RUNNING ALONE AT NIGHT
by Charlotte Moretti
She chewed on a jagged piece of skin that she had pulled along her thumbnail as she drove, her right wrist dangling limply on the steering wheel. She drove quickly as she snuck glances at me—sharp, suspicious looks. I watched through a shaft of sunlight coming in from the windshield as dust billowed in through the open windows of the Jeep and settled, lazy and drifting, on my lap.
Her arm was freckled like I remembered, but now the skin was loose, bunching and drooping. I wanted to touch it, to lift it up back into place; it was as though I had closed my eyes and she had melted by the time I opened them.
I leaned down and pulled out a cigarette from the pack that was nestled in my bag between a few of my other things—a pair of gas station sunglasses, a bottle of iced tea, a jade necklace, a couple of credit cards. As I brought the cigarette to my lips, lighting it, she glanced at me, alarmed, and swatted it from my mouth.
“Don’t,” she said, instinctively. “Don’t—you don’t. You don’t smoke.” Her certainty faded. After all, maybe I did. What did she know?
I nodded, choosing to take her admonishment as an instruction rather than a question. “Okay,” I said evenly.
I glanced out of the window; the dirt road we had been barreling down was now paved, lined with squat buildings and plastic signs that had been pushed stubbornly in the hard, thawing spring grass and now stood lopsided in the heat. We passed my high school, a Taco Bell, GNS Heating & Cooling.
She switched on her turn signal—cautious, I thought—and we pulled up the steep driveway to the house she lived in with John.
I got out of the car, staring up at the condo and immediately resenting it. It was smug, with its neat grey siding trimmed with matching white shutters, wind chimes dangling from an eave. The porch steps were flanked by huge flower pots—gardenias, I guessed. I had been with a botanist once.
I walked up the steps carefully, primly, my shoulders stiff. I wanted her to know I didn’t feel welcome. She stepped behind me, and I could feel her impatience radiating from behind me. She always had a quick temper, and with her red hair, we used to call her Heatmiser, like from the old Christmas movie. I would piss her off—breaking a dish in our stupid, too-small kitchen or spilling her perfume—and she would toss her hands up, frustrated. “Goddamn it, Hannah! I mean, come on!” she would say, her voice high. Then I’d say, slyly, “Sorry…Heatmiser,” and she would slowly look up, trying not to smile until she couldn’t avoid it, and she would chase me around the house until she had me pinned down, tickling my ribs while our sheepdog Louie ran in circles around us, howling and licking us.
When I got older, she would come out of her bedroom clipping on her big gold earrings or zipping up her black leather boots, going on a date to see Ozzy Osbourne or to some beer crawl, and I would be mad and alone and hungry and tired, and I would call her a whore under my breath, it didn’t matter if I teased her and called her Heatmiser later. She’d leave, and I’d spend my night spooning peanut butter from the jar for Louie and I.
I stood facing the door. There was a wreath and a welcome mat.
“Hannah, come on,” she said, her voice low and tense behind me.
I pushed open the door and stepped over the threshold. There were a lot of words for what her house with John was—cute, small, charming—but mine wasn’t one of them.
John was boring, that much was clear. When I had been growing up, my mom had decorated our apartment with candles and gauzy drapes, Oriental rugs she had haggled for on Delancey when she had lived in New York, she told me. It was always dark and messy and ours. Girls from school would come over and take their shoes off, and my mom and I would laugh at them.
I didn’t say anything, just looked at the beige and the floral print. The decorative stone angels. “Where’s John?” I asked mildly.
“He’s at work,” she said. “Listen. If you want, you know, a night alone with just us, no men, just let me know, okay? He can stay at his sister’s.”
I shrugged. “I’d like to meet him.”
She kicked off her shoes, lining them along a plastic mat in the foyer, and made her way to the kitchen to rinse her hands at the chrome sink. “Okay, baby. That’s fine. But, you know, just let me know if you change your mind.” She opened the refrigerator—balls of cantaloupe in neatly stacked Tupperware, a carton of soy milk, a clump of asparagus.
“Okay,” I said, scooting up onto the kitchen counter. “But I mean, he is like, my new daddy, right?”
Her shoulders tensed, and she stood with her head still in the cool of the fridge. One, two, three deep breaths. She turned around and smiled. “What do you want to eat, baby? Anything you want. I can make lasagna, we can order Chinese, pizza—I don’t care. Anything you want.”
