A nagging question haunted Helen.
She refrained from asking it during the flight to Orlando (crowded, as it usually was, with Disney families). Even ensconced in the privacy of their rental car, she held her tongue throughout the clutter of the city well into the scrub brush and pine groves that were the hallmarks of the Space Coast. But once they merged safely onto the anonymity of I-95, Helen finally dared to ask.
"Mm-hm?" The girl was gazing out the window. Her father, unable to take more time from work, had remained back in Virginia, so it was just the two of them in the car.
"Did you"-- Helen faltered-- "were you-- when you climbed in the tub?"
This got Megan's attention; she looked at Helen fearfully.
"Were you trying to kill yourself?" asked Helen finally.
Megan considered the question, then shook her head. "No," she said. "Well, not really."
"What do you mean, 'not really'?"
The girl shrugged. "I mean, I wasn't planning on dying, but I didn't really care if I did."
"Why did you do it?"
"I don't know."
"You don't care if you die?"
"Honestly? My life kinda sucks, Mom." Megan returned her gaze to the window.
Helen frowned. "Well, what can we do to fix that?"
"Other than make me into a normal girl? I don't know."
"Can I do anything?"
Megan looked at her mother and gave her an apologetic smile. "You're already doing it."
They drove on in silence for a while, then Helen spotted the sign up ahead:
Her heart plummeted into her shoes and she felt a rush of cold, but she steeled herself and moved into the right lane.
"Is this it?" asked Megan, sitting up eagerly.
"Yeah," nodded Helen, her eyes locked on the highway ahead that would lead them to the coast.
"How long has it been since you've been here?"
"Since I was eighteen years old."
"Wow. And you've never come back? Not once?"
"No reason to." There was the service station where she had last bought gas on her way out of town. She had sworn then that she would never come back.
"But your mom is here," protested Megan.
"For a long time, that didn't really mean anything to me."
"What did she do that was so awful? Was it really just about your dad?"
"But that wasn't her fault."
Helen sighed. "I thought she was a doormat. She was-- is-- this really bright woman. She was a professional in her home country. I couldn't comprehend how somebody like her would just settle for so many things. She settled for her job. She settled for this town. And she settled for him."
"So she's not ambitious enough for you."
"It's not like that," retorted Helen. "I thought she was putting up with all of this stuff for his sake. She was stuck in this crappy town, scrubbing toilets, hoping that he'd turn up eventually." She eyed Megan knowingly. "Even long after she supposedly threw him out for good."
"You think so?"
"I don't know. I mean she's still here, for God's sake. Same place and everything. I wonder if she's stayed where she is all this time just in case he wanted to find her again." Helen shook her head. "I didn't want to be like that, and I certainly didn't want you to see that and think it was okay, or how women were supposed to be. I wanted you to be independent." I thought I did, anyway, she added silently.
Megan was quiet for a mile or so, then spoke. "If Daddy went away, would you take him back?"
"Daddy wouldn't do that."
"But what if he did?" Megan pressed.
"It would depend," Helen admitted.
"Why he left."
"What about me? What if I left? Would you let me come back?"
"Of course," Helen said irritably.
"Would it depend?"
"It's different with parents and kids. Parents will always wait for their kids. It wouldn't matter."
Megan thought about this for a moment.
"Maybe," ventured Megan, "that's why she's still here."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe she's not waiting for him. Maybe she's waiting for you."
Taken aback, Helen looked at her daughter, who had turned her gaze back out to the highway.
"Maybe," Helen said quietly, suddenly realizing where she was. "Wait." The stores in the shopping plaza had changed, and the storefronts had been facelifted, but here it was. She slowed down and, when the traffic had cleared, she made the left turn onto Osceola Street. There, not far off the main highway, was the little cluster of garden apartments. She pulled over to the curb and parked. They got out of the car and walked uncertainly up the cracked narrow sidewalk to building 2558, then under the overhang to number 4.
There was a doorbell, which Helen pressed with a trembling finger. Then they waited.
After a few moments, Helen pressed the bell again.
"Maybe it's not working," suggested Megan.
