with me, I hope you know that.”

She releases them, and they share a bemused smile at the unexpected show of affection, but seem to understand the unspoken message in the air.

“We should clean more often,” Nona jokes, attempting to lighten the mood. If this were any other day, Lotus would have joked back, content to let the opportunity for introspection pass by for another day.

But maybe it’s her mediocre date or maybe that it’s cold outside again and it’s stirring up memories, but Lotus can’t bring herself out of the mood. She sinks into the couch, staring into the newly cleaned TV screen, thinking of the thick layer of dust that had accumulated. Such a small detail, and yet it brings it all back in such a rush that it almost winds her.

“I love you two so much, you know that?” She doesn’t usually make herself vulnerable like this, and her girls pick up on it as they settle down beside her and lean into her side. She puts her arm around them. “I”m so thankful to have you two back. If anything had happened to you, I don’t know what I would have done.” Her voice shakes, an alarming detail, but she keeps her resolve.

Ennea hums, and Nona presses into her side, a comforting weight. “We love you too, Mom.” Ennea says, “Even when we were kidnapped, we were still thinking of you. I’m glad you didn’t have to worry for too long.”

“I never stopped worrying,” Lotus confesses, “Even after you were back, I worried every day. I wanted to do so much for you, but some things you had to handle on your own. I’m just so glad to see you guys happy. It means so much to me.”

Nona giggles, “It must have been a really bad date,” she says, “we should set you up with more trashy guys. Maybe next time you’ll buy us a car afterwards.”

Lotus nudges her. “Don’t push it,” she warns, but there’s no real heat in it.

The moment passes, but neither of them get up. If the remote had been closer, they could have watched something on that newly cleaned TV, but it seems that no one is willing to separate and look for it.  She sighs again, Nona echoing the action. She thinks about Nona and her lighthearted humor, how observant and mature she can be. She thinks about Ennea and her careful patience, her wit and thoughtful nature, and she is again so grateful that they have each other and that they returned to her.

“Come on,” Lotus says, suddenly, as the thought strikes her. She ignores her daughter’s questioning gazes and pulls them off the couch instead, heralding them into the kitchen. “Let’s make hot chocolate, since you two did such a good job.”

There’s no complaints to that, and they sip their drinks and gossip, it’s the lightest moment in a while that Lotus can remember. Looking at them is such a simple joy, until they tell her she’s getting sappy in her old age and she lightly swipes at them with her free hand.

But it’s a warmth she tries to hold onto, as she watches the shadows on the kitchen table, hearing her daughters complain about their math teacher. She might not ever know all the details of what happened to them. But they’ve found their happiness again, and finally, it feels like enough.