The Tent

by Janna Layton

The police are asking about the tent. They're standing in the backyard with Caitlin's swing set, Jeremiah's toys, Jenny's tent. The tent is forest green, but inside it's full of pink and purple blankets, a cheap sheer blue scarf pinned to the ceiling like a canopy bed or sky, photos of teens in a school courtyard and at an amusement park glued to dangling ribbons.

And it seems so silly that the police are here. The blankets, the pretty teen girl blankets, are still soft and fluffy and no doubt smelling of bodywash and teen girl sweat and makeup. A few strands of Jenny's long light brown hair are probably still buried there. These can't be abandoned blankets. Jenny will be back, pouty and dark-eyed, curled up in a corner of this tent and texting two friends at once.

"She an outdoorsy type?" one of the detectives asks.

Barbara laughs awkwardly. "No, no. That's the thing," she begins. "Jenny's not an outdoorsy type. This is more her...her...I guess she'd call it a sanctuary. Teens and their privacy. A spare room."

Eventually the police leave, reassuring her that since Jenny's a good student, she'll probably return before the weekend's over. Eight-year-old Caitlin and four-year-old Jeremiah are watching Pokemon, expressionless. Barbara hugs them both. They say nothing.

"Everything's going to be okay," Barbara tells them.

"Do we have to go to school tomorrow?" asks Caitlin.

Barbara goes into the kitchen. Mike is there, leaning against the counter, eating a bag of chips.

"She'll be back soon," he says. "What a load of drama, though."

Mike is not Jenny's father. Barbara tries not to think about what her friend Susan had said, her voice caught between panic and excitement, as she told Barbara that poor Mike, the cops would probably be suspicious of him, him being the stepfather and all, always the stepfather.

Susan had even paused, looking at Barbara, as if trying to gauge if it were a possibility. But Barbara knew it wasn't. Jenny had been in her tent Friday evening. Barbara and Mike had gone to their bed. Then Saturday morning the tent was empty. Jenny's bedroom was empty. She had probably gone off with friends without telling, Barbara thought. A teenage display of power. But Sunday morning the tent was still empty, and now it is almost night again. Maybe she will be in the tent tomorrow in time for school with some teenage excuse for her absence. Once Jenny returns, the tent will have to be taken down, put back in the garage.


Monday morning Barbara can barely make herself look out the window at the tent. She is disappointed when she doesn't see a silhouette, but then remembers that she only sees a silhouette at night, and only if Jenny has the electric lantern on. Jenny is probably still sleeping—it's only 6:00am. Of course she is sleeping. Lazy, lazybones.

The cement patio is cool and damp on her bare feet. She barely breathes as she crosses over to the grass, reaches the tent. She wants to say "Jenny," but can't. The pull of the zipper is cold. The tent is empty, even under the blankets.

By the time the kids wake up she has already been on the phone with the police. Mike has already come down, rubbed her shoulder, made some coffee.

"Did Jenny come back?" asks Caitlin.

"Not yet, sweetie. Soon." Forces herself to smile.

"She's being a spoiled brat," announces Jeremiah gleefully. He holds his blue train blankie over his head and starts spinning around, singing a cartoon theme song.

Barbara stares. Jeremiah keeps spinning. She should say something. She should say something. But the moment's passed. He's only four. She looks at Mike, but Mike turns away.


Work is supportive when she says she can't come in.

"We'll let you know if she calls here," her manager says.

Mike takes the kids to daycare and school and goes to work. Barbara keeps the TV tuned to local news, but it's just weather and traffic. She sits at the kitchen table and studies the newspaper. Each turn of the page feels like asthma, like vertigo. Surely the police would have called if there were any news. There won't be a headline "Body of Teenage Girl Found." There isn't.

Then there's the comics section. Never before has she realized how many comics there are about parents and teenagers. Lanky teens lying in messy beds, moms trying to pull them out for school. Teens hunched over their phones, ignoring their exasperated parents. Even the slacker kid from "Doonesbury" who became a CIA agent in the never-ending Afghan/Iraq War storyline is currently safe in his parents' kitchen, annoying them with his social networking ways.

Barbara leaves the kitchen table.

There are no emails from Jenny. There are emails of support from her own friends which she doesn't read in full. There is an email from Jenny's biology teacher, Ms. Worth.

"Jenny is such a sweetheart. We will all keep a look out for her."

Such a sweetheart. Such a sweetheart.


If Barbara leaves the house, Jenny might come home and find the door locked—she didn't bring her keys. But Jenny could be nearby. At the good mall where she went with friends. At the bad mall that she only went to when grudgingly accompanying Barbara on an errand. At the park with the ducks where they used to go when she was little.

