Mary Bering could not bear to hear one more person ask her, “How’re you holding up?” She wore her smile like a veneer, covering the deep grief of losing her beloved partner.

Mary planned her own disappearance. This story is for all those who deal with a grief hidden under the surface. All those tired of fielding well-meaning questions.

Enjoy the story.

How’re You Holding Up?

Bob Gillen

They never found Mary Bering’s body. Not that they didn’t try. The authorities in the small beach town searched for a full week. They brought in a search dog that tracked her scent from the dunes to the water’s edge. They even walked the dog a half mile in each direction, thinking Mary may have come out of the water disoriented.

A young couple on an early morning beach hike had spotted a neatly folded stack of clothes in the sand up near the dunes. Shoes, pants, a top, underwear. A costume necklace. They took a photo, brought it to the local sheriff when his office opened.

At the same time Mary’s boss at the town bakery called the sheriff to request a welfare check when Mary did not show for her early morning shift. A rare event. The sheriff entered Mary’s apartment. Her phone and keys sat on the kitchen table. No note, nothing askew. That’s when he called in the search dog.

A local news producer volunteered their helicopter to search offshore. Nothing.

In the end the sheriff concluded the tides pulled Mary Bering’s body out to sea. Suicide? No evidence either way. Case closed.

By the time the sheriff shut down his news conference, Mary Bering was miles to the south in her twenty-four foot boat, berthed at a marina several towns away. Mary had planned well.

What triggered her planned disappearance was a well-meaning question from her local preacher. She had run into him on her way home from work one day. “How’re you holding up?” The question punched Mary right in the chest. It was a question Mary had fielded dozens of times in the three months since her beloved partner Melody had died. Suddenly. Unexpected. Mary always responded to the question with, “Okay, thanks.”

The preacher’s question slammed her hard. You of all people. Can’t you see? No, I am not holding up. This is all a veneer. I am devasted without Melody.

Mary began assembling her plan that night over a dinner of chicken noodle soup and a white wine. The boat was the key. Mary had bought the boat, an older-model twenty-four foot cabin cruiser, from a guy whose job was relocating him to the midwest. The Salty Lady. She was berthed at the end of the marina. The guy had paid the monthly rental by cash, slipped into the office mail slot. Mary continued the practice. She never informed the office of the change in ownership. That was before Melody died. Mary had planned to refurbish the boat, present it to Melody on her July fourth birthday. The boat slept two, tightly. A tiny galley. A fair range with a large fuel tank and a one-hundred horsepower outboard engine.

After the preacher’s question Mary began stocking the boat with bottled water, Spam, tuna packets and canned vegetables. Several changes of clothes. A few items at a time, to avoid suspicion and questions.

She bought charts of the coastline. South was the obvious way to go. More options.

On the morning of her disappearance she left for the beach before dawn. She picked a spot where her clothes would be found without too much difficulty. She stripped, folded everything neatly, pulled on the wet suit she had carried. She walked into the water, swam south, parallel to the beach for about two miles till she reached the rock jetty and the harbor inlet. She left the water, stripped off the wetsuit, found the bag of clothes she had stashed in the dunes the day before. She dried off, stuffed the wetsuit in a bag, and walked to the marina. Once there she left a note in the office mail slot. “Moving on.” She signed the former owner’s name.

The sun was breaking the horizon when Mary fired up the outboard engine. She eased the boat out through the inlet, turned south parallel to the beach. The boat moved smoothly on the early morning flat calm. Twenty miles down the coast she found another inlet. She turned in, located the marina she had come upon in a Google search, pulled into a guest berth. She crawled into the bunk, slept for a few hours.

Around noon that first day Mary sat on the side of her bunk, a small makeup mirror in front of her. She cut her hair short in a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol. She added a few blond streaks. Nothing too obvious. She bagged up the cut hair, planning to dump it in a trash bin later.

She removed the jar with Melody’s cremains from the bunk storage bin. “What do you think, Mel? You would probably hate this.”

In the town near the marina, Mary visited a thrift store, bought some clothes that Melody would have worn, more colorful than her own style. 

She found a coffee shop. A turkey sandwich and a black coffee satisfied her hunger. She ordered a second sandwich, a chocolate muffin and a vanilla shake to go.

Back at the boat, Mary studied the charts. Another ten miles to the next inlet. The wind had picked up in the afternoon. She chose to avoid what would be a choppy ride running parallel to the coast. Tomorrow morning would be fine.

Mary studied the notebook with her plan. Had she overlooked anything yet? Nothing obvious. Her credit cards would remain unused in her wallet for at least several months. Nothing to trace, if they did a deep-dive search. She had plenty of cash, accumulated over a month from ATMs. She had also transferred much of her savings to an out-of-state bank. She retained her original ID. No reason to change that, not unless someone became suspicious. She had left just enough of a trail for them to conclude this was a probable suicide. She knew the local sheriff well enough to know he would not likely search further. 

She felt a twinge of guilt over leaving her job. She always showed up early to bake bread and rolls for the morning customers. Her boss would be stressed for a time, but Mary knew someone else would take her place.

Leaving her apartment behind was more painful. A cozy little space Melody and she had shared for almost ten years. She left behind treasured furniture, a quilt gifted from a friend, a collection of antique bottles.

Now what? Tomorrow morning another marina, more miles away from her old life. Mary stowed the thrift store clothes under her bunk. One item she had brought from home jumped out at her. She held up a white linen top. Tears ran down her face. Remember this, Mel? I wore this the night you proposed to me. She blotted her tears onto the top.

She continued, Where to, Melody? I don’t have a long-term plan. Only enough to get away from my…our…old life. No more well-meaning questions to field. No more masking how I feel. I miss you terribly. My heart aches for you. I am truly alone now, in every way. 

Mary ate her carryout food, again crawled into the bunk. Sleep came easily.

In the morning Mary hit a different coffee shop for croissants and coffee, picked up the local newspaper. A story below the fold told of a disappearance. Her disappearance. Search underway. No picture, no details. Good, at least they’re aware I’m gone.

She powered up the boat and set off for the next marina. Once there she again found a guest berth. Mary cooked up an early dinner of Spam and canned corn on her little gas stove. 

She held the jar of cremains close to her. She whispered, “This boat was my birthday surprise for you, Mel. When I get further down the coast I’ll find a painter and change the name to My Melody.”

Mary rooted through the bag of clothes she had purchased at the thrift shop. She picked a tie-dyed shirt with a yellow center. More whispers: “Tomorrow, Mel, I’ll dress more to your style, your liking. You always wanted me to be more daring with my outfits.”

Mary pointed to the coastal chart. “And tomorrow, on to another harbor, another marina, another town. Another step towards a new life. ‘How’re you holding up?’ Not too badly, if I say so myself. Not too badly.”