IT WAS one of their rare lazy evenings. Summer, and the evening air was fresh and clean after an afternoon thunderstorm, with just a hint of a breeze. Normally, Sean and Austin were so busy that if they weren’t trying to change something about the little Cape Cod on the Ohio River they had bought a year before—adding a deck, putting in a new kitchen, stripping away years of white paint from the woodwork downstairs—they were too tired to do anything but crawl into bed and pass out, usually before eleven o’clock. Lovemaking, since they had bought the money- and-time-sucking house, had become relegated to weekend afternoons and the occasional early morning.
But today, Thursday, had been an easy one. Austin had called into work—the Benson Pottery, where he was a caster—and taken a mental health day. Things had just been too damn busy lately, and he needed the break. Waiting until Saturday was out of the question. Sunday seemed further away than the next millennium.
Sean, a reporter for the Evening View, the local thrice-weekly compilation of ads sandwiched in with a little editorial, had the day off. The couple spent the day in Pittsburgh, at the Andy Warhol museum, then had an early dinner at the Grand Concourse (the best paella on the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers), beat the brutal thunderstorm home, made love (acrobatically, in the kitchen, atop a butcher block), and now the two were curled up in front of the TV. Sean had rented Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and, after a bowl of Jamaican and a couple of vodka and tonics, the two were teary-eyed with laughter.
Sean looked over at his younger boyfriend and thought how lucky he was to have found Austin, especially in a town the size of Summitville, where the population hovered just above ten thousand. Even better, Austin was his fantasy man, with a broad, beefy body that his mother and her friends would have called strapping, sandy blond hair, and the bluest eyes he had ever seen. When Sean first met him, he thought Austin’s eyes had to be fake, enhanced by those tinted contacts that never looked real. But he found quickly that the young man was simply blessed with arresting eyes to go along with his broad shoulders, dimpled chin, and infectious smile. He wore that smile right now, coming down from a fit of inappropriate laughter after hearing Elizabeth Taylor tell Richard Burton something along the lines of “I’d divorce you if I thought you were alive.”
A sick sense of humor was yet another thing the pair had in common.
It was what they both would have agreed was a perfect day. Well, Sean might have had one more item to add to the “perfection” list. Having his son, Jason, around for at least part of the time would have been all it would have taken to make the day ideal, but these days, Jason was for the weekends only.
In any case, this was close enough to nirvana. He closed his eyes and let his head loll back on Austin’s shoulder.
Sean was just thinking about slowly undressing Austin and then leading him into the bedroom for round two when the phone rang. Its chirp startled both of them out of the cocoon of warmth that had surrounded them, a cocoon built from good sex, supreme relaxation, and the afore-mentioned Jamaican weed.
Austin said, sleepily from under Sean’s arm on the couch, “Don’t get it. Please don’t get it. Just let the machine pick up. I don’t want to talk to anyone. And I don’t want you to, either.” Sean eyed the little answering machine next to the cordless, wondering when they would enter the twenty-first century and use voice mail like everyone else. But, unlike voice mail, the machine did allow them to screen calls, and for two men who appreciated their privacy, this feature had voice mail beat all to hell.
Sean let the phone ring its customary four rings, although his tendency would have been to answer it. But if this would make Austin happy, then he was willing to do it. Especially since he had things in mind for Austin that did not involve the telephone. Things that would erase their fatigue and perhaps keep them up the better part of the night. Sean grinned.
On the fourth ring, Sean pressed the pause button on the remote control and sat up straighter to listen.
“Whatever it is, it can wait,” Austin whispered in Sean’s ear, flicking his earlobe with his tongue and giving his crotch a playful squeeze.
And then the moment shattered.
Shelley’s voice, almost unfamiliar under the veneer of tension that made it higher, quicker, came through. Shelley and Sean had been married once upon a time and their union had produced Jason, the best little boy in the world. As soon as Sean heard Shelley’s voice, he thought of his son, who shared his dark hair, green eyes, wiry frame, and his fascination with stories.
“Sean? Sean, I hope you’re there. This is important. Please pick up.” There was a slight pause. “It’s about Jason. He—”
Before she could say anything else, Sean sprinted for the phone in the entryway. “Shelley? Sorry, I was—”
“Jason is missing.”
And then Sean heard her begin to sob and the relaxation in all of his muscles vanished, replaced by a tightness that felt like steel bands snapping taut. Blood rushed in his ears; his heart began to pound. A queasy nausea rose up in his gut.
“Jason never came home tonight,” Shelley sobbed. “I don’t know where he is. Please say he’s with you.”
