i know you know this
On the day Hank and Daphne James said goodbye to their city walk-up and moved to a suburb of hemlocks and cocktail parties, their three-year-old child, their first and only, went missing.
“Where’s PJ?” Hank asked as he came in the front door carrying a half-crushed box marked Peter’s Animals. Peter himself had drawn a picture of an animal on the box. Hank had asked him what it was and all he said was that it was not a lion.
Daphne, perched sidesaddle on a wall of book boxes in the front hall, looked up at her husband. She was wearing the same polka dot skirt she’d worn the day after their wedding, six years prior, when they had taken Hank’s motorcycle up into New Hampshire to explore. Hank had said that skirt is going be a pain in the wind, but she tucked it up under her butt and told him to get to it.
“PJ. Peter. Have you seen him?”
“Wait, what? Oh shit. Not again.” Daphne cupped her bare kneecaps with the palms of her hands and squeezed her eyes shut.
Ever since Peter had started to crawl, at four months, Hank and Daphne had struggled to keep track of him. Literally.
He’s on the rug, in the living room. Are you sure? Well then, what’s that lumped up under the dining room table? Wow.
He’s in his crib, down for a nap. I don’t think so. You hear that sound? What? That tapping. So? That’s him. Bumping his head against the washing machine.
Hank and Daphne also struggled to interpret what their kid was up to. “Playing pretend” didn’t seem to cover it.
He’s setting up an animal parade in the back hall. I wish. You gotta see this. He’s out on the fire escape. Come quick. In the beer tub. What’s he doing in there? Just flapping his arms. What? Jesus. Go get him!
Most concerning was that Peter favored dangerous spots for his apparitions. Finding their two-year-old wedged like a misplaced marionette on the top shelf of the pantry, eleven and a half feet off the wood floor, was no delight. It made Hank and Daphne jumpy and unsure of their parenting skills.
God damnit, Peter James, do you have to do that?
The most serious warning sign, the one that Daphne would say, later, that they should have done more about, came five weeks prior to the move. Hank had been alone in the apartment with Peter, beginning the packing process and stress-eating. Peter was sitting on the kitchen floor, drumming with two spatulas. Hank went to use the bathroom. When he came back, Peter was nowhere to be seen. For the next seventy minutes, Hank cycled his way through all of the out-of-the-ways and underneaths that Peter liked to exploit. Then, for no obvious reason, he looked out the living room window and saw Peter on the flat roof of the auto repair shop next door. His feet and calves were poked out over the edge, like he was sitting on a dock waiting for the ferry to come in at the end of a summer vacation. After Hank and the garage owner got Peter back down on the ground, Hank had an overwhelming desire for all of this to be normal.
“Thanks,” Hank said, holding Peter close against his chest. It seemed like there were more words to say, but he couldn’t find them. The garage owner moved his cigar stub from one side of his mouth to the other. They never figured out how Peter had gotten up on the roof.
Daphne slapped her skirt smooth and stood up. Hank set down the box of animals.
“Well!?” she said, hands now on her hips.
“OK, I’ll start upstairs. You re-check down here. Sound good?” At the PR firm, where Hank had recently been promoted to manager of a creative team, the bosses called this kind of talk collaborative engagement.
“Go!” she said, wheeling one arm like a traffic cop urging cars through an intersection.
Initially, Hank and Daphne had explained it to themselves as a case of high-end hide and seek. But, with Peter, there was no burst of joy and tickling when they found him, no screams of hyperactive delight. Instead, it was always as if he had just woken up, neutral and calm. His pupils would dilate, and he’d look at them as if to say, oh, hey.
Hank called down the stairs. “Any luck?”
“Did you try the kitchen cabinets. Do you think he—“
“Every single one. He’s not there, Hank.”
“I’m coming down.”
In the kitchen, Daphne went down on her hands and knees to recheck the low cabinets and to see, fully, into the dark spaces where Peter might be parked. Hank went through the high ones, banging doors. Nothing.
Hank turned away. He didn’t want Daphne to see his reaction to what was brewing on her face. He starred at the side door of the kitchen. It opened onto a small porch that connected the side of the house with the cavernous back yard.
“I think we have to look outside,” he said.
“He can’t have gone far.”
“How do you know that?” Not looking at Hank, she went through the door, barefoot. Hank followed, pulling air in through his nose in an effort to slow himself down.