Melon balls, I thought before deciding not to bait her. The thought of my mother’s hands with their chipped black fingernails wrapped around a melon baller was alien and comical, something we would have laughed at. “Chinese sounds good.”
She rubbed her hands together, excited. “Yum. Perfect. Okay. There’s a great new place down the road; you’ll love it.” She paused, closing the refrigerator and leaning against it as she stared at me, drinking in the face she didn’t recognize, reconciling herself to the fact that this was me. “Baby…I’m sorry we don’t live at the apartment anymore. I know it’s…I know it’s hard for you to come home to this. But, you know, John already loves you. I love you so much, Hannah.”
She leaned forward and touched a lock of my hair, pulling it forward. It fell gently into place along my jaw. The last time I had seen her, my hair had been long and tangled, falling midway down my back. “I know, Mom.” She lifted a hand to stroke my hair again, and I instinctively backed away. “Can I see my room?”
She led me down a carpeted hallway to a bedroom. There were dents in the carpet, probably from a desk or maybe some exercise equipment. John loved me, my mom said, but let’s see if he loved me more than his Stairmaster.
There was a twin bed in the corner. It was neatly made, the unfamiliar duvet pressed and tucked. There was a stuffed shark propped up on a pillow, a cheap claw machine prize my high school boyfriend had won me at the bowling alley. I had forgotten what we called it.
The walls were bare save for a poster of Siouxsie and the Banshees and a couple of photos of the two of us she had tacked underneath it. I hadn’t even really liked Siouxsie and the Banshees, but my boyfriend had.
My mom sat down on the bed, picking up the shark and putting it on her lap. She picked at its cotton teeth, running her fingers back and forth. “We tried to keep your stuff. You had so much stuff, you know. Remember those posters? God, your walls were covered. We had a hell of a time picking the gunk off the walls. You know, Hannah, you wrote on your walls in Sharpie? Do you remember that? It took, I don’t know, something like three days to scrub all of that off. We went through two whole bottles of Lysol.”
She was talking, I knew, to cover something up. The silence, the stink in the air, the weight of the years I wasn’t here. To silence my silence, to shut up the ugly that had happened to me. If she talked and talked and talked about scrubbing and Lysol, something clean, something that smelled good, we wouldn’t have to talk about where I had been, how I wasn’t clean anymore.
I walked to the window. I had a street view. There were no blinds, just long, white, clean curtains that billowed gently. I pressed a hand to the window, my index finger catching on the corner of something. I ran my finger against it—it was tape, a little scrap of paper still stuck to it. I scraped at the tape with my fingernail until it came loose. Holding the paper up, I could just make out capital letters ‘NG’—like in ‘MISSING.’
She sighed. “Fuck. I told John to take that down.”
I shrugged. “He did.”
“Well…not enough, I guess.” She patted the spot next to her on the bed. “You shouldn’t have to see that.”
I sat and turned to her, surprised. “I’ve seen them. You used my senior picture, which you knew I hated.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Hannah. What did you want me to do? Use a baby picture?” She stiffened. “You looked different, anyway. I guess it didn’t matter.”
Six hours earlier, when my mom had picked me up from the train station, she had been sobbing—deep, guttural, animalistic cries. It was alarming, actually. I didn’t know how she hadn’t crashed her car. My first thought was that something was wrong—someone died, Louie or my grandma, until I realized that I was what was wrong—and now it was right.
When she had last seen me, three years ago, I had been seventeen. My hair was long. I was skinny—all knees and elbows and ankles. I liked Harry Potter and running track and blue nail polish. I drank Smirnoff Ice with Erin, my best friend, and hadn’t done more than give a blow job. We liked to go to the woods behind her house with her older brother and his friends and whisper and flirt. I liked racing Louie in my backyard. I was good at math, and teachers liked me, even though my mom never chaperoned on field trips or baked brownies for the PTA sales. I liked listening to Oasis and thinking about kissing Henry Nelson in his mom’s Ford Taurus, like I had done once my freshman year. I liked to dream—I liked to think and think, to be somewhere else, until the places that I was imagining myself out of were too bad to be ignored.
I thought of these things as though Hannah were a different person. She was a sweet, stupid girl who had been pissed off at her mom and had run out of the front door on August 18th and who had never been back through it. Poor thing. The irony of being a track star that couldn’t get away was not lost on me.
I was soft now, rounder, less attractive. I had a scar on my belly, a scar on my neck, a scar on my wrist. She didn’t know this, she had thought the terrible men had done it, but I cut my hair myself in the train station bathroom with some scissors I had bought from a Rite Aid.