Duck Park. She can't remember the real name of it. It was by the apartment they lived in back then. Their one-bedroom apartment didn't give Jenny much room to play, and the complex had no grass—just spider-webbed juniper bushes and concrete with cigarette butts. Fortunately Duck Park was just a few minutes' walk. There was a shallow, murky pond that Jenny called a lake, and a little hill of grass she called a field.

Jenny in her little overalls, rolling again and again down the hill, shrieking with joy, grass stains. Jenny filling her mother in on the history and family tree of each duck, naming them all. Jenny using a stick to draw pictures in the muddy gravel along the walkway. Jenny making a little boat out of leaves and twigs to float in the pond.

Jenny must be in the park. Jenny is in the park. Barbara debates for milliseconds whether or not to just drive over in her bathrobe, but then she pulls on gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt from Caitlin's school's PTA. She hurries to the car, no purse.

The drive across town is twenty minutes, but feels longer. Where is the park? It was on this street. Is it gone, did she pass it, was it another street entirely? But there it is. The name is unfamiliar, but she can't tell if this is because it is a new name or because it was always Duck Park to them. She stops the car at the curb, jumps out, hurries up the little hill.

Jenny is not there. Barbara wasn't expecting the truth to be so brutally quick. She thought she would have to look around, that hope would stretch out as she looked behind trees. But the park is much smaller than she remembers. Just the greasy puddle of a pond. Just the bump of a hill. A man sleeps on the lone bench. There are beer bottles and empty chips bags. There is only one duck, a female mallard, in the pond. How long has it been since she came here? Jenny is sixteen, and she never brought Caitlin or Jeremiah here.

Barbara goes back to the car.

At home she checks the tent again. Still no Jenny. She touches the blankets, imagining they are warm, that Jenny stopped by and took a nap. The tent wasn't supposed to still be here. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. Lately Jenny had been complaining about her room. She wanted to paint the walls pink. She wanted purple carpet. She wanted a four-poster bed. She had looked up prices, looked up paints, looked up carpets. Made a spreadsheet. Refused to hear "no." Threw a fit. Slammed doors. A pretty, pouting princess. A brat.


It's still morning. Barbara puts on jeans and a nicer tee-shirt, even though she knows she's not leaving the house unless she hears some news. She goes on Facebook and makes friend requests to Jenny's friends. Maybe one will accept and some news will slip through. She leaves the browser open, just in case. No breakfast this morning, she realizes. She eats cold cereal on the couch. She changes the channel on the TV. There is a travel show. The host is showing off Switzerland.

In the apartment she and Jenny lived in, they had a free map of the world that had come in the junk mail. Barbara taped it to the wall and Jenny would point to different places and Barbara would tell her what they were.

"What's Madagascar?" Jenny would ask.

"Let's find out."

And Barbara would pull out the old, cumbersome atlas she'd gotten at a garage sale and read aloud facts about the chosen place.

"I want to go to Madagascar," Jenny would say.

Or Portugal, or Nigeria, or France, or Norway, or Illinois. She wanted to go everywhere. She wanted to see lemurs and ancient temples and waterfalls and the Space Needle.

"Maybe someday," Barbara would say.

Maybe Jenny is in Seattle, or New York, or Madagascar.


Barbara goes out to the tent again. Still no Jenny. During the argument about the bedroom remodeling, Barbara had dragged the dusty tent from some camping trip and dumped it on the kitchen floor, telling Jenny that since she didn't appreciate her room or this house, she could set up the tent in the backyard and sleep there that night.

"Jenny has to sleep outsi-ide! Jenny has to sleep outsi-ide!" Caitlin had chanted.

Jenny, her angry eyes made more insolent with navy eyeliner and smoky eye shadow, glared at her mother for several moments, then picked up the tent and went outside. She managed to set it up herself. She spent the whole night there. The next day she hung up the photos of her and her friends inside. The sheer scarf and extra pink and purple blankets appeared after a shopping trip with a friend who had a car.

Barbara thought it would last a week at most. But every day after school Jenny went straight to the tent, coming in only for food and the bathroom. They were playing chicken, neither mentioning the tent. At night Barbara, from a window of the two-story house, would look out at the green glow and the silhouette of her daughter.

BIO: Janna Layton is an office worker and writer living in San Francisco. Her poetry and fiction have been published in various journals, including REAL, The Pinch, The First Line, The Vocabula Review, and Red Wheelbarrow. She blogs at http://readingwatchinglookingandstuff.blogspot.com/.