A pea stone driveway shot through with dandelions and ragweed ran past the side porch and down to a small brick garage. Something had, long ago, crashed into the overhead door, giving the building a punched-in-the-mouth look. This was characteristic of the property overall and the only reason Hank and Daphne could afford it: many formerly grand features were now decidedly distressed.
The house, like the others on their street, was set on a hillside that descended steeply in the back. The fruit trees and ornamental bushes holding the hillside gave way at the bottom to a small forest of hemlocks that seemed, to these city two city dwellers, unnaturally absent of light.
“What about—” Daphne said, tilting her head toward the woods.
“I want to check the garage. That thing has a basement.”
When they had brought Peter home from the hospital, Hank and Daphne had a lot of ideas about the kind of family they wanted to be. They wouldn’t clean up much but the apartment wouldn’t smell. They wouldn’t stop doing things they liked – bars with indie bands, art shows, foreign language films in the afternoon – but, instead, they’d just do them with the baby. Others would marvel at how relaxed and compliant their child was, but they wouldn’t make too big a deal of it. Daphne said she wanted their family to be like a group of great friends, out for coffee and wearing beat up t-shirts at the end of a rainy afternoon.
And yet, despite all that intention, Hank and Daphne struggled. Everything was difficult and tight. Not easy-breezy, as per plan. They felt forever one degree off, as if the instructions for parenting this kid had been written in another language and something important had gotten scrambled in the translation. From the mundane to the mystical, they felt like they were always missing something. They couldn’t seem to give the boy a bath without causing a flood. They couldn’t keep a diaper on him for more than ten minutes, which had all of the obvious consequences. Clothing was perpetually too big or too small. Or just wrong. Wait, is this backwards? Holding him was tough. They always felt like he was getting choked or stretched out in a bad way. He was a strong eater, but he was equally good at spitting everything up, so it was hard to believe they were making the right food choices. Bedtime was conceptual only. They did all the tricks. Read, rock, sing, swaddle, stroll, bounce. But Peter almost never closed his eyes around them, which felt, to Hank at least, borderline threatening. Instead, when they put him in his crib, he’d just lie on his back, holding his toes up over his head and making fart sounds. Daphne’s Mom said, oh honey that’s perfectly normal, you worry over nothing. What Daphne would say to Hank was that it seemed like Peter wanted something from them, but he was waiting for them to guess what it was. Not fussing, just waiting. Like the message was come on you two, I know you know this.
Hank stepped off the porch and jogged to the garage, circling around to the back where there was a steel bulkhead leading down to the basement. He remembered that the realtor had tried to distract them from looking too closely at the garage by waving elaborately about the view down into the woods and the commitment of the neighbors to keeping the green space green.
The bulkhead doors were slightly ajar. Classic Peter. Something that felt entirely implausible but that, later, when they put all the facts on the table, had a shred of the possible. The one-in-a-hundred shot. Hank hefted the door fully open.
A set of wooden steps led down into the space. Hank smelled gasoline and cilantro. He turned on his phone flashlight, bracing himself to see Peter’s perfectly neutral face pop out in the weak light. Please don’t scream. His ears were ringing. He squeezed his eyes shut. Opened them again. Waited. Looked.
Nothing. Just an empty cavity with a damp dirt floor and an old potting table on which was a single mound of dry soil. No tools or pots. And no Peter sitting cross-legged, humming some vague tune.
Hank backed up the stairs and swiveled into the open air. He wanted so badly to see Peter just standing in the grass holding a stick or sitting with his back braced against one of the landscaping timbers that shaped the fall of their back yard. He wanted that rush of giddy relief, like the moment when he spotted Peter on the roof of the auto shop. And, if he was really honest about it, he also wanted the buzz of mystery – how the fuck did that ever manage to happen – that would sweep through him each time it became clear that his child had done something nearly magical.
“PETER! PETER! PETER!”
Daphne’s voice snapped Hank back to the present. She was down at the bottom of the yard, calling into the woods. It was unclear how long she’d been there or how many times she had shrieked Peter’s name. Hank went to her. She was crying.
“I can’t do this.”
“He’s going to turn up,” Hank said, draping his arms over Daphne’s shoulders and hugging her. Trying to slow her down. Trying to steady himself.
