“We’re running out of time,” Paula Groves said as she flipped through the JCPenny magazine. “Your graduation party is in three weeks, and if you don’t choose a dress I’ll have to pay for expedited shipping.” Paula’s daughter Alice was silent across the table as her mother rambled on about pastels being popular colors this year but, in her opinion, Alice looked best in darker colors like navy or plum. Alice didn’t tell her mother that she didn’t like any of the dresses from JCPenny, she didn’t tell her about the long cornflower blue dress with spaghetti straps that she had seen at Charlotte Russe last week. Alice knew there was no point—she knew her mother would buy the dress she thought was best for her, no matter what she said.
Three weeks later Alice’s graduation party was canceled and a search party was formed instead. The navy knee length dress with the sweetheart neckline her mother had ordered for her still hung in the hall closet. The white tent that Paula and Roger had rented to celebrate their daughter’s high school graduation was repurposed into a hub where volunteers could get Missing Person flyers to staple on telephone poles or tape to lampposts around town. People came from all over to join the search for Alice Groves. They wore yellow shirts because Paula had told everyone that that was her daughter’s favorite color, even though it was actually burnt orange. But no one knew that, there was a lot that no one knew about Alice.
No one knew that Alice had seen the restaurant manager find her car two days ago. No one knew she’d been watching from her hotel room window across the street. She’d left the driver’s door open with her purse and cell phone still inside. She’d seen the forensic team swarm the car and emerge with sealed evidence bags. Her picture had been shared thousands of times on social media since she had been reported missing and every local news channel was following the story. Alice had watched the press conference where her father begged for information, she’s the perfect daughter, she’s supposed to start Berkeley in the fall, I can’t imagine who would do this to such a sweet girl. Her mother had sobbed the entire time and declined to step to the microphone when asked if she had anything to say.
Don’t they know I had to do this? Couldn’t they see I was suffocating? Alice had thought to herself in the quiet hotel room.
She had planned this for months, she was diligent and the dark parts of the internet taught her things she hadn’t known existed. For as long as she could remember people had been making decisions for her. Deciding what school she should go to, what classes she should take, what car she should buy, what store she should get her clothes from. They told her that they knew what was best for her, that she could make these decisions when she got older. But that day never came and an anger ignited in her chest and quickly consumed her.
What if she wanted a tattoo?
You’re too young to decide what will be on your body for the rest of your life.
What if she wanted to work at a restaurant on the weekends?
Your job is to go to school and get good grades so you can get into a good college.
She desperately wanted freedom. Maybe they were right, maybe she would make a mistake, but is making a mistake really such a bad thing?.
You’re too smart for that, you’re too young for that, you’re too pretty for that.
She couldn’t take it anymore.
It felt like tectonic plates shifting inside her, the pressure building until one broke free, leaving a chasm that was beyond repair. Her dad was right, she had been the perfect daughter. She got perfect grades, and perfect attendance. She had perfect hair, and friends who were just as perfect as she was. But even though it appeared that she had everything, all Alice really wanted was for someone to be interested in her opinions. She had run away because she thought that it might make someone finally listen to her. But underneath that, the true reason that she had run away, she felt like she would die if she stayed—that she would drown in the expectations of others and lose herself completely.
Alice stared into the hotel bathroom mirror and ran her fingers through her waist-length deep brown hair. The hair that her father never let her color because he said her natural color was pretty on its own. She thought about the picture of her that was circulating on the social media posts. It was one of her senior pictures, the ones she’d had taken over summer break. For that particular photo the photographer had posed her with her hand under her chin and her face tilted up towards the camera. She could smell the photographer’s cinnamon gum as he moved her hand to make sure it was at just the right angle. In fact, that whole day felt posed. Her mother had picked the photographer, she had worn a red dress because her dad said he liked when she wore red, the photographer had chosen the makeup artist.
She wanted to be different, she wanted to feel different. Minutes later waves of brown hair were drifting to the floor and Alice was feeling freer with each cut. By the time she was done she felt as if she were floating. She ran her fingers through the uneven pixie cut she had created and a smile crept onto her face. She looked into the mirror and sighed, releasing a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding for years.
For the rest of her life Alice would wonder what would’ve happened, who she would’ve become, if she’d gotten away with it. If the police officers hadn’t burst through her hotel room door at that moment, locks of brown hair still curled around her feet. Running away made her famous for a season. There had been television interviews and magazine articles, and she read the script that was given to her. She said she had been depressed, mentally unstable, that she hadn’t been thinking clearly, even though that wasn’t the truth.
At home her parents made sure she was never alone again. Her father removed the doors to her bedroom and closet. Her mother stood in the bathroom while Alice showered. They rarely let her leave the house, we don’t want to lose you again, they said. But Alice was lost. Lost in despair, swimming in utter hopelessness. She hadn’t realized how many small freedoms she’d had before, how much more oppressive her parents could become. She wished she had just worn the dress her mother had picked out, she wished she’d just smiled for everyone at her graduation party.
Eventually Alice learned how to tell people only what they wanted to hear, she learned how to silence her inner voice, she learned to live by other people’s expectations. Her only escape was into her own mind, where she imagined the same scene every time—she was sitting in a rocking chair on a porch watching the sunset, and she felt as free as she had for that moment after she cut her hair in that hotel room.