Sean sat down on the little oak chair in front of the desk. Well, collapsed into the chair was more like it. “Shelley, I’m sorry, but he’s not here. Don’t you think I would have called if he had come here? How long’s he been gone?” Sean rubbed the back of his neck, his mouth curiously dry. He glanced out the window at the complete darkness.
“I went to work at six and he wasn’t home yet.” She blew out a sigh. “But, you know, we just thought he was horsing around in the woods or something and lost track of time. Then I called Paul and….”
“Wait a minute, Shelley. It’s a quarter ’til eleven.”
“I know. I know.”
“Why didn’t you call sooner? You mean to tell me you’re just starting to look? Christ, he’s eight years old.”
“I thought he would’ve come home while I was on my shift. Paul was here and he fell asleep and….”
“Paul. Great.” Sean rubbed his sweaty palms against his thighs.
“Please Sean, it’s not the time. I fucked up. Okay? Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I need some help finding our son.”
She was right. In spite of the thoughts running through his head—most of them centering around how he and Austin would have been better parents but the courts couldn’t see that, all they could see was a little boy growing up under the wings of two queers—Sean knew she was right.
This was an emergency.
He looked over at his partner, who was sitting up, alert on the couch, concern making his fair features somehow darker, eyebrows pulling together, mouth open as if to say something. Austin mouthed, “What’s wrong?”
“Just a minute, Shelley.” Sean covered the receiver with his hand. “Jason has disappeared. They haven’t seen him since this afternoon.” Sean closed his eyes to try and center himself; this was feeling unreal, like a nightmare come to life. The room shifted, like he was drunk. He wished away any high the Jamaican he had smoked earlier brought on, but it wasn’t that easy. A feeling of giddy dread pulsed through his veins, electric.
This is how it feels, he thought, to be totally helpless.
Austin got up from the couch and began rubbing the cords in Sean’s neck, which had tightened into iron.
Sean swallowed, trying to summon up some spit. “You haven’t seen him all day?”
“That’s right, and I don’t need the accusations. You know how it is around here in the summertime. Kids play outside until it starts getting dark. It was like that for you. It was like that for me.”
“I’m sorry. Listen, we’ll be right over.”
“’Kay.” There was a pause. “Sean? Would you mind just coming alone? Paul….”
“For Christ’s sake, Shelley.” Sean hung the phone up. “I’m going over there. See what I can do to help.”
“Let me throw something on.” Austin stood, his blue eyes alive with concern and sympathy.
“No.” Sean practically winced at the look of surprise on his lover’s face. He bit his lower lip and added, “I mean, maybe you should stay here in case anyone calls.” Austin frowned.
“Like Jason, Austin. Like Jason.” Sean groped in a desk drawer near the front door and pulled out his cell. “I’ll have this on me so you can reach me. Okay?”
Sean was out the door before Austin had the chance to offer any sort of rebuttal.
BY THE time he pulled up in the driveway, Sean was hoping, without much optimism, that Jason would have come home during the time it took him to drive over to Shelley’s. He even had a vision of his knobby-kneed little son running out the back, screen door slamming behind him, and calling, “Daddy!” He ran a trembling hand through his close-cropped dark hair and yanked on his mustache. Even under the best of circumstances, he didn’t particularly like going in that house: Paul and Shelley had done their best to make sure he never felt comfortable there. When was the last time he’d been inside? He couldn’t remember. Usually he just gave a couple of toots on the horn when he picked up Jason and out the boy would run, nylon weekend bag in hand.
It had been easy. Unlike his divorce from Shelley six years ago….
But thoughts like that were for another time. Weren’t crises supposed to draw people together?
He took the back porch steps two at a time and could see them both waiting through the screen door. The light in the kitchen seemed unusually bright, and the silence of his ex-wife and her husband, sitting at the table, heads bowed, erased any hope that Jason had already returned home.
Sean gave a couple of taps on the screen door to alert them to his presence and went inside.
Shelley stood. “Sean! God, I’m so glad you’re here.” Then she glanced over at Paul to see how he would take what she had just said, but he was looking at once bleary-eyed and dour. “I mean, Paul and I have been worried sick.”
“Have you called the police and reported him missing yet?”
Paul stood. “Of course we did that. As soon as Shel got home from the diner. What do you think?” Paul’s large frame looked imposing. He was the kind of man at whose hands Sean had always received taunting and torture, a man’s man, with no tolerance for sissies like him. He had heard from Jason the names Paul called Sean, the snide remarks about his masculinity, and the none-too-subtle hints that he, Paul, would make a fitter father for Jason.
Sean ignored the big man, with his glowering good looks and the smell of beer and perspiration that wafted off him. Sean caught his ex-wife’s gaze. “What do you say we take a little ride? Check out his favorite haunts? Just do a little searching on our own?”
