By Noley Reid
We didn’t know what the boys would show us, after the storm, when they’d been trapped on the other side of town at the Y after swim. We couldn’t get to them right away because of downed trees and a power line. We snaked our way, feeling our way, through the slick broken streets, trying one way just to have to turn back and try another. The whole town was in darkness, lit solely by car lights and outstretched arms holding cell phones, by the time we reached the boys.
Only they weren’t in the pool. And they weren’t in the locker room. They weren’t in the parking lot or the lobby or the gym.
A janitor said, “I told them, ‘Watch out for McVickers.’”
We didn’t even know who that was.
He pointed to a white stone house across from the lot so we all shone our phones in that direction and tried not to think about what a grown man could want with ten eleven-year-old boys in Speedos.
The man, McVickers, opened the door before the first of us had even made it through his lawn. He said, “I’ve been keeping a watch out for you. Didn’t want you to worry.”
Some of us rushed inside and took good looks at our boys, examined them the way a doctor would, as if fingerprints were bruises, were broken bones. And some of us held our boys but examined McVickers’s house instead, using a free hand to pick up picture frames of a boy and a man—father and son? teacher and student? pedophile and victim? Who could say? There were National Geographic maps of the world tacked to one wall with blue pushpins scattered across nearly every continent. We ran our fingers across the maps, feeling the pins like a braille of his many stops around the world. And there was a bowl of bright and shiny wrapped candies in a bowl on his coffee table, of course. The man, himself, looked mid-fifties, a pretty man with silver temples and a face smooth as the boys’.
The boys, in turn, were the boys. Awkward, gangly, attached to their mothers, detached from their mothers. The golden fuzz on some of their bare legs glowed by the light of McVickers’s camping lanterns. Their hair had dried without being combed, casting strange shapes in shadows on the walls. They played at trying to stomp on all the other boys’ toes before the other boys could stomp on their own.
“Hush now,” we told them. “Settle down. It’s time to thank Mr. McVickers.”
Everyone seemed okay.
It was a week before the first boy didn’t come home.
Tyler’s parents were divorced so each one thought they must have misread his schedule, that he was with the other parent for the next three nights. Nothing was done until the fourth day when the mother didn’t bring him home to the father and the father didn’t bring him home to the mother. She called him and asked and they both, at first, were confused and indignant then scared then terrified. Where could he be? An eleven year old for three nights? They called his friends, who were busy with Legos or homework or soccer practice. They went to the police who started a missing person case but had very little to go on.
Then the next boy didn’t come home. His mother knew right away when she went to meet Caden at the bus stop and he didn’t step off with the other kids. She phoned the school and was told he’d been there all day. She demanded to know how they could lose her boy between the last bell and home but was told it was her boy’s responsibility to get on the bus and not the school’s job to ensure his compliance. Fuming, she hung up and drove the bus route to the school, looking for Caden, thinking maybe he missed the bus. It had happened once before when he’d had a science project to take home and he’d struggled to get through the halls with it in time. But today, she made it to the school without seeing him along the way. She wished now she and her husband weren’t such sticklers about making him leave his phone at home during school. He was a good boy, he wouldn’t just run away like this.
She went into the office. “Ma’am,” she said to the secretary, “I’m the one who phoned about my son, Caden Byrd. Please would you try paging him?”
The secretary looked up. “The school’s policy—”
“I understand but he didn’t come home and I drove the whole route between here and home and he’s not walking that…If this school lost him I don’t know what I’ll do but I imagine it will involve a lawyer so the least you can do is get on that intercom and page my son. That’s Caden Byrd, please.” She folded her hands and gave a small smile.
The woman stood up and went to the P.A. system under the school’s big clock. She flicked on the microphone and said the boy’s name, asking him to come to the office two times then turned off the microphone and went in the back to stand at the copy machine while it spewed out blue printed papers. Caden’s mother sat in the office for nearly an hour. Teachers passed in and out of the office. Straggler students and a few parents made their way in and out. Finally she went back home along the same streets, scanning the shoulders for Caden along the way and looking for him back at home but he wasn’t there.
He wasn’t anywhere. She called her husband. “I think it’s like that other boy, Tyler,” she said.
“He wouldn’t run off,” her husband said. “He isn’t wild like that kid.”
“Well, where is he then?”
Her husband came home early to wait with her. And then they called the police, who naturally combined this investigation with Tyler’s.
Friday night, Will was bowling with his family when he disappeared. He went to the bathroom and never came back. His dad sent his older brother to see what was taking him so long and when he returned he said, “Will’s not in there.”
“Damn it, well go find him,” said his dad. “Look in the arcade.”
Eventually, his dad, mom, little sister, and big brother were all looking for him in the lazer tag, arcade, bowling shop, bar, and restaurant but he was nowhere.
All across town, for three weeks our swimmer boys disappeared one by one like this until they were all gone.
Once we’d put it together that it was the ten boys from the night of the storm who were vanishing, we held tightly onto them, not letting them out of our sight. But we all had momentary lapses—turning our backs to flip grilled cheese sandwiches, shutting the bathroom doors to shower, sleeping in our own beds instead of on the floors of our boys’ rooms—and so, eventually, they were all gone now, too.
The police hounded McVickers, of course. They made a sport of searching his house and hauling him in for questioning. They arrested him a few times but always released him when they could find no evidence to support the arrests. Several parents vandalized his house, spray-painting Pedo across the white stone front and tossing a large stone through one of his windows.
The town held candlelight vigils in the library parking lot at first, everyone holding signs saying, They’re All Our Boys. Every night for a week. And the police had the parents make on-camera appeals to the kidnappers, saying, “Please bring back our boys, no questions asked,” though all we had were questions. We offered reward money and ransom cash. Arthur Quigley’s parents even hired a private investigator and bounty hunter.
But now, at night in our beds, alone with the darkness, we ask our partners, “Is someone hurting him this minute? If we get him back, will he be beyond repair?”
And they, knowing the answer, pretend they are already sleeping.
In four months, we are alcoholics, we have lost jobs, we are losing marriages, we are killing the love our other children have for us.
The town has lost patience.
It was only ten boys, they want to say. The town has many, many more to think of.
In seven months, police still have no leads in the cases. They call it a vanishing.
In ten months, the group therapist for us, the parents of the lost boys, suggests that we should be moving on, transitioning to healthy new chapters in our lives.
In one year, the town paper runs a class photograph of the boys in their Speedos and swim caps. We cry. Our partners ask what’s happened. They can’t see the paper because of moving boxes piled so high in our kitchens.
The trucks come tomorrow. We are all trading houses and partners and families. We won’t know love again, just momentary touch and arousal. And they will fade soon enough, too. Everything fades. Just like everyone fades and is gone. That is the lesson we are all meant to learn from our boys and we have learned it well.
If anything in life, we have learned that. We cannot hold on to anyone so we must not even try. And it was only ten boys. The town has many, many more.
Noley Reid is author of the recent novel Pretend We Are Lovely (Tin House Books), which O, The Oprah Magazine called “scrumptious.” Her previous books are the short story collection So There! and the novel In the Breeze of Passing Things. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Rumpus, The Lily, Bustle, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Southern Review, Meridian, and Other Voices. She is also the Nonfiction Editor of Capable Magazine, a literary journal of illness and disability. http://www.NoleyReid.com