And then the neighbors arrived.
Still holding onto each other, Hank and Daphne watched as people began to appear at the top of the hill, near the house, coming from their own houses and crossing through the open yards toward them, as if they’d all received a signal. Hank held Daphne a little tighter.
“It’s Peter, right?”
“We’re Bob and Sally Williams.”
“Have you looked in the woods?”
“How long has he been missing?”
Hank and Daphne stammered, attempting to respond as they shook random neighbor-hands and accepted shoulder squeezes.
“It’s probably been a few hours. He’s only three,” Daphne began, but then started to cry.
“He does like to hide on us,” Hank said, attempting to shelter Daphne from a fresh wave of petting.
“Don’t they all!” This from Sally Williams. She had the backs of her wrists positioned against her hips, camp director style.
“Well—” said Hank, but then he didn’t know what he wanted to say.
“Let’s do the woods, boys. Line it up.”
A man in a very bright blue and white checked biking jersey stepped forward.
“Bill Preza. #191 – at the corner. Been here thirteen years.”
“Hello. I’m Hank. We’re—”
“I’m in security. We’ll do a sweep,” he said, spreading his arms to each side. The men immediately formed, without further instruction, a crisp line at the edge of the woods.
“Come on, Hank. Come with us.”
Hank shivered, feeling the new neighbors evaluate him as they waited to plunge forward. As a teenager, once, he’d witnessed lifeguards walking in a line through the swimming area at the state park until one of them stumbled and they brought up a kid named Lenny from Hank’s high school. His belly was puffed out and his skin as white as typing paper.
“Okay, okay. I’m ready,” Hank said, letting go of Daphne and side-shuffling to the end of the line. Daphne had been swallowed up by three women in stain-resistant pants and loose patterned shirts. They were leading her up the hill, holding her forearms as if she was just learning to walk.
In unison, the males stepped into the woods. Introductions continued. Steve Markum, or was it Mar-dum? Larry something. A guy named Dolby and his adult son Bruce. Each of them was wearing a significant-looking watch and appropriate footwear.
Hank felt stupid and guilty and itchy.
The neighborhood men, by contrast, were energized. Conversation began to bend toward darker scenarios. How far could a three-year-old get in, say, an hour? What unfamiliar cars had anyone seen? When does the clock start on triggering an Amber Alert? Hank could not track who was saying what.
“You’ve got the police on the way—”
“Dick, this is exactly what I was saying about cutting these trees—”
“Wait, what’s the kid’s name—”
“Let’s go around to Randolph Ave; the cars move fast out there—”
“Gunner, go tell Mom to light the grill—”
“Tommy, come with me and we’ll get the car—”
The group reached the middle of the small woods. Some of the men had broken away, heading toward the two faster-moving avenues that bordered the neighborhood or back up the hill. The others circled with sticks, poking in the leaves. Hank felt a wave of nausea. He needed to see Daphne.
“Um—” he said to Bill Preza.
“What do ya see, Chief?”
“You okay?” Bill said, stepping toward Hank, planting his stick in the ground like he was claiming a country.
“I think I need to go back and check on Daphne.”
Bill’s face remained blank.
“10-4,” he said, reanimated. “We’ll finish the sweep. You should follow-up with the police. Got it?”
Hank raised his hand in acknowledgement and sagged away from the group. Bill began barking orders and as Hank made his way back up the hill, he heard them begin a chain of call-outs – PEE-TER, PEE-TER, PEE-TER – the sound reverberating like the back-track of a poorly dubbed horror movie.
Hank went into the kitchen. Daphne was standing, both hands flat on the kitchen table. The neighbor women were layered around her like ivy leaves. Hank had to touch one on the shoulder before the group peeled back enough for him to get in and hold Daphne. She pressed her face against his collar bone. She was not crying now, but her face was wet enough for him to feel it through his shirt.
They sat down. Hank could tell they were both going numb. Daphne’s shoulders were rounded forward like she was bracing for something to land on her. Hank was trying to remember what Peter had been wearing. He thought it was a too-small blue sweater that Daphne’s Mom had knit before Peter was born. But he couldn’t remember what else. Pants? Shorts? Was it possible that Peter was, in fact, naked from the waist down?
The police arrived—one older, one younger. They both had perfectly combed hair but only the young one had radios and a gun strapped to his hip. The neighborhood ladies gave them chairs and cups of coffee then eased back to the edges of the room and began checking their phones.
