Knowing Terror

It is early Tuesday afternoon, and I am playing the Mists of Pandaria expansion for World of Warcraft. I have taken the day off from work under the auspices of caring for my 3 year-old who has a bad cough. I’m still a little foggy-headed from a rough night’s sleep spent listening to and trying to soothe that coughing, but he has rapidly improved throughout the day, and the lure of some game time finally convinces me that my services are no longer needed in the capacity of hapless nurse.

The windows are open. The soft breeze of a perfect Minnesota fall afternoon is flitting through the house, and the temperature is fixed dead on at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. My toddler is finding time between coughing bouts to learn to use the potty. It’s his second day of success, and he is a ball of prideful sunshine, occasionally proclaiming, “I need to use the potty, again,” through a charming grin of small teeth.

I am sipping at a Sonic chocolate shake. My wife is leaning against the door jamb to the bathroom, and my youngest child is boosted on a special toilet seat announcing the general condition of his excretory system. It is 4:00. At this point, my eight-year-old son has been missing for about three minutes, but no one has realized it yet.

It’s a short walk from the bus stop to our house. We live along the back of a cul de sac, and the bus drops kids off at the intersection four houses down. It’s close enough that getting from the front door to the bus can be accomplished in under at a minute at a brisk pace, though the neighborhood kids all seem to get along so a minute can stretch into a few as they dawdle down the street. These are kids between 8 and 12. Distractions are virtually inevitable. My wife and I try to avoid being paranoid parents, never giving our kids an opportunity for some space and independence, so it’s understood that as long as we get a good solid touch base within around five minutes of getting off the bus, just to let us know that all is copasetic, then it’s good.

This doesn’t always happen, of course. Once every couple of weeks 4:05 comes and goes, and we have to jot outside to remind our son to come check in with us. These are stern but not oppressive conversations, so when 4:05 comes around today and the door has not opened, my wife and I exchange a look that says, “time to go issue _another_ reminder,” and she heads out the front door. I stay behind to provide positive reinforcement to the potty training.

A couple of minutes later my wife is back inside, her face quizzical. No son in tow, in fact no kids at all in the cul de sac. While odd, it’s nothing we’re exactly worried about yet. Maybe the bus was late leaving the school. Maybe my son missed the bus and we just haven’t gotten the call from the school yet. At this point, those are really the only possibilities we are entertaining. I still have some attention directed at my toddler now pulling up his pants, and looking for confirmation at his greatness, but my attention is sliding as my wife picks up the phone and calls the school.

It takes another three or four minutes to confirm that the buses all left on time, so we call the bus company, but the response comes back that the bus driver has completed his route and the bus is empty. It is at that moment we realize all of the responsible adults in charge of the care and safety of my son do not know where he is, including us.

That is where a deeper, more insidious fear first ticks alive. My son has now been missing for about twelve minutes, and we’ve just run out of normal, reasonable answers. My wife starts to call back the school to escalate the situation, and I slip on shoes and head out the front door to walk to the bus stop myself. I suppose I’m expecting him to emerge from a friend’s house or walk from the trees where he was diverted to examine some cool object of nature. The neighborhood is quiet. Not many people are home from work yet, and most of the kids are likely enjoying an after school snack and some TV time before cavorting around in yards and streets.

I make my way to the bus stop and back, sort of aimlessly examining things. Perhaps he climbed this tree. Maybe he’s playing hide and seek with us and he’s in the shed. Maybe he’s in our backyard and I just haven’t checked there close enough. In all the scenarios going through my head at this point, he’s fine. Of course he’s fine. That’s how this goes. We get a little scare, and suddenly he’s there apologizing for going inside a friend’s house for a Capri Sun instead of coming home first. I wait for life to resolve the way it’s supposed to resolve, but the plotline of this day has skewed off track and seems determined to draw things out.

