The story came to me by way of Arlo McBride, a man whose light blue eyes seemed oddly shattered.
“Sorry about your little boy,” he said quietly.
He meant my son Teddy, who’d gone missing seven years before, and who, as it happened, would have turned fifteen the next day.
“So am I,” I said dryly.
There’d been the usual community searches after his disappearance, people tromping through the woods, parting reeds and brush, peeking into storm drains. They’d been strangers for the most part, these many, nameless searchers, so that watching them I’d felt a glimmer of that human kinship the Greeks called agape, and without which, they said, one could not live a balanced life. That glimmer had gone out at the sad end of their endeavors, however, and since then, I’d hunkered down in the little foxhole of myself, the days of my life falling away almost soundlessly, like an ever-dwindling pulse.
“His name was Teddy, right?” Arlo asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Teddy.”
His body had been miles away by the time the last search had ended, all further effort given up. It had been weighted with stones and sunk to the muddy bottom of a river, where it fell prey to nature’s customary indifference, the rot of bacteria, the hunger of fish. When it was at last discovered by an old angler, there was no feature left that might actually have been identifiable, nor any way to know just how long my little boy had lived captive to the man who’d taken him, nor what that man had done to him during the time they’d been together.
“I’m sure he was a great kid,” Arlo said.
And indeed Teddy had been that: a sweet, winsome child, not the consolation prize for the wife who’d died giving birth to him, but a blessing all his own. For a time after his death, living in Winthrop had been like living in his coffin. There were little reminders of him everywhere: the ice-cream parlor he’d favored, the town park where he’d played, the small stretch of Jefferson Street we’d often walked in the evening, usually from the nearby ball field where we’d slung Frisbees at each other. Mildred, the retired schoolteacher who’d lived next door and often served as babysitter for Teddy on nights when I’d had to work late at the paper, had suggested that I move away from Winthrop, perhaps even back to New York, but I’d remained adamant about staying in the town I’d made a home, however briefly, with my wife and son.
“I’m not the guy who kidnapped and murdered an eight-year-old boy,” I told Mildred. “He’s the one who should be hounded to the far corners of the earth.”
She’d noticed my hands clench as I said this. “But he’s not going to be, George,” she’d replied. “It’s you the dogs are -after.”
Which they angrily were that night, a kind of snarling I could feel in the air around me as I sat in my usual place at the back of O’Shea’s Bar, remembering Teddy, the slow burn of his lost life still scorching mine.
“A terrible thing,” Arlo said, those little blue circles of cracked sky now gleaming oddly.
I took a quick sip of scotch and glanced toward the front of the bar, the usual late-night stragglers in their usual places, mostly men, any one of whom might have killed my boy. “Yeah.” I shrugged as one does when confronted with an unbearably bitter truth. “A terrible thing.”
“No one ever gets over it,” Arlo added. “Which makes it even more terrible.”
Suddenly I recognized his face. He’d been one of the people who’d organized search parties for my son.
“You worked for the state police,” I said.
He nodded. “Missing Persons. I’m retired now.” He offered his hand. “Arlo McBride.”
He looked to be about seventy, but there was a certain youthful energy about him, the sense of a still-faintly-glowing coal.
“So, what does a cop do when he retires?” I asked idly.
“I read, mostly,” Arlo answered. “As a matter of fact, I read the book you wrote.” He seemed faintly embarrassed. “The title escapes me at the moment.”
“Into the Mist,” I said.
As it had turned out, it had been my only book, written before Celeste and Teddy had lured me from a travel writer’s vagabond life.
“I liked the section on that little town in Italy,” Arlo went on. “The one where that barbarian king died.”
He meant Alaric, the Visigothic chieftain who’d sacked Rome.
“Do you think it’s true?” Arlo asked. “The way he was -buried?”
After his death at Cosenza, the River Busento had been rerouted, Alaric buried in its dry bed, the river then returned to its course, all this great labor done by slaves who’d subsequently been slaughtered so that no one could reveal where Alaric lay.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “But it keeps the town on the tourist map.”
Arlo glanced at the clock, though absently, a man who no longer had appointments. “Anyway, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about what happened to your son.”
