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.