My wife gets into bed real slow, trying not to disturb the cat. She has to pull her socks off using her big toes under the covers and leave them there. Ella knows how I feel about the cat in the bed and thinks if he doesn’t move around or anything he won’t bother me. But it has been over sixty days since our son went missing so I don’t say anything.
There is a picture of him and our daughter Becky on top of the TV cabinet directly across the room from our bed. He is standing with her by a frozen pond, sort of nodding and smiling with one side of his mouth like he found the pond earlier and he’s embarrassed to be showing it to us. Somehow or another one of us always ends up lighting on the picture and bringing him up. Sometimes we argue about him. She is sure—she is terrified—that he has gone into the woods and been mauled by a bear, or has drowned in the river, or was mugged and gutted by a gang in the city. “He could have been on his way to our city house,” she says. But I know the truth.
The police tell us that the majority of missing teens are runaways. “Not David,” she says to them, and she holds her conviction in her fist, closed and raised just a little. To me that gesture contains all the futility and sadness in the world. “How can you be so callous?” she says.
Ella puts her book down and looks through its absence to the picture on the cabinet. “Remember that little cabin we rented there?” she asks. “Not that year but when he was just a little boy?”
I put down my book too. “He must have just turned six.”
“Five,” she says.
“And our last night there he fell off the dock.” I trail off and lean my head back into the pillow. I had taken him to the laundromat and sat him naked on the dryer while his clothes were tumbling. No one was around and he bounced up and down with his hands floundering to keep hold of the sides of the dryer, hooting with laughter.
“We could have taken him back there as an after-graduation trip,” she says.
“He probably ran away in fear of that,” I say, settling back farther and attempting to put my arm around Ella.
She sits up. “That’s not funny, Richard,” she says, reaching her arm out to snap off the bedside lamp. Ella has a knack for ending arguments. Once when we took a vacation to Florida we got in a spat on the airplane about whether we would stay at her sister’s, and all she did was give me a look, sit up and punch the overhead light button out, and burrow her head against the window on that dishtowel they give you for a pillow. So when we landed we went to her sister’s.
I wait until her breathing evens out a little and slip my arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay if he ran away,” I say. “That means he’ll come back.” Her plump calves edge toward me a little under the voluminous comforter, made craggy by our bodies underneath.
I know her eyes are open because I hear her lashes brushing against the pillow, but I don’t have the slightest idea what she’s thinking. That’s another thing: since he left, we never seem to be thinking the same things anymore. Sometimes I come upon Ella standing alone in the kitchen with one hand on her hip and the other pressed against her stomach, like she used to do when a baby would kick, like it hurt. And when I say her name and she looks at me her expression has just been washed clean.
“Becky stopped by today,” she says, muffled in the pillow. “She’s so big. If I didn’t know better I’d swear it was twins. She said she drove by the city house this morning, even though it’s not on her way. Just in case a light had gone out or the note was taken down or something.”
When we decided to settle more permanently at the country house we moved all our favorite dishes and books and blankets out of the city house and left one lamp burning in David’s bedroom window. I always imagine it looks warm and holy but when we drive by, especially at night, it only seems cold and surrounded. Ella wrote a note and had it laminated and tacked to the front door. I never read it. But because I see it so clearly in the back of my mind I know she must see it too: that note flapping there on the door, the only sign of life at the big house with the windows cold and empty like the eyes of a Greek statue, maybe already streaked with rain inside the laminate—unread.
“Any change?” I ask. Ella doesn’t answer but inches closer, her back pressed against me once more. “I wish I could have seen her,” I say. “It’s been two or three weeks.”
Becky used to come by every few days, but over the past couple months she’s been staying away, as her mother has grown quieter and the incessant blare of the television has expanded to fill the living room. Though not loud, it is a heavy sound; it presses you back into the loveseats and chairs. When you leave the television on that much, all the things you’ve heard overlap with all the things you’re hearing until it sounds like a multitude of voices have risen in communion. In the face of this, Ella’s grief, Becky looks like she’s itching to wrap her arms around her protruding belly and retreat to the safety of her own home. Way back in her eyes she looks into her future and sees family portraits on her staircase walls, and at the top of the stairs she pauses to watch her young son studying under the circle of lamplight at his desk. At the same time, in our living room, she looks down on Ella sitting helpless in the armchair with the lofty tenderness of a mother. Ella, who stands at the doorway of David’s room as if afraid to go in.
My mother never had any qualms about barging in my room. She’d come right in even if I was fuming at her and threatening to run away.
I remember one time when I was a kid, nine or so, Ian Shepherd from down the road got grounded by his mother and asked me to run away with him. He wanted to head to the city—“We can hitchhike there,” Ian said, and stuck his thumb way back over his shoulder like he was pointing at the ground behind him—but we agreed to rough it in the woods for a few days and decide there what to do with our lives. He had his own canteen he had gotten from the army surplus store. I didn’t have one so we planned to keep filling it with river water and share. We left notes saying we’d run away and headed into the foot of the Catskills.
We hadn’t gotten far before we got hungry and parked ourselves on a log to eat our mashed-up sandwiches with the turkey scraps protruding out the sides. Then we poked at the dirt for a while. I thought about how my mother might sit on her brand new couch and cry with her head in her hands. “We’d better go home,” I said.
At the front door my mother hugged us both to her armpits and grounded me. She smoothed the hair back from my smudged forehead and kissed it. “I knew you’d get tired and come home,” she said.
But I’m not so sure. Out there was a kind of freedom, knowing that no one heard your footsteps. Being the only one who knew where you were. I still remember how it felt to stand in the woods and turn in a full circle, how the leaves and branches hung suspended in your immediate vision but just beyond them was such space, with everything clearly etched and stretching away.
Elizabeth Cameron was born and raised on the Oregon coast. She is currently in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. She has worked a variety of unrelated jobs, including pizza-making, book-shelving, and detailing the life of the Giant Pacific Octopus for tourists at the Seaside Aquarium.
Heather Ingram is a photographer living in Horn Lake, Mississippi. She has a love for the Mississippi Delta and documents decaying field houses and buildings in the region.