Charlotte asked her mother for money. To buy chips. Or gum. Maybe a hat. Most definitely birth control. What did it matter? But Charlotte’s mother said that it mattered to her, and besides, she didn’t have any money.
“You can’t get blood from a stone,” Charlotte’s mother told her.
“No kidding,” Charlotte said. “That’s why I’m asking you
It was easily the least rude out of all the many rude things Charlotte had said to her mother. For instance: “You look really old this morning.” She’d said that just ten hours earlier, and her mother had merely yawned in response. But the heart is always surprised by what finally breaks it.
Later that night, Charlotte found a piece of paper on the kitchen table. It read, “Charlotte, I’m sorry and I love you, but you’ll never see me again. Mom.”
Charlotte had no one except for her mother, basically. She’d never had a father. Her father was a sperm donor. She didn’t have classmates. She used to have classmates. This was back when she was eight years old. But her classmates had been disappointing. So had her teachers. School had been just a joke. And Charlotte had always known that her mother’s dream was to spend as much time with Charlotte as possible. This was why her mother had wanted Charlotte so badly in the first place.
“Would you homeschool me?” Charlotte had asked, already knowing by her mother’s gross happy face what the answer would be.
Charlotte was fourteen years old now. Oh, the awful things Charlotte had said to her most over those six years!
Do you suck at everything? I hope I’m not fat like you when I grow up. Don’t you think some people deserve to end up alone?
Those sentences now bounced around the house, the house that had seemed so claustrophobically small because they were always in it together but which felt huge now that Charlotte was in it alone. “Come back!” Charlotte said out loud, to the house. “Come back, I’m sorry, I’ll be better!” It was feeble, talking to an empty house. Feeble was the thing her mother had always been. No one tells you how quickly you turn into your parents. And no one tells you, once you’ve driven a parent away, that you’ll want them to come back, so you can say something to them that will make you forget the awful things you said that drove them away in the first place.
Charlotte did have one friend, Therese, who was also being homeschooled. Charlotte and Therese would convene regularly to gripe about their homes and homeschools, their mothers and teachers. Charlotte called Therese and explained the situation.
“Well, God,” Therese said, “do you even care that she’s gone?” After all, this was exactly the situation they’d been dreaming about since forever.
“I care,” Charlotte said. “I care, I care, I care.”
“She’ll probably come back.” .”
“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. There was the matter of the note. The note was serious business. Her mother had left her many notes before—where she was going, what time she’d be home—and she had always done exactly what the note had promised.
“’You’ll never see me again,’” Therese repeated. “What does that mean?”
Charlotte, who was afraid to think too hard about what it meant, said, “It means that she’s run away.”
“So go find her then.”
“I don’t know how. I’ve never tried to find anyone before.”
Therese considered this. Charlotte could hear her breathing over the phone. God, why do you have to breathe so loud? That was another rude thing she’d said to her mother.
“You should start small and then work your way up to finding your mother,” Therese finally said.
“Slick just went missing,” Therese said. Slick was Therese’s cat, a surly Maine coon, liked by no one. “You could start by finding him. I’ll help you.”
And that’s right, now you know who Charlotte is: Charlotte Vandeweghe, the internationally famous private investigator who started off by finding missing pets in her neighborhood, and who then went on to hunt down a stolen original copy of the Magna Carta, the war criminal with a new face on a new continent, the Fabergé egg snatched from the Hermitage, so many people with amnesia, so many missing nuclear warheads, the sole survivor of the plane crash deep in the Amazon, the man who went out for a soda and just kept going, the woman who went out for milk and just kept going, the 2011 Calder Cup trophy, Prime Minister Iyer and his entire cabinet, and so on and so on, hundreds of cases and all of them successfully solved, including the Alami twins, abducted by their deranged taekwondo instructor, and returned to their grateful parents, here in Chefchaouen, Morocco.
“How did you find the twins?” one reporter wants to know, at the hastily thrown together press conference. This is the first time Charlotte has agreed to speak to the media. Until now, she’s seemed content to be known only for her results, and her genius.
“Using the method,” Charlotte says, “by which I find everything.”
“What is that method?”
“I take things too far.”
“Too far? What does that mean?” .”