I’m back in the garage, and maybe only another two or three minutes have past. Suddenly I’m talking to my wife, and she is saying she is going to drive up to the school. I nod and tell her to call me as soon as they find him, and in fact check in with me every few minutes either way. I hear, almost as if listening from afar, a strange note in my voice. I do not sound like me. My wife, for that matter, does not sound like herself either. There is a breathlessness, a tremolo that isn’t normally there. Then she is gone, and I’m standing there in the garage, almost confused.

But, the fear is prominent now, and dark worries are stirring up from corners of my mind best left undisturbed. I’m not permitting myself to think the things that dark tendrils of thought are hinting at yet, but it’s there. It’s only been 15 minutes.

I am inside and my youngest son is complaining because I’m not in the mood for playing with him right now. In that same way that pets seem to sense that you’re about to go on vacation or take them to the vet, his demeanor is changed in concert with mine. He wants attention without seeming to know why. I set him in front of a television show, give him a hug and then settle in next to him, knowing on a deep level what it will sound like when my son walks in the front door. I am brusquely rubbing my finger against my cell phone.

When it rings five minutes later, I’m in a darker place. I can’t press the answer button fast enough. I say hello, but it’s not me. I don’t sound like that. My wife asks on the other end, “Is he home yet?” My heart drops.

“No.” I answer.

“He’s not here!” She says. It’s just a fact, nothing I can do with that. The principal is with her, and I can hear him talking occasionally in the background, but can’t make out what he’s saying. The impulse at that moment to transition from passive waiting to active searching is as strong as the impulse to breathe after holding your breath for so long that your chest spasms and your muscles twist. I tell her I am going to pack our toddler into the van and look around the neighborhood.

Neither of us want to say the next thing -- the thing that needs to be said. It’s the statement that changes the way you think about what is happening. The thing that will make this all too real, that says your child has gone missing.

“You need to call the police,” I say. She agrees.

There is no analogue to the feeling of having to call the police because your child is missing. I can’t say I was as scared as X or it was worse than that time that Y happened. It exists on its own plane — a separate, horrible place that seems to tear at your insides. My hands are shaking now. I realize actually that they have been for a little while. The gathering storm of fears in my head coalesces, takes shape. I see my eight-year-old-sobbing in fear in the back or trunk of a car. I see him being struck by a balled and angry fist bursting skin apart, never having known the evil that humans can manifest until now. I see him being hurt, killed.

Thirty minutes. That’s how long it takes for panic to arrive, at least for me.

I pack my youngest son into the van and the way that he is acting like things are normal is almost offensive to me. He starts asking if we can go to McDonalds or if he can get a toy. I explain that we need to find his brother, and he and I are going to look around, and the first one to find him wins. This is a game he agrees to, and we are off roving aimlessly through the neighborhood.

I know what I’m looking for, but don’t know how to look for it. The harder I look, the more I realize that I can’t see everything. And even if I could, I can’t see around or, better yet, into all the houses. Suddenly my neighborhood looks like a land of a million corners around which a small boy could disappear. I have to force myself to watch the road, to not run into oncoming traffic, to not accidentally hit some guy on his mountain bike. I resent every second I have to spend looking away from the surroundings.

He should be there. Right there. It doesn’t make sense that this is happening. I am angry, not at my son but at the very fact that this is occurring. There’s a frustration that mingles with the fear, and it almost feels as though the fact that my son is missing is some kind of horrible practical joke or payback. This is what you get for not dying in surgery last year. This is what you get for having almost fallen down the stairs but catching yourself. This is what you get for thinking that thing about the guy in front of you in traffic. This is what you get for having lived forty years of a charmed life to date. This is life calling in the debt I owe, and I’m only just understanding how big the balance is.

The phone rings. Weird-voice me answers. She asks if I’ve found anything, and the bottom falls out. Nothing. The police are arriving now. Some teachers are also searching the neighborhood. I ask for the exact bus route, and she gives it to me. Tells me to go home first. Just check.