My mom stretched out on the bed, putting her feet on my lap. “People missed you, Han. There were these shitty spaghetti dinners that…Jesus, you would have hated them. Caitlyn Burke organized one. I was like, hello, you didn’t even know my daughter. She bullied you once in eighth grade, I remember.”
I shook my head. “Who is Caitlyn Burke?”
The shark rolled out of my mom’s hands and off the bed. “Caitlyn Burke. She…you went to elementary school with her.”
“It doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Oh. Well. It doesn’t matter.” She scooted up, sliding off the bed. “Well, you should take a nap, baby. It’s been a long day. John will be home around six; we can eat then.”
She left, and I crawled under the covers. Siouxsie stared at me. You wish you could pull off short hair, she said. I closed my eyes.
John was short and affable. He was the exact opposite of the kind of person I would have dreamed my mother would be with. He ate his Chinese with a fork and knife, nodding happily at my monosyllabic sentences. He acted as though I were coming back from a study abroad in France—and oh, sorry, while you were away, we moved, and your dog died, and your mom started wearing cardigans. He slurped a lo mein noodle, rubbing his fingers together to wipe off the soy sauce on them. “Hannah, I don’t know if your mom has mentioned this, but I work for a travel agency.”
I wrapped a noodle around my chopstick, pulling it up as high as it would go until I nearly had to extend my elbow. “Uh-huh,” I answered.
John cleared his throat. “So, you know, I talked to your mom and we thought, whenever you’re ready, we’ll take a trip.”
I felt my face flush, imagining myself smiling with Mickey Mouse ears next to John. Three hours inside and they were already pushing me out. “A trip where?” I said quietly, the pitch of my voice betraying the calm I was faking.
“Anywhere, babe,” my mom put a hand on mine. I started to sweat. “Paris, the Grand Canyon, Hawaii,” she rattled off. I knew she had an image in her mind too, of riding a tandem bicycle under the Eiffel Tower, a baguette perched cheerily in a wicker basket up front.
I swallowed my food hastily. It was suddenly too strong, too palatable, the glistening chicken and whole snow peas seeming obscene. I could feel panic start to rise from my stomach, numbing my fingers and toes. I took a sip of water, relishing the cold of it as I ran my fingers against the threadbare tablecloth, feeling for a grip.
“Han?” my mom said, gently prodding me with a chopstick.
I met her eyes. “Do you think,” I said, unaware that I was even speaking, “that you deserve a prize?”
They were both silent for a moment. Even John’s fork clinking against his plate subsided. “I don’t know what you mean, Hannah,” my mom said eventually.
I shook my head. I could feel tears forming behind my eyes, and I knew if I spoke they would fall.
For all of his apparent deficiencies, I had to admit that I admired John’s tact in that moment, his careful disengaging from the scene as he gathered the plates and take-out cartons and edged his way into the kitchen under the guise of clean-up duty.
My mother and I sat across from each other. I could feel her eyes on me, waiting for me to explain what I meant, as if I had the words; as if I wasn’t relearning how to speak again.
“How could you do that?” I finally whispered. “How could you be dating and fucking and breathing with someone while I was gone? How did you do that? How did you just pick yourself up like I was still here? What did you guys talk about? ‘Hi, I’m John, I’m in travel.’ ‘Hi, I’m Teri, my daughter is missing and presumed dead’?”
She sat perfectly still for a moment, stunned into silence. Her lower lip was quivering daintily. She looked for all the world the perfect part of the grieving mother, each tear sliding down her cheek glossy and round, the tip of her nose blossoming into a flower-petal pink.
“Is that what you think?” she whispered.
I gestured around madly. “What else can I think?” My voice was low and dangerous and unfamiliar.
She stood up and walked to the living room, slowly easing herself down onto the arm of the couch. “Hannah, I met John at a banquet in your honor. He has a niece at the high school. I…I needed to talk to him because if I didn’t, I swear I would have killed myself.”
She rose from the couch now, catching her breath. “How would that have felt, then? It wouldn’t have been just Louie and just the apartment, it would have been me! You would have had no one!” She swiped furiously at her nostrils with the back of her hand, her gaze never leaving mine. “I lost twelve pounds. My hair fell out. It made me sick, physically sick, being in that apartment without you. I thought you were dead. Isn’t that big enough for you, Hannah?”
