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.


ccesarano wrote:

Am I the only person that assumed there is NO WAY Sean would post it if it didn't turn out all fine?

Well, yeah, of course. It's a piece about terror, not about tragedy (thank goodness).

We have a lot of scientific rationalists in the room, including me. It's good for all of us to understand, on a rational level, that we have never been safer.

Sean's piece isn't about public safety statistics, it's a deeply honest expression of his emotional experience. There is no scatter-plot you can show to man that will make him say "Aha! It's highly probable that it's cool my son is missing".

I'm so glad to hear that everything is alright.
I've been on both sides of this story. I was also 8 years old, but instead of missing my stop, I missed the bus completely because I was reading on a swing on the school's playground. I was gone for almost two hours as I attempted to walk home not fully knowing exactly how to get there.
After having Kannon JR miss his stop on the bus a year or so back, I know exactly what my parents were feeling that day. I even had to call my mom to apologize so many years later, because I finally understood how big of a deal it was.

In addition, it struck me as odd that you didn't knock on the neighbors' door.

I did. I didn't include everything I did for the sake of space and time. This was one of the first thing's though.

Ah, well in that case I'm just being a nit-picky bastard.

I went missing several times as a kid. But I always got home, or to a friends' place. Well, except the time my friend and I were actually abducted, for trespassing and vandalism, but the guy called the cops, so it's not as if we were in danger. My wife grew up quite autonomously, and late in her childhood her parents actually left her and her older sister at home for a couple years while they went abroad for work, so the two of them lived alone and visited their aunts and uncles frequently.

My wife and I deride our friends who restrict their kids' lives, but we're just starting to try for kids, so who knows. Our plan is so long as the kid knows basic rules like looking before crossing, knows how to use a phone, etc., then there's no problem letting them go where ever. Plus, we'll probably have those phone GPS trackers, for emergency use only, anyway.

Of course, Sean's story was going to end not only with a happy ending, but with something innocuous. It's so remarkable that "I got off the bus a few miles from where I was supposed to" is a notable story in US/Canada today. For stories about real childhoods, talk to the 30-year olds from the former Yugoslavia, or the college students today in Iraq.

This was brilliantly written, and captures the panic one feels when one's progeny is not where they should be. A friend of ours, the parents of Duckling's best friend, recently had a similar thing, where it took an hour to find him, and it was only because she saw his bike at someone's house...2 miles from home, and across 2 major streets. She found him by driving around, because even though he had his phone, he just forgot to call. (Also he knew she'd never let him ride his bike across two major farm-to-market roads near blind curves.) He was fine, by the way, just playing video games at a school friend's house. Apparently a whole pack of neighborhood kids had gone as a unit to see some new game.

Duckling doesn't even have a phone. I guess I should probably buy him one.

I used to have the habit of finding a hiding place to read, then falling asleep after a while.

My mom was not a fan of this habit.

This will be my daughter. I can already see the seeds of exploration planted in her little 1 year old brain. I just hope that my wife and I do a good enough job explaining to her the dangerous of being somewhere and not having anyone know where you are at. We have another little one on the way, so the two sisters will be very close in age and I'm hoping that two heads will be smarter than one in these types of situations, and that they end up doing many things together. Also by the time they are 8, I'm sure their backpacks will be low-jacked, and I will hunt them down with a phone app.

I got most of the neighbours searching my lost son for about an hour. I rode around the village on my bike screaming Jason basically. After two laps his sister found him sleeping soundly under a huge mountain of unsorted laundry. Sweating like hell. It truly is terror. But also euforia when he was found.

SallyNasty wrote:
conejote wrote:
osmosisch wrote:

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.

I did too, but then I lived in West Virginia on a sparsely populated mountainside. I think I might feel differently if I were raising my son in that same kind of rural setting, but I'm not. I live in a city where carjackings and other crazy things happen all the time, and not far from my house. If my six year old son didn't step off the bus one day (which drops him at our doorstep) and the school didn't know where he was, my reaction would be very much the same as Sean's.

I know your general area. Let me say, you are braver than I. I live up North for a reason!

Hey, midtown is where all the cool people live. And by cool people, I mean drug dealers, prostitutes, and people I eyeball as potential kidnappers.

I've know that sort of terror only momentarily, thankfully. My daughter, only 4 years old, once disappeared for about 5 minutes from a playground. In that space of time I went from mild-mannered to murderous and manic, thinking of all possible scenarios in my head. Until she turned up a few moments later and my soul returned to my body.

I can't begin to imagine what it must be like to go through that for nearly an hour.

Just caught the story from a link in the manly tears thread...


Glad everyone is OK. I read about 90% of this through misty-vision.

Knowing Terror, indeed. I thought I had an inkling what fear was, until I had kids. Kids who started walking independently and going places where I wasn't.

It's partly my own fault. The cobwebby crawlspaces of my brain are loaded with dark possibilities. I mean, did I really have to read so many books about real life serial killers in college? Watch all those horror movies? Work on "America's Most Wanted" documenting lurid crimes with blood-soaked re-enactments?

And why, why, WHY am I still watching episodes of Dexter? I've got a mental library of ways in which people can be snatched, tortured and dismembered, and I'm going there every time my kid disappears around a corner at the park, even for a second.

Thanks for sharing your own experience. Glad everybody is safe and sound.

chaosmos wrote:

And why, why, WHY am I still watching episodes of Dexter?

You. Ain't. Kidding.

Please don't make me cry at work.

I am so glad he is safe. Give him a hug from all of us here at GWJ.

This reminded me so much of the time I was walking through the snow covered park and my son, (then about 6) ran off out of sight. After not being able to find him I ended up on the phone to the police and all the while I couldn't take my eyes off the deep, freezing river running next to me. He was fine. Just ahead of me and out of sight.


Wow, that was powerful. I felt my entire body going tense. I have a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old and I can't even imagine....

As for "overreacting," absolutely not. I too used to disappear for hours at a time when I was younger, however it was expected behavior. I think the big difference here was that it was a large deviation from the established routine.

Late in reading this, but thanks Sean giving me some insight into what was probably running through my dad's mind when I decided to stay late at school to work on a project without notifying my parents. And then proceeded to walk a mile or so from the school to where my dad worked. Following the train tracks through the woods because that seemed safer than walking along the road for some reason.

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.

This part in particular sounds exactly where my 8th grader mind was that day.

Glad to hear your son was ok!