I do, still on the phone. She is whimpering occasionally. It feels like it’s been an hour, more that this has been happening. I walk in, and his shoes are on the floor. As I shout his name, I realize his backpack isn’t there. And those aren’t the shoes he usually wears to school. The shout echoes through the house. No answer. He’s not here. Still. It’s been almost an hour. I tell my wife I’m going to run the bus route a couple of times; don’t really hear her response before I hang up.

There is a cold logical part of my mind now, ticking away unhelpful thoughts. “Every second he’s missing,” it reminds me, “makes it less likely he’ll be found.” “If someone picked him up at his bus stop,” it adds,” they could be forty miles away by now. Well out of town. Hell, if they’d headed east, they could be almost in a different state.” I picture a circle, spreading out in all directions from my house, and every minute, every second its circumference is growing, crossing rivers, crossing towns, crossing state lines. That is the area now where my son might be. It’s far too large. It has been for a long time.

I’m back in the car now, backing out of the driveway, back onto the cul de sac and heading in the direction of the bus route. I come around the corner, only a block from my house, and, impossibly, he is there. There he is, like he’s been there the whole time. Just like it was supposed to be, however long ago when I walked to the bus stop, him just suddenly appearing. He is walking, carrying his backpack, and a friendly looking man in a blue shirt on a bicycle is riding next to him. I just stop in the middle of the street, roll down my window, and blurt out almost angrily, and unfairly, “Where have you been! Get in this van.”

He is impossibly unperturbed, calm — or at least so much calmer than me. The man on the bike says with a smile, “I think this little guy got lost.” Or he says something like that. I barely hear him, don’t register it as a memory at all.

“I was reading a book on the bus. I missed my stop.” My son explains. I have so many questions, so many thoughts, and I should be feeling a wash of relief, but what I’m feeling is more like a bomb exploding in the pent up tightness of my body, as though I’d been wound up like a spring and suddenly unleashed. I can’t say thank you to the man right. I can’t tell my boy in equal measures how glad I am to see him and how scared I was and how I need him to get into the van now — this place that I possess, hold dominion over. I need him back in my fixed domain.

He obliges, beginning to sense how worried I am. The man on the bike is already heading the other way, and I feel like I should stop him and say a better thank you, but all I want to do is call my wife as quickly as possible, because it’s not until the moment I say that I’ve found him that this is actually over.

I’m on the phone, and she answers, small and scared.

“I have him.” I say and it’s my voice talking. And suddenly it’s over.

What happened was this: He was on the bus, got wrapped up in a book and missed his stop by two or three stops, roughly a mile. But, rather than bug the bus driver, he just got off. We’ve talked to him about this kind of scenario before, and he explains that he forgot to call us, explains that he just started off in what seemed like the right direction, and that eventually someone helped him. He was thinking of it as a cool adventure on a beautiful day.

I’ve taken him up to the school, and now he is sitting on the bench as a young but understanding and calm police officer talks to him about the situation, suggesting some things he probably should have done and thought about.

Then my wife is there, and she hugs him for several minutes. The principal of his school shakes my hand, and I can see he’s every bit as shaken as me. Irrationally, I like him more because of that, because I see in his eyes that he’s done everything he can to hold it together and be an authority figure, but that he was deeply worried about my little boy. Some pleasantries are exchanged and some heartfelt thank yous. I get back in the van with my youngest son, who still doesn’t seem to have gripped the magnitude of the situation, and look at the clock.

Impossibly it reads 4:55. After all that, he had only been missing for fifty minutes. But, for the way I knew terror during that time, it might as well have been a year.


I'm very glad your son is safe. Your story seriously rattled my nerves. My son is only a toddler but you reminded of the quote.

“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”


I remember when my oldest daughter was about 4. We were living in California at the time and early one Sunday morning, she thought it would be a great idea to walk the dog all by herself because she was such a big girl! Still in her Barney jammies, she got the dog and took off around the block. Thankfully, I woke up about the same time and checked in on the kids. I saw Elisabeth wasn't in her bed, so I thought she would be watching cartoons. Nowhere in the house. Getting pretty nervous, but we had a big backyard and thought she was playing outside even though she knows she isn't supposed to do that without myself or her mother with her. Not outside.