I recalled the way he’d looked seven years before, a robust figure, with short white hair, close-cropped military style, clean-shaven, with a ruddy complexion that gave him an outdoorsman’s appearance that struck me as entirely at odds with his sedentary profession. Now I saw something else: a curious intensity that attracted me, and which was probably why I pursued the conversation that evening, though it may also simply have been that he was linked to Teddy, my murdered boy, on this, another anniversary of the life he’d never had.
“Missing Persons,” I said. “Did you like that work?”
Arlo’s voice suddenly took on a quality I couldn’t quite decipher: part gravity, part wistfulness, a nostalgia for the dark. “It’s a strange kind of mystery, a missing person. Until that person’s found, of course.”
The memory of what I’d identified as Teddy flamed up inside me. I doused it with a gulp of scotch. “You must have a few interesting stories,” I said.
“Is there one that sticks out?”
“Yeah, there’s one.” Arlo seemed to sense that my gloomy solitariness was not impenetrable and slid into the booth across from me. “Her name was Katherine Carr.”
“A little girl?”
“No, a woman,” Arlo answered. He appeared to see this missing woman take shape before him, then like any other such apparition, slowly fade away. “Thirty-one years old. She lived on Gilmore Street, between Cantibell and Pine. Last seen at around midnight. Standing near that little rock grotto over by the river. A bus driver saw her there.”
“Very dramatic,” I said. “When was this?”
“April 24, 1987.”
I had no trouble imagining the subsequent search, some people moving through the woods and exploring caves while others probed the river’s watery depths with long, thin poles, or dragged its bottom with grappling hooks.
“She was a writer, like you,” Arlo said, “only she wrote poems.”
“Was she published?”
Arlo nodded. “In those little poetry magazines. I’m sure you know the type.” He added a few spare details. “She lived alone. No relatives left. No boyfriend. She had a friend over in Kingston, but that’s quite a ways from here. I guess you’d have to say she lived with her writings.”
“And she just vanished?” I asked.
“Like she cut a slit in this world and stepped through it into another one.” His eyes drifted down toward the table, the nearly empty glass. “No one ever saw her again.”
Arlo suddenly looked like a man weighted with the burden of an uncompleted mission. He drew in a slow breath, then released it no less slowly. “I sometimes wonder what she would look like now.”
She would look like Teddy, I thought, reduced to mush, but I kept that thought to myself.
Arlo drained the last of his beer and returned the glass gently to the table. “Well, I better be getting home.” His smile was tentative, a cautious offering. “It was nice talking to you, Mr. Gates.”
With that he rose and left me alone in the booth, where I finished my drink, then headed to the little apartment I rented a few blocks away.
Outside, a light rain was falling. I turned up the collar of my coat and hurried down the street. The shops were closed, windows unlighted, so that when I glanced toward them as I walked, I could see myself in the glass, a transparent figure streaked by little rivulets of rain. At a certain point, I stopped, though I don’t remember why. Perhaps it was a sound, or that eerie touch we sometimes feel, that makes us turn around, only to find no one there. For whatever reason, I came to a halt, looked to my right, and saw the man I was, not a bad man by any means, but one stripped not only of the curiosity, say, of a traveler for new sights or a scientist for discovery, or even a writer for that elusive image, but of that far simpler and more basic curiosity that says of tomorrow, Let me see it. In fact, I could imagine only flatness ahead, like a man walking on level pavement, with nothing before or behind or at either side of him, just an illimitable and featureless stretching forth of days.
Once in my apartment, I hung my jacket on the metal peg beside the door, walked directly into my bedroom and climbed into my never-made-up bed. The room’s one charm was a skylight, and for a moment I lay on my back and let my attention drift out into the overhanging darkness. The rain had stopped, which somehow pleased me, and the sky was clearing.
The book I’d been reading lay open on the table beside the bed. It was about the Buranni, a primitive people who lived in Paraguay, remote and poverty-stricken, their hard lives ameliorated by nothing but their odd faith in the Kuri Lam, a mysterious presence whose job it was to find the most evil ones among them and cast them into a bottomless pit.
I read a few more pages, then turned off the light and lay in the darkness, my mind now returning to the particular evil one who’d stolen my son, taken him to some horrible place, and done God knows what unspeakable things to him.
These were brutal thoughts, and to escape them, I rose and walked to the window, where I looked out onto the empty sidewalks, followed the few cars that passed by, then returned to my bed and lay down again, knowing, as I had for many years now, that when sleep came it would be in the form of a drifting off, a passing out, a gift of exhaustion rather than of peace.