by Patrick Madden
I had just settled in to work when the phone rang; it was my wife Karina, in a tizzy. The two youngest boys were missing. She’d been in the bathroom only a few minutes, and when she came out, the back door was ajar, Marcos and James nowhere to be found.
Understanding my role in situations such as this, and having lost and found children numerous times before, I spoke calmly, reassuring Karina that the boys were certainly nearby, maybe in the head-high weeds in the empty lot just across the backyard, maybe in the garage, maybe at the neighbors’, had she checked the playroom upstairs?
Yes, of course she had.
She wanted me home right away. I wanted to avoid driving halfway there only to get the relieved phone call. I wanted peace and systematic thinking, a plan, but I also wanted not to get worked up, to solve the problem by paying it no heed. The statistics on such disappearances were overwhelmingly in our favor. Most kids were found after a few minutes, innocently playing, unaware that they were causing their parents consternation. Marcos and James, just three and almost two, were overwhelmingly more likely to have wandered off than to have been taken, more likely to be safely ensconced than in any sort of danger. The fact that I was making up these statistics based on guesses and wishes did not dissuade me from believing them. I offered to call friends and neighbors to enlist their help, which I did, then I went back to work.
When Karina called again a few minutes later, I expected good news, but she was growing more distraught. I explained that the neighbors were already searching, which she knew, and suggested that she stay close to home, so the boys would find her there when they returned. She had called the police and she wanted me home now.
I was not worried, I told myself as I waited at a stoplight. They’d show up and we’d release our tension with a good laugh. I’d not even allow myself to get cross about all the undone work left waiting for me.
At each highway mile marker my thigh felt a phantom buzz from my cell phone, but Karina never called. When I hit the exit for home, I called her, half-expecting that in her jubilation she’d forgotten to notify me. But there was still no sign of them. The police were there. The neighborhood was filled with neighbors. The elementary school had been alerted. It had now been forty-five minutes.
I strained to guess where they might have gone, to get inside their heads or to hear the whisperings of the Spirit, to be guided to my sons. I drove as slowly as I dared, scanning the tall grass and trees along the roadside. Nothing.
There was a time, only a few years ago, when I thought four children was plenty. Karina and I had matched our parents’ output, had reached a reasonable return on our marital investment. Our car, a minivan, allowed us to travel together to Yellowstone or to the grocery store. Our house was comfortable, with the three girls sharing a large bedroom and their older brother across the hall in his own.
But the births of Marcos and James were the most irreversible of irreversible processes. Though they’ve existed for only a fraction of my life, they’ve so inserted themselves into my consciousness that they seem to have existed always; their lives are so entangled with my own that I feel as if without them I am not.
After I’d been home for over an hour, comforting Karina, talking with police and friends and school aides, running and driving everywhere within a half-mile radius, checking and rechecking the drainage ditches the nearby farm the empty lot the house under construction the cars along the street the elementary school hallways the city ball fields the church parking lot the entrance to the mink farm the highway crossing the length of road as far as I could imagine they might have walked, praying frantically against the encroaching dread with each creeping minute with no news, I returned home broken. With my mind racing with a thousand scenarios, I trudged across the yard to the back deck, where Karina was weeping and two officers were explaining that they’d called police from nearby towns; firemen were parading their trucks noisily through the streets in hopes of calling the boys’ attention. They were serious now, somber, willing to discuss the possibilities we’d dared not voice. They would set up a base at our home, resystematize their search, go door to door and enter the homes they could. The Amber alert was active. It was now nearing two o’clock. The boys had been missing for two hours.
I have traveled for conferences and for work, have visited family, have stayed home teaching while Karina took the kids to Uruguay for a month before I joined them there. I have spent weeks without seeing my children, days without speaking to them. I have learned, on the phone, of their injuries and emergency room visits, the discovery that the littlest has a peanut allergy. But in those lacunae I have always felt peace, have never suffered from the slightest suggestion that they were unsafe. Yet that day, across the protracted expanse of just two hours, I entered a place in my mind I had never visited, nor imagined was there. As I stepped up onto the deck, slumping my shoulders, breathing slowly, holding my gaze fixed on the middle distance between our house and the street behind, I was bereft. I had abandoned hope.
As I listened to the officers’ tentative plans, I no longer believed that Marcos and James were nearby just playing; I’d personally checked all the places they might have been hurt or worse, and so had a hundred other people. The only option left was that they had been taken. I asked, “Are there any traffic cameras close to here? At the light at the crossroads? At the school?”
My mind conjured a grainy black and white still image of a dark sedan. The camera angle was just low enough to allow a glimpse of a small boy (I thought) in the passenger seat under the hovering dark figure of an adult.
The police officers weren’t sure, but they would find out. It was unlikely. Meanwhile, they were doing everything —
My lethargic stare narrowed and locked on the slightest blur of movement across our backyard the next backyard the street the driveway across the street.
“Who is that kid!?” I yelled. My body sprang off the deck and began sprinting.