Now I'm in full panic. I wake up the wife and we are screaming her name. We wake up her younger sister who immediately starts crying because the yelling is scaring her. But not half as much as I am scared. Visions of someone reaching over our fence to abduct her are flowing through my head and I start to cry uncontrollably, but still running.

I tear off around the block (we lived on a big circular block about 1.3 miles around). About halfway around, there she was. There was a woman who went to our church who saw this 4-year old kid in her jammies walking down the street and knew something was amiss. She recognized Elisabeth from church and just kept her in her yard knowing someone would come looking very soon.

When I got my arms around Elisabeth, it was the hardest I believe I have ever cried. After thanking the woman for about 10 minutes and letting her know the debt I owed her could never be repaid, we went home where lots more tears flowed all day.

Needless to say, we had a small family meeting that afternoon on leaving the yard without Mommy or Daddy and how bad things can happen.

I hadn't thought about that terrible morning in about 15 years. Gee thanks Elysium!!

Damn it man. I'm so glad he's fine!

I remember holding my son shortly after he was born, asleep in my arms. I started crying as a thought manifested in me "The only way for me to be truly hurt, is if something hurt you."

My terror was realized when he was only a little over a year old. He was with my wife while she was doing some laundry, just mucking about in the laundry room. He reached into the garbage in the 3 seconds that my wife wasn't looking at him and pulled out an empty detergent scoop. He pretended to drink out of it, and inhaled the minuscule, powdery remnants of detergent that sprinkled the cup. That particular crap had bleach crystals in it.

I got the call at work saying they were on the way to the hospital, with a nasty cough and crying horribly. Those 20 minutes or so that it took to get to the hospital were some of the most terrifying moments of my life. I had worst-case scenarios presenting themselves to me as obvious, logical conclusions. It was terrible.

He was too young to verbalize anything, so he just coughed and cried almost all night. I've never felt so useless... until I had to force him into a plastic body-stabilizer thing for an x-ray or other scan of some kind. Not only was I locking him in something cold and sterile when all he wanted was his daddy to hold him, but then I had to leave the room while they did whatever they had to do to him.

I don't think I remember being that angry in my life, as I felt like I had betrayed him somehow. I could hear him crying on the other side of the door and there was nothing I could tell him, or myself for that matter, that would help either of us feel better. I knew it was all done with his best interests in mind, but nothing could stop the way I felt at that moment.

Everything turned out fine, after only one night in the hospital, and he just had a sore throat for a few days. Of course we made sure to go through the house for the millionth time to be as sure as we could be regarding the completeness of our "child proofing."

Anyway, thank you for sharing your story - though I'm saddened by the fact that you had to go through it.

I'm glad to hear that everything is OK. As a parent (and a teacher), that was a harrowing story to read. I hope writing it helped you process the event.

That was intense! Glad your son (and you) are alright.

Amazing read Sean. The writing on this site makes me, as someone who plans to be a parent, excited, scared, pensive and terrified by turns.

Very happy that your fears were untrue..

KramNesnah wrote:

That was intense! Glad your son (and you) are alright.

Ooh, a fellow Saffer!

Location wrote:

North West Province, South Africa


*stuffs fingers in ears*

la la laaa not listening not listening!

It's amazing how much more affected I am by things now I have a son. Your story had me in tears by the end, So glad everything is okay.

There should some sort of warning not to read this first thing in the morning at the office; now I need to wait all day before I can hug my kids.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
KramNesnah wrote:

That was intense! Glad your son (and you) are alright.

Ooh, a fellow Saffer!

Location wrote:

North West Province, South Africa

Condolences. :P

Yip, just a few more Saffers and we can organise a local Slap&Tickle.

This story makes me suddenly thankful for our school's policy that children are only allowed to get off at one of their assigned stops.

