compassion fatigue

Compassion Fatigue
Troy Farah

Her mother, Amy, could already feel her daughter’s image burning out, becoming faint in the neuro-static. Her freckles no longer distinct, her hair was Gaussian. She was going away, and she could feel herself going with her.
Earlier that day, she and Lou, the husband, had sorted through the family albums and decided on which portrait would look best on a milk carton. Except, they don’t put kids faces on milk cartons anymore. So wherever the face was put instead.
Part of the problem was, due to laziness or procrastination or just from living in the Selfie Generation, they hadn’t professionally updated the kids’ photos in over a year. Mia had gone through a growth spurt the summer before and barely resembled any of her photos done at Sears or Montgomery Wards. Did those places even still exist? Had they too receded into the capitalist mist?
‘It seems so amateur,’ Lou said of the photo they decided. It was a selfie of Mia on the beach.
‘It’s the most recent. It captures the right elements of her face,’ Lou said. He was having the conversation with himself. His wife had disappeared somewhere inside herself; the middle distance between her forehead was a void. So Lou was picking up the pieces.
‘Did you sleep OK?,’ Lou said.
‘Me neither,’ Lou said.
‘It sure is cloudy today,’ Lou said.
Lou laid the printed photographs on the counter. They were in a mobile home-sized diner, not eating. Lou let his grilled cheese stiffen while Amy picked apart a tomato sandwich she hadn’t once bitten into. She was ghostlike and pale, an x-ray, a trace of ash against the wall like when a nuclear bomb goes off, leaving just the outline of victims where they stand.
There’s gotta be a technical term for her state of mind, but neither Lou or Amy were aware of what it might be. The phrase ‘post-traumatic stress’ seems too neutered, Lou thought. Whatever it was, it wasn’t on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, an arbitrary list of 43 stressful life events that fuck with your state of mind. Lou remembered this scale from college.
‘Do we have her fingerprints on file?’ Lou said.
‘Why would we have her fingerprints on file?’ Lou said.
‘Dunno. The detective asked,’ Lou said. The waiter returned to their corner of the counter to refill the coffee. He seemed to know these were the kind of customers you didn’t ask, Hi, how are ya? Even if they’d been sitting there for an hour or more, not touching their food, you didn’t ask, Are you done with that?
Later, the same diner would become the extempore HQ for the whole ‘hashtag find Mia’ operation. Volunteers, media members, search-and-rescue squads — they would all meet here at the diner in-between searches to boost their morale, or refuel on courtesy coffee or catch a meal. Someone, not the parents, tacked a map to the wall near the door, allowing searchers to scribble X’s in all the places they had looked and looked again.
After two weeks of this, two weeks of the diner being the base of operations, the map started to look like a long sheet of Kan’t Kopy safety paper, scratched with an almost moiré pattern.
The father’s fingernails had turned into similar shreds from his nervous nail-biting tic. When it gets this way, doctors call it dermatophagia or ‘wolf-biting.’ His fingers were like boiled chicken, the flesh separating from the bones.
The mother had never shown any expression of panic or hysteria, not externally. She just left. First she was there, then her daughter was gone, then she was gone. By the time ‘tardy’ became ‘late’ had become ‘vanished’, by the time Mia’s absence had slipped into the 48th hour, entering that window when the police finally take the case seriously, Amy was completely vacant.
Lou was disappearing in a more tangible way. His arms and chest were flecked with cherry-shaded abscesses, his scorched nails tracking whatever bumps and scabs and sores it blindly ate.
Pick. Pick. Pick.
Already balding, he had yanked out what little hair remained. His so-called ‘body-focused repetitive behavior’ wasn’t new to him — these were disorders he’d had as a teen — but now they were flaring up. He had heard a story — a woman his age picked through the skin on her neck until she exposed the carotid artery — but he wasn’t there yet.
He tried to lie to himself, but he could remember too distinctly the age he became aware that little kids aren’t often kidnapped for ransom money anymore.
Imagining realistic intentions is what often left him curled up in a ball in the bathroom pick, pick, picking himself into a kind of blankness.
Mia was a nice enough kid; not really an accident, but not really planned either. She was almost thirteen, but her parents, who had never really considered the job before it was thrust upon them, were at an age when they realized their offspring weren’t as special as they’d been telling them all these years.
Maybe Mia was a rotten brat. Some people — teachers, the youth pastor — certainly conveyed that impression. She liked to gossip about sex and money, things she didn’t quite understand, and paint her nails colors that did not exist in nature. She got rid of her dolls, but kept the color of her room — fuchsia and pearl. Her parents estimated French fries and Oreos made up half her diet. She was interested in televised karaoke game shows where the prize was becoming a C-list celebrity and she would vote for her favorite singers using an app on her smart phone.
They found the waterlogged phone in a stream six miles from the movie theater she was supposed to meet at. On the map, it became a giant green circle from where all future searches expanded. After nearly three weeks, almost 500 total hours, the search came to a lusterless, whimpering end.
Of course, this story has a happy ending. It has to, because without a happy ending, you would not like this story and I would not like this story. It would leave a feeling described by one editor as ‘sour emptiness’ and none of us would feel OK.
And we want to feel OK and that is OK.
If this story did not have a happy ending, this story might be forgotten and never read again. It might be more ‘true to life,’ whatever that means, but it would not be treasured. It might be shelved, the excuse being taste. But this story might be true. So we have to tell it, for the searchers’ sakes, for Lou’s sake, for Amy’s sake.
And so Mia returned.
She hitchhiked — crazy kid! — all the way up to her aunt in Boise. Her first and only ride was a gentle, fat trucker with a wife and two kids, who took her the entire way, no stops. He had no idea he was helping a fugitive, he just wanted to make sure the kid made it there in once piece. And she did.
Mia told the police officers who found her that she ran away because her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother was suicidal. The child protection agents who investigated found that none of this was true. The girl really ran away because she wanted her parents’ attention. Just another lonely, bored preteen who saw something on TV about drifting and decided to mimic it.
Lou was relieved — better than relieved, he was alleviated, he was anesthetized — until he started to resent his daughter. He remembered spending thirteen hours in a jail cell, five hours in interrogation, just so the cops could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he didn’t do it.
The girl just wanted attention? Her father didn’t speak to her for almost a year after that.
So CPS didn’t take the kid away from the parents, but what about when you should take the parents away from the kid?
Amy’s form returned. She gained back — and then some — the fifteen pounds she lost. She snapped back into place like she’d just risen from a coma. She seemed to sleep through the whole incident and when she woke up, everything was back in place and she never mentioned what happened ever again. Because she was lucky. Because most kids don’t run away and most kids aren’t kidnapped for ransom money anymore. Because her daughter was home.

### END ###