“What is your son’s name?”
“When did you notice that Peter was missing?”
“What was Peter wearing?”
“Does Peter normally play outside on his own?”
“Does Peter have any medical conditions we should know about?”
“Did anything unusual happen today? Anything going on that might have upset him?”
Daphne choked and suddenly began crying again. The ladies advanced, hands reaching for her shoulders.
“No!” Hank blurted. His face flushed with heat. Why am I yelling?
The policemen nodded at their notebooks.
“No, no, we get it,” Hank rushed on, his brain struggling to catch up with his heart, “it’s just that, well, Peter doesn’t really work that way.”
“He’s a very calm kid. He doesn’t get upset.”
This produced another wave of sobbing from Daphne. Now the two policemen were looking at each other.
“Listen, Officers, it’s their first day in the neighborhood,” one of the ladies said. She stood in the space between Hank and Daphne. The diamonds on her wedding band cast a net of reflected spots on the table.
“It’s a big change for anyone to move. And they come from the city,” she said, leaning in slightly, as if she was sharing an R-rated detail.
“Okay then, he’s probably just out for an explore,” the older policeman said, sounding suddenly very British.
“Exactly! I’m Sandy, by the way,” their spokesperson said, bending to bring her face in line with Hank’s.
He did, in fact, feel genuinely grateful for the help of the neighbors. But it was hard to name it when he also felt suffocated. The general smell of peppermint surrounding Sandy was giving Hank a headache. He wanted, instead, the smell of Peter – oatmeal and sea salt.
With the police search now activated, and the dinner hour approaching, the neighbor women began to drift out of the house, reassuring Hank and Daphne with elbow squeezes at the front door. They dispersed into the street, talking about the wallpaper and soccer games.
Hank and Daphne went back into the kitchen and sat down at the table, which someone had cleared and sponged. Daphne planted her forearms on the table like she was going to cut a deal with herself.
Before the move, on Saturdays when Daphne would be out in the real world, Hank had been working on a screenplay and he’d taken to test-driving his ideas on Peter. Although Peter never offered direct feedback in sentence form – again, talking was not his thing – there were gestures that Hank came to believe he could trust. Kicks of hands and feet meant good. Solid plot device. Keep going, you nailed it. A roll to the side and a deep, luxurious cat stretch – a set of remarkably controlled body movements that helped to explain some of Peter’s other acrobatics – meant okay, this idea has promise, but it’s a little too extended. Needs more explosions. Arms raised over head, blocking the ears, and a manic, call the Poison Center kind of face suggested you’re killing me with this crap. Could you be any more cliché?
At some point in the process, Peter would fall asleep, hard, his face mashed into the living room rug. Hank would claw him up like a pile of warm laundry and drop him into his crib. And, on those afternoons, Peter would snore so loudly that, for Hank, it was like someone had hit the pause button on the world. His son was safe and relaxed and in need of nothing other than Hank remaining nearby. Those were the afternoons when Hank made real progress.
Hank got up and went into the living room. The furniture was still crowded against the far wall, awaiting instructions. Daphne came in and lay down on the center of the rug, her hands crossed over her stomach. She closed her eyes.
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” she said.
“I’m serious,” she said, coming up into a cobra position. “I realized today I’ve always felt like he was just visiting. Ever since he first started talking. When he said the thing about his past life.” She dropped her head back down on the rug.
“It’s the move. This new place,” Hank replied, sitting down cross-legged next to Daphne’s head. “This is his thing, Daphne. We’re going to find him.”
“It’s been almost eight hours,” she said.
Everyone had been a little worried about why Peter wasn’t talking yet. And then, in the car, on the way to see his first movie, he simply began. Daphne had said we love you.
“Everyone loves me,” Peter replied, kicking his red sneakers against the seatback.
Three perfect words. Clear and distinct.
“Yes, yes they do, honey, that’s great!” Daphne said, gulping air.
“They tell me that every time I come here.” Peter spread his fingers across the rail of his car seat like he was playing a piano. Working out the chords.
“Where did you come from?” Hank asked. His mouth had gone dry.
“From where I always do.”
Hank braked and brought the car to a full stop at the side of the road.
“Well,” he said, turning to face him, “I’m glad you came to us.”