Shelley was already heading toward the door. Paul was behind her. Shelley stopped and turned at the sound of his footfalls. “No.”
Paul’s mouth dropped open.
Shelley grinned, the little half smile looking sickly on her pale, worried features. Sean wondered then if he ever beat her. “I mean, someone has to be here in case he comes home or the police call.” She then turned back to Sean. “They’re on the way over here right now. Paul, you’ve got his school picture, right?”
Paul consulted the ceiling. “It’s right where you left it, dear. On the kitchen cabinet.”
Sean could see the five-by-seven color photo lying near a stack of newspapers.
“Just give them the picture. The guy I talked to on the phone said they could make signs.” She paused. “If necessary.”
AS SEAN drove through the night, he battled a feeling of sick helplessness. If something horrible had happened to Jason, he couldn’t bear the thought of it. The loss would rob him of more than just an only son. It would rob him of a life.
He didn’t know how he could go on.
He had to fight back accusatory words, so he turned the radio on. He pushed the button that was set on the classical station in Pittsburgh and the car was filled with trumpets: Pachelbel’s Canon. Shelley had always despised his love of classical music, but tonight he thought she might find it soothing.
And it gave them a way to deal with the silence and the anxiety, which thrummed in the car like a third presence.
“Have you checked the woods across from the house?”
“Paul went out there a little while ago, with a flashlight. He knows right where Jason has his little fort built.” She brushed away a tear. “There was nothing there, except for his iPod and a couple apples in a plastic bag.”
Sean bit his lower lip. “He would never leave the iPod. He loved it. Loves it.” Sean and Austin had given him the iPod Shuffle just last Christmas, and the little boy went everywhere with it.
“I know,” Shelley whispered. “I know.”
“How about his friends? I suppose you’ve called around.”
Shelley answered in a voice barely above a whisper. “Friends, classmates. Christ, practically everyone he’s ever bumped into in his whole life.”
“Yes, Sean, I had a lot of luck. Actually, this is just a ploy to get you alone. I thought I’d take another crack at seeing if I could convert you.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just that I’m so damn worried. This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Sean pointed the car toward the river, deciding not to call Shelley on saying that it was the worst thing that ever happened to her. She was upset; her terror and anxiety wafted off her like a scent. The Ohio curved along the town of Summitville, and even though Jason had been warned, over and over, to keep away from its muddy banks, both parents were certain that wouldn’t keep him away. Parental warnings had failed to keep generations of boys, including Sean, away from the allure of the river.
Both grew silent, thinking things they didn’t want to: the number of boys over the years who had been claimed by the Ohio’s treacherous and unpredictable currents.
Would they find Jason washed up on a bank? Or worse, would the current carry his body downstream, to turn up days later when everyone concerned would be fragile from lack of sleep and worry?
Sean steered the car down a bumpy road, filled with potholes, and headed toward the river. In front of the two of them, cooling towers from Summitville Power, one of the nation’s first nuclear power plants, rose up against the night sky, tiny lights on the towers blinking in the darkness. The towers, sentinels against the dark and starless night, gave an almost surreal feel to their venture. Wafts of steam came off the tops of the two towers, to be snatched up by the wind.
After they had passed the small neighborhood filled with decrepit, tiny homes, sheathed in peeling paint or tar paper masquerading as brick, called Little England for as long as anyone could remember, Sean pulled the car over to the side of the road. Just ahead of them, the road dead-ended. Beyond where the cinders ended was a large grassy field that backed up to Summitville Power. For as long as Sean could remember, kids had been coming here: as prepubescents to explore the tall grassy fields nourished by the river, and later to smoke and make out.
Sean swallowed hard. If Jason was in this field, there was no way they would find him safe. Sean was gripped by a numbness that made his movements those of an automaton, doing each action separately, right down to putting one foot in front of the other.
He wished he had some optimistic words for Shelley, wished he had some optimism for himself. But what answer could there possibly be for an eight-year-old boy, smart and always well-behaved, to be out now, after a thunderstorm and hedging in on midnight? Still, he kept a part of his mind open for something he hadn’t thought of.
The air, after the storm, had a slight chill to it. Shelley wrapped her arms around herself and Sean noticed, for the first time, how much she still looked like a child. Her thin build, barely clinging to a frame little more than five feet tall, gave her a waifish appearance. The baggy T-shirt and jeans she wore did little to dispel the illusion that Sean had a child along with him. Her reddish brown hair was pulled back away from her face, a face unlined, but now creased by worry and dread.
“It’s going to be okay,” Sean said to his ex-wife. “There’s got to be something we’re not thinking of.”
Shelley said nothing as the two of them stepped over a chain that supposedly barred anyone from entering the field.