“Who is that kid!?” With each shout, I expelled all the air from my lungs; with each stride, the form came closer into focus. It was Marcos. When he saw me, his eyes went wide and he sat down on the driveway. Our friend Anita, who’d been walking along the sidewalk, got there with me and scooped him up while I ran past, bounded up the front stairs, and barged into the neighbors’ house. James was standing surprised in the front entryway, his mouth ringed by a chocolate goatee. I sobbed as I gathered him up and ran back outside, where his mother and the officers and a small group of neighbors were smiling and sighing, perhaps crying as well.
The ensuing hours involved lots of research and explaining. Marcos and James, unable to communicate any answers, were no help. The police entered the home, found no one there, determined that the boys had let themselves in and had plundered the bananas and Halloween candy. They’d been watching cartoons. They’d broken a vase. In all, their crimes were misdemeanors, easily remedied. We called our friends to call off the search, and the word spread quickly that everyone could go home and return to their usual level of vigilance. Several gathered instead in our yard, to offer what compassion they could. The threat was over and our minds could settle on the real results, not the excruciating possibilities that had haunted us for the past pair of hours. Karina’s friends, especially, hugged her and shared their own lost-child stories, all agreeing that none had suffered as long or as dreadfully. I called my neighbor Lonnie, whom I barely knew, to tell him that my sons had ransacked his home. He laughed a little, told me not to sweat it. I promised to replace the vase and the candy. He said, go ahead if you want, but get the vase from the dollar store. Later, he pieced together that one of his kids had left for school by the front door, leaving it unlocked, while everyone else went out the garage. Later, Karina and I mused on the improbability that the boys had gone so far so quickly to a house they’d never visited on just the day that the front door was unlocked and the cupboards were stocked with enough candy to keep them occupied for a long while. Later, another neighbor explained that he’d been checking all the basement back doors on the street, but hadn’t thought to do more than ring doorbells at the front.
Our friends in our front yard made what small talk you’d expect, verbal sighs of relief and offers to help in any way at all. Karina expressed her thanks. People nodded. They commented on how God had watched over the boys.
But I, with my young sons returned, could still not quite leave the dark place my thoughts had settled, could not heave off the feeling of despair that had overcome me. Then and for the next several days, I was on edge, jittery. I had no appetite. My head ached. I thought, as I do too often, of the parents whose children weren’t protected, who really were lost forever. Even recently, even nearby: a toddler stolen and raped and killed by her neighbor; an adolescent refugee persuaded and raped and killed by her neighbor; a teenager who didn’t come home from school one afternoon, whose mother reported her missing to unbelieving police who refused to investigate, citing statistics that most young adults that age were not abductees but runaways. But she had been abducted, by a jealous rival and the boy they both liked, then beaten with a baseball bat and left dead in the desert. Not thirty miles away, a few years ago, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in the middle of the night, then held captive for nine months by a mad preacher rapist until an America’s Most Wanted episode led to a lead and she was recovered. Thus she was one of the “lucky few” who ever get home again. After the first 48 hours, the statistics say, the probability of finding a kidnapped child reduces to near zero.
The next day, after classes, I showed up a few minutes late to a faculty seminar. David Allred was explaining the principles of quantum entanglement, the double-slit experiment, and the indeterminacy of photons. I listened intently, fascinated, to his description of single quanta beamed through one or another slit and the resultant disappearance/omnipresence of the photon from/on both paths until it strikes a target in an interference pattern, having acted as a wave, interfering with itself. Until the energy resolves at the absorptive screen, it cannot be said to exist in either space definitively, or it “samples reality” along both paths, and not simply because our senses and instruments are too crude to find it. To put it another way, a particle exists in a range of possible locations until it is observed, and the observation fixes it in a particular place. Stranger yet, a photon or an electron can be split in two, with one part carried far away, and any observation or action on one half results in an immediate and predictable effect on the other. In this way, either information travels faster than the speed of light or the very notion of location in space loses meaning. The nature of the quantum universe is this very simultaneity and nonentity, untraceable and unknowable, affected by our observations and fundamentally beyond our ken, yes, but also fundamentally unknowable in moments of irresolution or inattention.
With all we have learned, we have finally arrived at Sophocles: we confront our unbreachable ignorance.
This, I sensed vaguely, was a metaphor, a gift, an unsought connection sent to nudge me: Everywhere and nowhere/indeterminacy/ separation/reunion. Before my sons had appeared in one particular place I had felt viscerally that they were everywhere and nowhere. In a way, the time of their disappearance and the fact that I could not observe them produced in my mind a superposition of possible locations, until by observing them, I fixed them in only one place, one of the only acceptable places they might have been. More and more I am coming to believe, and to be comfortable with, the notion that everything is probabilities, only probabilities. But this did not occur to me, nor did it comfort me, when I could not locate my sons.
A couple of weeks later, I was shuffling down Concourse C in the Salt Lake City airport when I saw the stately blonde figure of Elizabeth Smart, now grown, recently returned from a mission to France. She was walking toward me, sharply dressed in pressed gray skirt and red blouse under a wool overcoat. Nobody bothered her, though a few heads, like mine, quickly turned in her direction as she glided past.
I was leaving my family for a few days. She was coming home.
Patrick Madden is a professor of literature at Brigham Young University, and the author of the essay collection Quotidiana. This essay is drawn from his collection, Sublime Physick, from the University of Nebraska Press.