“Were you always called Peter?”
But the conversation ended. Peter looked to the left at a passing truck and then closed his eyes.Daphne was laughing and crying, both hands covering her face.
Peter watched the movie without comment and then, on the way home, talked at length about how the Beast needed to figure out that the only person he was really angry at was himself. What the hell?
Hank went out of the house and down through the back yard into the woods, allowing the itchy panic to move through his limbs. He sat down at the base of one of the bigger hemlocks, hoping some random gift of insight about where to look or what to do would drop into his mind. What came instead was a moment he’d had with Peter shortly before the move. He had been packing books in the hallway. Peter watched, sitting on a cushion he had made with his blanket. He had a small rubber sea lion balanced in the center of his palm. Hank could hear Peter’s breathing.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Hank said, “we’re going bring all your stuff. And there’s going to be more space. Do you remember when we showed you the house? That’s going to be where we live!”
“Dad. Dad. We’re still going to be us.”
“I want to keep all my animals in my room.”
“Yeah, of course. But wait, what did you say just now. Still us? What does that mean?”
Hank knew he wasn’t going to get an answer. With Peter, you had to either get it the first time or wait for another moment. He pushed up to a standing position, dropped his lion, and trotted back to his bedroom, touching Hank on the very top of his head as he went by. His bare feet made suction sounds on the wood floor.
The afternoon yielded to the evening. Hank stayed sitting against the hemlock. No one was calling for Peter anymore. The surrounding houses were blurred outlines through the trees. And while he could not see actual people, he could hear with remarkable clarity the sounds they were making. Individual laughs. Someone splashing into a pool. Sliding screen doors being dragged open and shut. The hollow thwonk of a baseball hit with a metal bat. Two dogs barking in sequence from opposite sides of the neighborhood, as if they were telling a story. Hank felt overwhelmed by the intimacy of it all.
And then, in a space between dog barks, Hank heard the very slight whistle of air passing between lips. He knew when he looked up that it would be Peter.
Peter stood a foot in front of Hank, his belly showing in the gap between his blue sweater and the stretchy cotton pants he liked to wear at nap time. His legs were bowed. He looked like a tiny, tired cowboy.
“Yup,” Peter said and then he plopped himself down into Hank’s lap like a bag of bread. His hair and skin smelled like wet wood instead of oatmeal. Hank knew that what he should be doing was freaking out and yelling for Daphne and calling the police and aggressively smothering Peter in kisses that said, equally and at the same time, I love you, I missed you, don’t ever, ever do this again, why did do you do this, do you really, do you really?
But, instead, what Hank did was kept quiet, resting his hands on his knees so that his arms created a border on either side of his son. He was paralyzed by the conviction that if he spoke or attempted to define the moment in any way, if he did anything other than listen to the neighborhood getting itself ready for dinner or wonder about the acorn caps he was seeing tangled into Peter’s whisper-light hair, if he did anything other than sit there, then all of them – he and Daphne and Peter and all the folks living their lives just beyond these trees – would vanish. Simple and irreversible, like a soap bubble popping against a dog’s nose.
Peter pressed the back of his head into Hank’s chest. He sucked his thumbs, first the left, then the right. To their left, between them and the house, a cluster of fireflies began making their ghostly pin-pricks.
Peter laughed. Then they heard Daphne calling for Hank from the house. Her voice sounded as if it was coming to them through a tube.
Peter stood up. He turned and hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his pants.
“You know it’s okay. Right, Dad?”
“I do,” Hank said, feeling a fresh column of air scream up through his chest and into his head. He closed his eyes, hoping to capture the sensation in a way that he could take out and use at another time. Then he got up and hoisted Peter up onto his shoulders. He kissed the pine-smelling bottom of each bare foot.
“Let’s go see your Mom.”
Charlie Watts grew up on the campus of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, and a family farm in Freedom, NH. He received an MFA (1992) from Brown University in Providence, RI, after studying with writers including Meredith Steinbach, Robert Coover, Edmund White, and Michael Ondaatje. After a long career detour through communication and human resource consulting, Charlie returned to writing and has since published short stories in journals including CRAFT, Carve, Narrative, Philadelphia Stories, Storm Cellar, and Sequestrum. He and his wife, a chaplain, have three grown children and now live on that same family farm in New Hampshire.