13 October 2022
The night my parents reported me missing, the police came over and searched the house. Missing kids can turn up in closets where they’ve dozed off playing hide-and-seek. The heating ducts in the old house conducted sound between floors, so I heard the doorbell, my father giving orders, my mother’s mousey squeak.
“We’ll search from top to bottom,” said an officer, heavy shoes on the staircase. Up, up, up to the attic. Their sounds faded, then grew closer as the party descended through the house. The men moved furniture, opened doors, pushed coats aside in the hall closet. They rummaged in the laundry room, looked behind the TV and shined flashlights around Dad’s dark office, its shadowy shelves heaped with his army gear.
I was there behind the furnace, holding my breath as lights swept over rucksacks, spare boots, camo fatigues, and MREs, the room reeking of army camps, dried sweat and worn leather. Officers shifted the desk and filing cabinet where Dad kept his red pens, teacher’s gradebook, past papers, and drafts of his letters to the editor. His draft notice, dated 1970, lay among the leaves of a faded photo album in the bottom drawer. Police beams directed at the furnace, and even behind it didn’t illuminate every corner. With my feet tucked in, I was invisible.
“We’ll search the neighborhood,” said the officer.
“The neighbors will be asleep, won’t they?” said Mom, “We can’t go knocking on people’s doors at this hour.” But off they went, up the stairs, convincing Mom that the neighbors would want to help. The front door opened and closed. Mom stayed home in case I returned.
In the morning, I overslept, so I missed them going out. Dad’s staff meetings started at 7:30am. Mom’s boss was a real jerk. The house was quiet from top to bottom. I used the bathroom and ate from the fridge. The phone kept ringing throughout the day. Of course, I didn’t answer. I watched TV until I heard Mom’s car. I was in hiding again before she got inside. Dad came home later, after a cheerful stint in the bar where he arrived around four o’clock most afternoons. He liked to share a pitcher of Miller Lite before the evening grind of correcting papers and grading tests. Maybe two or three pitchers.
“Did you hear from the police?”
“They left a message with the receptionist. No news.”
“I didn’t give them my work number. I can’t take personal calls during office hours.”
That night, I slept in my own bed. It was too dusty behind the furnace, even with a pillow and blanket. In the morning, I woke to the sound of the shower, footsteps passing my bedroom door, and bickering.
“I’m going to be late.”
“You’re late every day.”
“You sound like my boss.”
Down the stairs and out the door, they rushed. Their cars pulled away, one after the other. I slept another hour, then got up and washed the cobwebs out of my hair. Around lunchtime, I walked over to the school and from there; I went to the park. If I’d had 50 cents, I’d have ridden the bus somewhere, but my pockets were empty. I returned to school in time to hear the last bell ring, falling in step with the kids from my neighborhood.
“Didn’t see you in class today.”
“I came in late. Doctor appointment.”
I let myself in with my house-key, turned on the TV and sat down to finish a tub of chocolate ice cream. I rinsed it and buried it in the trash when I was done. The phone rang. Later, it rang again. I was on the couch when Mom came in from work smelling of copy paper, printer ink, and fading perfume. “Meatloaf for dinner tonight and no complaining,” she said as she passed. I hate meatloaf.
She came back a moment later, her face dark with emotion. “What are you doing?”
“Where have you been?”
“In the basement.”
“The basement? For two days? God damn you. We’ve been looking for you. The police came.”
“What is wrong with you? I’m going to have to call the police station and tell them you wasted their time. I’ll have to tell them they spent all that taxpayer money for no reason. That might be a crime, you know. You might go to jail for this.”
“They don’t put kids in jail.”
“Juvenile detention, then. Your father wants to send you to military school. But it’s too expensive.”
“I’m going to my room.”
“Stay up there.”
On the stairs, I met my brother. “Where were you hiding?” he asked.
“Crawl space behind the furnace.”
He grinned. “I knew it.”
“You didn’t tell.”
“You never tell on me.”
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Of Course, I Didn’t appeared first in Rock Salt Journal, October 2022.