Ten minutes after reading this, my heartbeat has still not gone back down to normal. I have two boys and, like Chumpy McChump, can't wait to get home to give them an extra hug. Very thankful that everything worked out well.

Man, I went off the radar for hours at a time when I was 8 and I expect my daughter to do so too. It's really weird for me to empathise with the sense of panic in this story in that sense. Maybe if he'd been gone for longer.

Kids need their space. I think you bought into the media hype about life being dangerous too much.

"At this point, my eight-year-old son has been missing for about three minutes, but no one has realized it yet."

That's a great line.

Powerful story...I had to read it quickly before my heart gave out. Not sure I can keep reading the comments. They keep triggering anxiety. I've got a 20-month old girl with an adventurous spirit. And I'm a preternatural worrier in general. I've already had panics so fierce that my dogs get up and fix their own dinner saying, "Nah, don't worry about it, we got it this time."

What it's all reminded me of is the number of times I must have done the same to my own parents and how that knowledge has made me love and respect them even more.

Oh man, I vividly remember one afternoon I got off the school bus as a kid...just another day like any of the countless others. But that day I decided, for one of those quintessentially childish reasons, one that could only come from a brain that hadn't yet fully developed, to see how loud I could scream. So I did just that, multiple times, as loud as I possibly could. I shrugged, fairly proud of my skills, and continued the walk toward my house. The look on my neighbor's face as she came running around the corner toward me, only to see me shuffling nonchalantly along the sidewalk, was equal parts terror and disgust. I can't promise I learned a lesson from the experience, but it was evidently striking enough that I remember it to this day.

One of the best articles I've read from you Sean but one that I also wish I never had to read due to the circumstances. Very happy he's safe and sound.

Six years or so ago, this would have been an interesting if off-topic read. Now that I have a little one of my own, I literally could not stop reading once I got to the first line before the fold.

Stories like this and I have to step back and hope the pendulum swings back. When we were all growing up, remember how 'latchkey kids' was the worry of the day? Kids who had too little supervision and would come home to empty houses? Right now, we're seeing the reaction generation: kids so coddled that they come to college actually confused about how to handle day-to-day aspects of their lives without intense supervision.

Maybe someday, we as a culture will strike a happy medium: care for our kids with full attention without worrying ourselves sick about them.

Man, I went off the radar for hours at a time when I was 8 and I expect my daughter to do so too. It's really weird for me to empathise with the sense of panic in this story in that sense. Maybe if he'd been gone for longer.
Location: Netherlands

Those two items may be connected. I don't know what the rate of child abductions in the Netherlands are, or what the motivation for that is, but I know locally it is rare but not unheard of, and the culture of the US is such that adults are not as free (or in many cases willing) to watch for the welfare of someone else's child.

I knew posting this that some percentage of people would see this as an over-reaction. I asked the principal, and even apologized to the police officer at one point about that. The impression I got back from them was that this was exactly the way we should respond.

This was really difficult for me to read, and I am really distracted at work.

I am really happy that this ended well - but am terrified now.

KramNesnah wrote:
MrDeVil909 wrote:
KramNesnah wrote:

That was intense! Glad your son (and you) are alright.

Ooh, a fellow Saffer!

Location wrote:

North West Province, South Africa

Condolences. :P

Yip, just a few more Saffers and we can organise a local Slap&Tickle. :-)

Another amazing retelling from GWJ. As a parent of kids that could do this very same thing, thank you, and I'm with Chumpy_McChump.


Yeah, I was tearing up at the end of this. Really well written. You bastard.

I went through this in miniature a couple of years ago when my daughter was two years old and we were at the insanely crowded Toys R Us in Times Square. She left my sight for two seconds and then, suddenly, I couldn't find her. On top of that there'd been some strange man walking around on the same floor, who all of a sudden I also didn't see. Turns out she'd climbed up the stairs into the second floor of Barbie's dream house.

The amazing part was how other parents, hearing the rising panic in my voice all instantly created a posse — passing along the info of her name, what she was wearing, etc. There was a cheer when she turned up.