In front of Charlotte, three dozen reporters, crammed into a courtyard, and between her and the reporters, a microphone; behind her, a stone wall painted brilliant blue. Charlotte is wearing clothes identical to those she was wearing when her mother disappeared: a blue and gray horizontally striped long-sleeve shirt, and blue jeans that stop just above her ankle, and low-cut blue sneakers. She wears no socks because socks are an abomination. She is an even five feet tall, and thin and wiry, like a straightened-out paperclip. Her hair is blonde, short, untamed, curly to the point of combativeness.
“Don’t forget to brush your hair,” Linus’s mother always told her, back when she was around to tell her things.
“Then I would look like you,” Charlotte always said back. “And why would anyone want to look like you?”
“It means,” Charlotte says, “that I don’t know when to stop.”
“Well, it apparently works,” another reporter says. “Another case solved. Do you ever get bored? What keeps you going? What drives you?”
“I think of the cases as practice. Each case is more difficult than the last. With each one, I get better. And when I’m good enough I’ll finally find my mother.”
“Your mother?” the reporter says. Her eyes are huge, her voice hungry. Usually, one has to manufacture a backstory. “What happened to your mother?”
“She left me twenty years ago. She’s been missing for twenty years.”
“Why did she leave you?”
“I don’t like to say,” Charlotte says.
“But we’d like to know,” the reporter points out.
“Think of the reasons your parents might leave you, or why they did leave you,” Charlotte says, and the reporters do, and then they don’t ask any more questions about that, because now they know.
“How do you know you’re not good enough to find her?”
“Because I haven’t found her yet.”
“And why are you telling us this now?”
“Because I haven’t found her yet. Maybe she’ll read your articles, listen to your podcasts. Maybe if she knows I’m looking for her, she’ll let me find her.”
“And what will you tell her if you do find her?”
“That I’m sorry. And that I love her. And that things will be different. And to please come home.
The reporters nod, they nod. Yes, they think, that sounds about right. That’s what they would tell their parents. That is what their parents would want to hear.
“But what if your mother is dead?” another reporter asks. He is standing in the back, and everyone turns to look at him, and to hate him. There is always someone who takes things too far. Charlotte should know. It’s how she’s become the world’s most famous private investigator, and also why she’s needed to become the world’s most famous private investigator. And even that hasn’t been enough. What if it’s never going to be enough? Charlotte wonders, and then wants to take the microphone and ram it through her eyeball and socket and into her brain, and then scape or rub out everything that makes her who she is.
“She isn’t dead,” Charlotte says, instead.
“How do you know?”
“Because if she were dead,” Charlotte says, “then I would know it, and I would know it because I would want to die.”
Charlotte pauses to let the reporters think about that, and while they do, let’s go back twenty years. Charlotte’s mother has written her note, and left her house, and has walked out to Buttermilk Falls. She is wearing many-pocketed pants and a many-pocketed jacket and all of her pockets are full of rocks. Over her head she has tied a plastic shopping bag. This is a woman who does not want to take any chances.”
Charlotte’s mother looks up. Through the plastic the moon looks blurry and cheap. I’ve tried so hard and wanted this so much and failed so completely and I’m so tired and I just want to go away forever, Charlotte’s mother thinks, for the millionth and now the last time, and then she jumps, and sinks, and dies, and is stuck, still and possibly forever, possibly never to be found, wedged under that big rock at the base of the falls as the water roars on and on all around her.
“But I don’t want to die,” Charlotte tells the reporters. “I want to live, so I can find my mother.”
Someone to Charlotte’s left clears their throat. It is Therese, Charlotte’s oldest and only friend, and now her faithful assistant. Therese has a bud in her ear, through which she receives news of who or what has just been reported missing. Therese taps her wristwatch, twirls her index finger. There is always someone who needs you. There is always someone or something that needs finding. There is always someone who needs Charlotte.
So please, if you ever meet her, please don’t tell Charlotte the truth about her mother.
Brock Clarke is the author of nine books–most recently the novel Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? and the essay collection I, Grape; or the Case for Fiction. Clarke’s individual stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, One Story, Southern Review, The Believer, Ninth Letter, and the New England Review, and have appeared in the annual Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He lives in Portland, Maine, and is the A. LeRoy Greason Chair of English and Creative Writing at Bowdoin College.