Penny’s mother was asleep. Her brothers were in the living room playing Minecraft, and some guy’s keys were on the kitchen table. There wasn’t an extra car in the driveway but that didn’t mean the guy wasn’t back in her mother’s bedroom. They could have Ubered. They probably Ubered. Penny remembered hearing some noises last night while she was up watching Netflix on her phone with earbuds in. She didn’t put much thought into it. It could have been one of her brothers looking for food. It could have been both of them. It could have been her mother alone, drunk. It could have been her mother with some guy, drunk. There are a lot of reasons why there would be a commotion in the hallway at 2 am and none of them were enough to pull Penny away from Netflix or to make her care.
Penny grabbed her mother’s purse off the floor and carried it out to the back screened-in porch with a cup of coffee made in the Keurig. She sat on the wicker couch and fished around in her mother’s purse. She found a pack of cigarettes and her vape pen. If it were later in the morning, she would have used the vape pen to reduce the smell but since it was 7:30 and her mother wouldn’t be waking from her stupor for at least another hour and her brothers wouldn’t start barking for food for at least two hours, she knew no one would pay any attention to her on the porch, so she lit a cigarette and kept going through her mom’s purse.
Her mom’s phone was almost dead, so she plugged it into her portable charger and charged it up to 12 percent then plugged in her mother’s birthday and the screen opened up like a safe door. All those apps. All that access. Penny snooped through her mom’s phone the way she used to snoop through her drawers. Going through her drawers required strategy and discipline. Everything had to be put back exactly where it was. The phone was a different story. Return to the main page of apps and it all looks the same. She could even mark emails “unread” if she’d read them. She would only read conversations in her messenger app that were already read, but her mom was always active on Facebook and Instagram so there weren’t many times that her messages went unread.
She dragged on the cigarette and opened up Apple pay. She’d been sending herself money for almost a year and her mother hadn’t figured it out. One was labeled Seattle City Light and it was for $183, the same amount the actual Seattle City Light bill, give or take, only ten days later. She also sent herself a $73 payment labeled Geico, ten days after the car insurance bill. They looked like normal enough transactions that they never flagged her mom’s interest. Once, she heard her mom on the phone with Ulta complaining about a duplicate bill for $122.64. Penny hadn’t realized, at that time, that it would look suspicious. She’d learned a lot about automatic payments, cash flow, credit cards, debit cards and bill pay since she started pilfering cash. Her mom reamed the customer service rep for so long that Ulta eventually credited her back the cash for the original, authentic charge that her mom was insisting was a duplicate. Penny was more careful to watch her labeling and timing for the bills. She had it down to a science.
She took another drag off the cigarette and sipped from the coffee. It made no sense to her that people wanted to vape. Who wants to breathe candy or mint with their nicotine? It ruined the flavor of the coffee. It ruined the vibe of the entire moment. She wanted her mouth to taste bitter and dry while the buzz made her heady. She didn’t want to indulge in the tastes of childhood, she wanted to inhale independence. The kind of independence that lets you damage yourself, the only liberating feeling after being coddled and protected, held back from everything she ever wanted to feel or know for fifteen years.
Her mother’s Instagram was a joke of quotes. She once saw that her mom posted “‘A strong woman looks a challenge in the eye and gives it a wink.’ Gina Carey” the day after she rear-ended a woman in a Four Runner on Capitol Hill because she was texting. Penny thought, “that’s not a challenge, that’s an accident. That’s karma.” Sometimes she said things like that out loud and her mother glared at her. They couldn’t stand each other, and Penny liked to be obnoxious just to bring it out of her mother, who spent more time than necessary pretending to be nice, pretending, to be empowered, pretending to be a mother. She didn’t do this so much to upset her mother as to just make it undeniably obvious to her mother that Penny knew how fake she was. Penny knew that it was all an act, and not a good one. “Just turn your can’t into cans and your dreams into plans,” Penny told her mother when she couldn’t give her a ride to a friend’s house because she was too sick from whatever she’d taken the night before. Her mother just glared at her.
Just last week her mother had posted, “The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you’ve come.” If her mother looked back, she’d see 4 failed marriages, 3 kids from 3 fathers, a DUI, a string of loser boyfriends and a prescription for Valtrex.”
She stamped out the cigarette and put the phone back in her mother’s purse and put the purse back shere she’d found it. She made another cup of coffee in the Keurig. She went back to the porch with the coffee and put her feet up on the table and leaned back to scroll through her own phone. She didn’t have any personal social media accounts, but she did have several fake ones. She liked to scroll Twitter and snoop on Facebook, but she never posted anything. She didn’t have any friends.
She pulled up Facebook where she was Gabe Tucker, and clicked on the search bar. She typed in Honor Caswell. Nothing came up. Nothing ever did. Then she typed Richard Caswell. Six faces popped up. None were her fathers. She knew these faces as well as any friend as she’d searched them for a resemblance, searched their friends’ lists for anyone who might be family, might be remotely connected to her father. Her searches always came up empty.
She went inside and poured the rest of her coffee in the sink. Then she picked up the strange set of keys, put them on the floor next to the coffee table and kicked them with her toe so they’d go six or seven inches deep under the couch, just enough to make it frustrating to pull them out, once they found them. Her brothers were in their rooms, earphones over their heads, still in their pajamas. She walked past their rooms, then past her mother’s room and went into her own room to watch episode after episode of The Office on Netflix. She couldn’t wait to leave all of this behind. For good.
She had almost a thousand dollars. Two thousand, she thought, would be enough and then she’d be gone, headed to North Carolina to find her father.