"Maybe," agreed Helen. She knocked, but after a few more minutes it became clear that nobody was home.
"You told her we were coming, didn't you?"
"I sent a note." All these damn notes! The tension broken, Helen stared at the nondescript green door. "I couldn't find a phone number for her."
"Maybe she's out."
"Maybe," said Helen. "There's another place we can check." She turned back to the car. "C'mon."
They got back into the car. "Why would she be there?" asked Megan. "She's not still working, is she?"
"She might be."
"God, isn't she retired by now? How old is she?"
"Housekeepers don't always get to retire." Helen gripped the wheel and steered the car away from the curb and back towards the highway.
They drove over the intracoastal waterway bridge and into the resort area of Tarpon Beach. Ahead, Helen could see the gray concrete outline of Sea Coast Villa IV, the fifth one down on the oceanfront.
She pulled into the parking lot, observing that unlike the shopping center, the condo clearly had not had a facelift. It looked almost the same, the only difference was that now, it was even more run down.
They left the car in a visitor space and walked into the rental office. Its cheap wood paneling reeked of decades of cigarette smoke.
A middle-aged woman sat behind the desk, flipping through a calendar as she talked on the phone. Megan was immediately mesmerized by the woman's long lavender fingernails; she would periodically stop flipping to tap her fill-ins on a particular date.
"Uh-huh," said the woman in a thick and syrupy accent. "I can do March 3rd, but not the 10th...uh-huh...yeah. Okay, let me see"-- she flipped more calendar pages-- "I have the 17th , but you'd have to share one unit rather than two...two bedrooms, yes." She glanced up and smiled at Helen, then held up one finger to indicate she'd be right with them. "Do you want to think about it and give me a call back?...No, I don't think they'd be taken before tomorrow...okay then...yes, that's fine, I'll be here. Thank you, and you have a good one now...bye bye." She hung up the phone and looked expectantly at Helen and Megan. "Yes, can I help you?"
"Yes," said Helen, suddenly awkward. "I was looking for Maria Beltran?"
The woman's eyes widened. "Maria?"
"Yes, she was on the housekeeping staff?" explained Helen.
"Oh yes," said the woman, "I know Maria." She narrowed her eyes. "Are you family?"
Helen was taken aback. "Why, yes. How did you know?"
The woman smiled sadly. "You look just like her. The eyes." She stood up. "I'm Donna McPhee. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Helen grasped the woman's heavily-ringed hand uncertainly. "Helen Ursis. This is my daughter, Megan."
"Hi," said Megan.
"Hello, dear." Donna smiled at Megan, but there was a hint of pity. She turned back to Helen. "They told me you might come by...it's in the back. Let me go get it for you." Before Helen could ask what she was talking about, Donna bustled through a door and disappeared.
"Get what?" whispered Megan.
"I'm not sure," Helen replied.
In a few moments Donna re-appeared, a cardboard box in her arms. She set it down on a coffee table near her desk. "Here...I think this is everything."
Helen walked over and peered inside. The box held an old, cracked leather purse that strained at the seams, a plastic grocery bag with a soda and a few butter containers inside, and a worn cotton cardigan.
"What is this?" asked Helen.
Now Donna was confused. "What do you mean?"
"Why-- why are you giving me this?"
"These are her things," said Donna.
"Why are you giving them to me?"
Donna's face became ashen. "Oh no," she said quietly. "They didn't call you?"
"The police," Donna answered gently.
"Why would they?"
"Oh, no," said Donna again. "Oh, no." She covered her mouth with her hands. "I'm sorry, really, I am, I'm so sorry. I shouldn't be the one to tell you."
"Tell me what?" Helen demanded. "What happened?"
"Nobody's quite sure," began Donna. "She went swimming that morning. Tuesday. It was the strangest thing-- she still had her uniform on."
Helen shot an alarmed look at Megan.
"She never did that," Donna continued. "She never did anything like that."
"What happened?" interrupted Megan, practically hollering.
For a moment, Donna stared at Megan, her eyes full of pity. Then she finally answered.
"I'm sorry, honey," said Donna sadly. "She drowned."