I stood up, my body moving of its own accord. I felt hot and cornered and panicked. I was creating a mess where there wasn’t one. Her body had been a vigil to me—there were the candles I missed so much. She had consumed them like a side-show performer, consuming every bit of me, every article that still smelled of me or bore my skin, hair, nails. She had tried to raise me from these fragments, and here I was, but changed. I felt myself crumple to the floor—how could I bear this? How could she?
She knelt on the ground with me, rubbing my back.
“I’m mad, Mom,” I wept. “I’m mad and I’m still scared.”
Her tone was hushed and reverent as she sat with me on the ground, the person, like a side-show apparition, that had, quite literally, disappeared into thin air. “I know,” she said. “I am too,” she said.
The sun had just set, and the sky was the blue-purple of a bruise. I sat at the foot of the closet, lacing up my old sneakers from high school, flexing my toes against the tight fabric. I could hear the TV, the sound muffled from the living room where my mom and John laid on the couch, their bodies curled up together like smoke.
I left the lights off as I crept down the hallway, grateful, for once, for the soft padding of the beige carpet. I didn’t want the questions; the worry shaped like a whistle and a flashlight, a car creeping slowly behind me. There had been eyes on me for three years. I hadn’t been alone for three years.
When I was little, my mom had a friend in jail. His name was Thomas, and he had known my mom from when she was a bartender and he a line cook at some dive bar that had closed down before I was born. He had been locked up for some bogus drug charges, my mom claimed, and she visited him semi-regularly, eventually bringing me along when she figured I was old enough or she just couldn’t find a sitter. He was a good guy, she would say on the long drive to the prison, just a bad prisoner. He would get solitary for weeklong stretches for fighting with other inmates or giving a guard attitude. When he’d get back to “gen-pop” (it didn’t make me popular to know prison lingo by the 5th grade, believe it or not), he would be skinny and scary, his eyes bruised and puffy, his knuckles red and scraped raw. It took me awhile to realize that he didn’t go in looking like that. When he couldn’t fight with other inmates, he fought with the walls. He had to get fourteen stitches from his left earlobe to his left eye socket once, but my mom never told me why.
I thought about Thomas as I shut the door behind me, stepping into the cool evening air. Cicadas hummed as I knelt down on the dew-damp lawn, breathing in the heady smell of the grass and my own sweat. For Thomas, ‘solitary’ was a dirty word, imposing, choking, threatening. I ran the word over my lips, tasted it as though it were a fruit on my tongue, dissolving there. It was delicious and intoxicating to me. I had been solitary, when three years ago I stepped off a porch as recklessly as if I had stepped on a landmine. The thrill of independence had beckoned me until it had warped, rotting and grotesque.
I wanted it back, I realized, stepping through the long blades, carving my own path. It was my grass. It was my moon that was beginning to slice through the dark of the sky. These were my legs, scraped and long and strong, that were now running, the weeds and wildflowers grabbing at them. It was my body.
It was my mom, I thought, who had been alone for two years, who finally threw open the windows to let in some air. I was mad, and I was hurt, but I was whole as my heart kept pace in my chest with my feet, pounding and angry. I’m here, it said. I wasn’t a ghost anymore, a cautionary tale whispered with a frank yet titillated whisper at barbeques and in grocery store aisles, afforded only to those whom tragedy has never touched, just skimmed its fingers along as a flat tire or a missed flight.
I passed trees, their green branches reaching for me like fingertips. I reached back, brushing against them, feeling the cool, waxy leaves against my skin. I hadn’t been to Paris, I thought. I hadn’t been more than forty miles away from where I was born. But the world seemed to open itself to me, as if a flower blooming, and I knew that I would go—I could go. At this moment, twenty-four whole, heavy hours later on the other side of the split that had divided us, I couldn’t run to Paris or the Grand Canyon or Hawaii, just down the sidewalks I had learned to crawl on. But that was enough—and so I ran.
Charlotte Moretti is a filmmaker and writer based in Detroit, MI. She graduated from Wayne State University, where her fiction earned her the first place Tompkins Award for creative writing. Shortly after graduating, she moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she formed the production company Ride Home Films (ridehomefilms.com). She returned to Michigan to make the films Call Me When You Get Home (2019) and Fairmount (coming 2022). “Running Alone at Night” came from a dream about a missing person poster taped to a window, and explores themes of femininity, independence, familial ties, and the changes that slowly—or quickly—overtake us all.