Probably lasted all of ten minutes. Took a year off of my life.

Powerful stuff. Was having a rough morning, but this piece let me take a step back and remember what's truly important in life. Thank you.

I'm glad your family is safe. Even though my boys are a bit older, it doesn't get easier - 'specially when one's about to start driving on his own.

Also, damn you... because now I have to go post in the Tears of Manly Manliness thread. Dusty...

Damn this article. It was way too well written to the point where my own stomach was dropping while I was reading it. As a father-to-be, this exact scenario is something that continously freaks me out about if I'm ready for this whole parenthood thing.

Although, the article does put in perspective how my parents must have felt when I took a walk around the town we were staying in on vacation and didn't come back for a half hour (pretty sure I was like 10 at the time). I never did quite get why they were so freaked out by that. Now I know--excellent article!

Well written; thanks for sharing!

I am so glad everything turned out ok and no I do not think there was any over reaction. I have had other circumstances in my life that may make my perspective different from most but I was nearly in tears at the end of reading your article. Even the smallest prospect of loosing a child is too much.

Realy powerfully written I might add.

Vegan wrote:


Weird part is that Sean looks a fair but like Ethan Mars.

Elysium wrote:

I know locally it is rare but not unheard of, and the culture of the US is such that adults are not as free (or in many cases willing) to watch for the welfare of someone else's child.

I knew posting this that some percentage of people would see this as an over-reaction. I asked the principal, and even apologized to the police officer at one point about that. The impression I got back from them was that this was exactly the way we should respond.

I honestly think that the suburbs are probably the creepiest place for a child to go missing. There are fewer obvious places for a kid to be, and the value on quiet and privacy combines with a uniformity of appearance in houses and cars to turn every enclosed space into a terrifying mystery.

But then I grew up right when this sort of terror was at the front of TV news. Dhamer, Gacy, and all the other dangerous, creepy suburbanites.

I can still remember going to a wedding when my son was three; he was an incredibly clingy kid who never wandered far. We were in a crowd, and I suddenly couldn't find him. It was maybe 30 seconds, but I still remember the abject terror I felt; we were on the shore of Lake Superior, and I can't count the number of terrible things that went through my head. That was 30 seconds, can't imagine it for an hour.

Dammit, I'm having a hard time with the dust in this room. Having a nine month old daughter really helped put this into perspective. If something like this happens (perhaps, when, rather than if) I suspect I will feel much the same way as you did.

Interestingly, to riff off the conversation Elysium and osmosisch are having, I grew up in a city called Eindhoven in the Netherlands. I remember my parents - and the neighbors with kids of their own - always being pretty easy going in terms of letting us roam the neighborhood. I spent most of my days off school hanging out with the girls next door, making huts and climbing trees in the few blocks around where we lived. It was the same when we moved to a more rural area in the Netherlands, and again when we moved to Ireland.

Having moved to the USA and having seen how my wife won't even let her two daughters out of view in our own garden, a large plot of land recessed from the road in a very quiet and safe neighborhood more or less outside of town, it almost feels like paranoia. I won't let the girls roam the neighborhood, since I feel they are too young; one of the girls just turned five, the other will be seven in February. The road we live on is not known for its slow drivers, which reinforces that decision, but I have no problem with letting them play in the garden while I am doing things in (and to) the house. I only worry about things going quiet because I fear they are plotting to do something that would normally be frowned upon by me or their mother!

Luckily, by either law or the rules of the school, we have to meet the girls at the school bus stop. They come straight home and then do their own thing, watching TV or playing outside, depending on weather and homework. The scenario you had to live through is unlikely to happen, but that doesn't mean other things can't - toy stores are particularly worrisome, in this regard.

Thanks for reinforcing this particular fear, Sean. Hopefully it won't happen any more to you, and it will never happen to me. I'm not holding my breath on the latter though - I fully expect at least one or two scares in the same vein.