The ground beneath them squished with each step they took, and as they progressed their feet sank deeper into the mud, causing them to have to pull them out sometimes, with a loud sucking noise once the foot was freed. An odor of fish wafted up from the river.
“He’s not here,” Shelley said. “This is pointless. We should be home so we can talk to the police when they get there.”
“Paul can handle that. Besides, I’ve got my cell phone and I assume you do too.”
Shelley looked at him then, her eyes bright with tears in the darkness. She didn’t need to say anything.
Movement was tough, what with the damp and the sliver of a moon hidden behind slate gray clouds.
As their gaze roamed the darkened empty fields, Shelley grabbed Sean’s arm suddenly. “There! Oh God, do you see it?”
And Sean followed Shelley’s gaze and her trembling finger to what he first saw as just more high, yellowing grass and weeds. And then he noticed how some of the vegetation was tramped down.
And then he saw the little red Converse shoe.
Shelley collapsed against Sean, and he wrapped his arms around her. “It’s his shoe! Sean, it’s his shoe!” She sobbed against his chest, and Sean feared he would vomit. But he knew one of them needed to stay strong. “Shhh.” He stroked Shelley’s hair. “It’s just a shoe. It doesn’t have to be Jason’s. It could be anyone’s. You know how people dump trash around here.” Even as he voiced the reassurances, Sean doubted them himself. The shoe, almost glinting in the dull light, was exactly the right size. And his son wore little else besides red Chuck Taylors. When he outgrew one pair, he demanded another.
They trudged on through the darkness and the damp, silent. Shelley scooped up the shoe and held it, muddy, to her chest. What other horrors awaited them? Perhaps just beyond where the tree line started? Sean couldn’t bear to think that his son was dead. That just couldn’t be. God wouldn’t do that to them. To him. Sean was thinking even if they found Jason lying unconscious somewhere, it would be better than this not knowing. He flashed forward to coming through the doors of City Hospital with Jason in his arms. The emergency staff would take Jason from them. They would fix him up and everything would be all right. Tomorrow, he and Austin would visit Jason in a hospital room, with the Audubon bird guide they had put back for his birthday next month. Jason would complain about being confined, wondering when they would let him go. There would be appeasements made, promises of ice cream and new toys.
Things would slowly come back to normal. Sure, Jason had fallen, bumped his head, passed out. Things like that happened all the time.
Shelley stumbled and fell to the ground. She grunted as the air was knocked out of her. “What the hell?” she groaned, when she found enough breath to put behind her words.
The two looked down to see a mound of fresh dirt. Drying weeds and branches had been pulled over it, but the dirt looked freshly dug; nothing could hide that. All around them, weeds and various grasses grew unchecked. But there was this spot, a rough rectangle in shape, about as long as Shelley was tall.
Both stood and stared at what looked like a fairly fresh-dug grave with horror. Shelley chewed on her thumb. She whispered, “Do you know what that looks like?”
“Yeah.” Sean’s gut twisted itself into a knot.
Shelley dropped to her knees in the mud and began digging.
Sean grabbed her shoulder and pulled out his cell. “Maybe we should call the cops.”
“I can’t!” Shelley shrieked. “I can’t wait for them to get here. I have to know.” She threw up clumps of wet dirt behind her as her hands went deeper and deeper into the moist soil.
Sean couldn’t wait either. He put his cell back in his pocket, knelt beside his ex-wife, and began to help her. From the recent rain, the earth was moist and easy to move.
They dug for about a half hour before Sean’s hand hit on something. He recoiled, wanting to vomit, yanking his muddy hand back from what he had just touched.
“Shelley, stop.” He pulled her hands out of the dirt. She turned to him, her lower lip quivering.
“What is it?”
“I hit something.”
“I don’t know,” Sean said, but he was lying. He knew all too well what he had felt: flesh and bone. “Please, let’s go call the cops. I think we need to.”
“I won’t stop, Sean.” Shelley buried her hands in the earth once more.
Only seconds passed before she stopped as if stunned and screamed. She then began to laugh, first in little hiccups, then in an all-out hysteria, beating the ground, the tears pouring down her face.
Sean looked over her shoulder and a kind of sickening horror and giddy relief rushed through him.
Someone had chosen this spot as the final resting place for a dog. The moon appeared from behind a cloud, revealing that the animal was far gone in decomposition. Bits of flesh and fur still clung to the bones, but maggots were busy erasing even those traces.
Shelley turned away from the stench and the ruin and grabbed Sean, burrowing her head into his chest, whispering breathlessly, “It’s not him. It’s not him.”
And Sean stroked her hair, wondering: where is Jason, then? Where could he be? He clutched the little red shoe tighter in his hand, behind Shelley’s back.
Shelley pulled away and looked up at Sean. “Oh God, where is my boy?”